Support Your Tomatoes: How to Use Cages, Trellises, Strings, and Stakes
Tomatoes are a favorite summer treat for gardeners. There is something about the taste of a freshly picked tomato, ideally eaten with a leaf of basil, that truly signals summer in the garden. Prolific, easy to grow and suited to patios as well as full-size gardens, tomatoes are understandably one of the most popular garden crops. And if you grow them from seed, you’ll have access to hundreds of varieties. Help your tomatoes develop their deliciousness by giving them the support of trellises, stakes and structures.
The Two Types of Tomato Plants
Tomatoes can be divided into two main types: determinate and indeterminate. Determinate, or “bush,” tomatoes — such as Oregon Spring, Tiny Tim, and Celebrity — produce a single crop of fruit over a short period of time. These plants usually don’t get too tall and need only minimal support.
Indeterminate, or “vining,” tomatoes — including Black Krim, Yellow Pear and most cherry types — will keep growing and setting fruit until something, usually frost, kills them. Vining tomatoes can grow to 6 to 10 feet or longer, depending on the variety, and require a tall, sturdy trellis.
Types of Support
There are several ways you can support your tomato vines, depending on the type of tomato and the permanence of your garden space. Some supports can be packed up after your tomatoes have been harvested, so you can use that space for winter gardening. While all tomatoes can use some support, indeterminate tomatoes are the ones that require more committed or even permanent structures.
Classic galvanized tomato cages are inexpensive and easy to store and move. Simply place one over the plant when it’s still small. Due to their limited size and strength, tomato cages are best suited to determinate varieties. While tomato cages are usually simple functional items, there are colorful options available, and some crafty gardeners have made their own decorative cages out of wood, bamboo, PVC pipe or spray-painted wire.
For determinate tomatoes, support can be as simple as poking a bamboo pole into the ground. For indeterminate tomatoes, it can be difficult to achieve enough height and strength with stakes, though crafty gardeners can make it work. Consider driving 1-inch-by-1-inch untreated cedar stakes into the soil.
Fasten the stems of the plant to the stake, and add more fastening points as it grows. Use soft, covered wire to tie your plant to the stake as needed, continuing to twist around the plant as it grows. Alternatively, use garden twine. Be sure to tie it at a strong point on the vine, such as under a limb.
If you’re committed to growing vining tomatoes, it’s worthwhile to build a strong, tall structure that meets their needs. A trellis with latticework can provide an attractive and sturdy solution. Use untreated cedar or another safe, outdoor-friendly material. To keep your soil disease-free, consider rotating your tomatoes with other vining crops, such as beans or cucumbers, each season. Use soft, covered wire or twine, adding more fastening points as the plant grows.
Tomatoes love growing in greenhouses. The warmth and rain protection help keep them disease-free and, especially with indeterminate tomatoes, can lead to a far larger crop over a longer season. If you have the space for a greenhouse, pamper your indeterminate tomatoes by training them to wind around strings tied to the rafters. You’ll want to prune each plant to just one or two main vines and remove suckers promptly, but you’ll be rewarded with super-healthy plants. This is how most hothouse farmers grow their tomatoes.
If you’re growing tomatoes in containers, try training the plants against a deck railing or sunny, protected wall. Tomatoes, particularly determinate varieties, thrive on a warm patio.
To Prune or Not to Prune?
Left unchecked, indeterminate tomato vines can quickly take over your garden and overwhelm even the sturdiest trellis. For this reason, many gardeners prune their tomatoes, limiting each plant to one or two main stems and pinching off any suckers — the new branches that grow in the crotch between the main stem and a leaf — on a weekly basis.
Tomatoes that are pruned look tidier than unpruned tomatoes and are much easier to grow on a trellis. Advocates also say that pruned tomatoes produce better-quality fruit and are less prone to disease. However, some gardeners don’t like to prune. If allowed to grow, each sucker will develop its own fruit, which may lead to a larger crop overall.
Pruning is suitable only for indeterminate tomatoes. Determinate, or “bush,” tomatoes should not be pruned. If in doubt, ask an experienced gardener in your area for advice.
"There's Nothing Cagey About Tomato Cages" by Rebecca Cuttler originally appeared on Houzz.com, a one-stop-shop for bird baths for your garden and summer planting notes for tomatoes. Photo credit: Renatta Holt of Merrifield Garden Center, original photo on Houzz.