Hail damage is a fear for most vegetable gardeners. Regardless of the age of the tomato plants (Solanum lycopersicum), it doesn't take much hail to devastate a garden. Young plants might be broken at the main stem, and older plants can lose so many leaves to hail damage that the plants can't survive. Hail can also bruise or damage growing fruit. Planning for hail protection before a storm hits helps keep plants healthy all season.
Although wire cages around individual tomato plants provide support, they can do double duty as hail protection. Choose a sturdy, perforated or mesh material that allows sunlight to flow through but won't let hail touch the plant such as a strong mesh screen, perforated plastic or hardware cloth. Cut pieces slightly larger than the tops of the cages so you can fold the edges over and attach it with landscape ties or strong clothespins. Leave the coverings on all season or put them in place when hail threatens.
Covering Several Plants
Building a permanent structure in the garden allows you to cover several plants at once. A simple frame can support the same material used to cover individual tomato cages; because the materials are lightweight, the frame can be made of nearly any material, including wood or PVC pipes. Pound support stakes at least 4 feet tall into the ground every 4 to 5 feet, creating a rectangle. Attach horizontal frame pieces to the top of the stakes, and attach the mesh or perforated material across the top of the frame. Larger frames might require support beams spanning between the horizontal exterior pieces to help secure the protective material.
Planning ahead before planting a container garden makes it easier to protect tomatoes when hail hits. Tomatoes require relatively large containers; a container with a 20-inch diameter at the top or one about the size of a 5-gallon bucket works well to house one plant. These are often too heavy to move easily when filled with soil. Using wheeled containers or putting the containers on plant dollies before adding soil allows you to roll them under a covered patio or inside the house when hailstorms are on the way.
Hail damage doesn't necessarily mean tomato plants will die, although it often means it might take longer for the fruit to develop. If hail breaks the main stem, it's best to replace the plant; a new one needs about 120 days to grow before the first frost to produce an adequate crop of tomatoes. When the damage is on the leaves and branches instead of the main stem, prune off damaged areas. The plant should begin adding new branches and leaves within a week. Tomato plants stressed by hail damage are more susceptible to fungal infection, so treating them with a fungicide can prevent disease.
- University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension: Growing Tomatoes in the Home Garden
- Texas A&M AgriLife Extension: Growing Tomatoes Successfully on the Texas High Plains
- Texas A&M AgriLife Extension: Growing Tomatoes Caged or Trellised
- Rapid City Journal: Plant Protector Shields Garden from Hail, Heat
- The Contained Garden: The Complete Guide to Growing Outdoor Plants in Pots; by Kenneth Albert Beckett, et al.
- Fine Gardening: How to Grow Tomatoes in Containers
- Photo Credit Martin Poole/Digital Vision/Getty Images