Cage, stake or trellis? When loaded down with ripening
fruit, most tomato plants need physical support to keep them from falling over.
Keeping tomato plants upright and off the ground can prevent blights and
diseases, ease harvesting, maximize growing space and yield, and add aesthetic
appeal to a garden. But ask 10 gardeners or farmers how they provide this
support, and you’ll likely get 11 different answers.
Some gardeners bypass this question by planting determinate
varieties. Determinate varieties grow to a determined, usually compact size and
then stop growing. Researchers have created determinate varieties with stout
stems and bushlike qualities, such as Better Bush and Bush Goliath, that can
support themselves. Indeterminate tomatoes keep growing and producing fruits
until a frost or blight kills them or a gardener pulls them up. Most
flavor-packed heirloom tomatoes are indeterminate, and finding the best way to
support these sprawling varieties can challenge even the most ingenious
gardeners and farmers.
A stout tomato cage
Chip Hope, coordinator of the sustainable agriculture
program at Western Piedmont Community College, recommends cages for supporting
tomatoes. He creates cages out of concrete-reinforcing wire, known as remesh.
Hardware stores often sell remesh in 150-foot rolls. Hope recommends cutting
remesh into 5-foot sections and pinning the ends together to make a circular
cage about 2 feet in diameter. He then cuts the bottom edge off the remesh to
make six or seven prongs to push into the ground, creating a sturdy cage. Hope
plants about 40 tomato plants each year and says, “When we plant our tomatoes,
we mulch them real well with straw and then stick the cage in the ground over
top of them — and that’s all there is to it.”
Some people use galvanized welded wire, used for fencing, to
make cages, but it’s usually more expensive than remesh. Although remesh isn’t
galvanized and will rust, Hope says, “These cages will last forever, and
they’re very stout so they’ll hold even the largest heirloom tomato plants.”
Thus, one advantage to caging is that it allows plants room to sprawl
naturally. This helps shade ripening tomatoes and can prevent sunscald.
Gardeners who cage tomatoes usually ignore the tedious chore
of pinching suckers — new stems that develop at the leaf axil, where the leaf
meets the main stem. Some gardeners pinch off suckers to allocate more energy
to developing fruits and less energy to new stems and foliage. For
non-pinchers, cages make a good choice.
Still, caging isn’t without disadvantages. The three-pronged
wire cages sold in garden centers are notorious for toppling over with
tomato-laden plants in heavy winds and rains. Also, some garden centers sell
small tomato cages to unassuming customers who later find their indeterminate
varieties quickly outgrow the cages. Perhaps the biggest disadvantage to caging
tomatoes is the initial investment. In some places, a large wire tomato cage will
cost $4, which can quickly add up for gardeners planting lots of tomatoes. Of
course, this is a multi-year investment, and cages can be reused year after
Storage of remesh cages might be problematic for folks on
smaller lots. Hope just piles his cages in an inconspicuous location near his
garden until he’s ready to use them again next year. The ability to stack
three-pronged wire cages sold in stores is perhaps one of their few redeeming
One other possible disadvantage to caging is smaller fruit.
Caged plants develop a jungle of stems and numerous tomatoes, so less energy is
allocated per fruit. Caged tomatoes are often a bit smaller, but more
plentiful, than those grown from staking or trellising.
At A Way of Life Farm, in Sunshine, North Carolina, owners
Jamie and Sara Jane Davis plant about 1,000 tomato plants throughout the
growing season. After experimenting with several different staking methods,
they’ve settled on a method called the Florida Weave.
They plant tomatoes every 18 inches in rows and drive 7-foot
T-posts into the ground after every fourth plant, or about every 5 feet. Once
plants are about a foot high, they string specialty nylon twine, actually
called tomato twine, from post to post down one side of the plants. When they
reach the row’s end, they go back and twine the opposite side. “Once you’re
done,” says Jamie, “you have a strand of twine on each side of the plants,
sandwiching them together and creating a little slot to hold them up.” They
pinch off any suckers below the first set of flowers to form one main stem at
the bottom of the plant.
To prevent weeds, Jamie and Sara Jane use reusable black
landscaping cloth. Home gardeners can use the mulch of their choice or
walk-behind tillers to shallowly cultivate each side of the plants.
For commercial farmers and gardeners alike, one advantage of
staking is earlier fruit. Because bottom suckers are pinched, more energy is
devoted to first fruits, and staked tomatoes usually increase in size and ripen
faster than caged tomatoes. Throughout the growing season, staked tomatoes tend
to grow larger than caged tomatoes. Compared to the sprawling stems and foliage
of caged plants, the sandwiched stems and foliage of staked plants provide easy
access to fruit, and more airflow and exposure to sunlight. Increased airflow
can delay the onset of early and late blight, two common fungal diseases of
tomatoes, but increased sunlight means sunscald could be more problematic.
With the Florida Weave, a new level of twine is added every
week or so, each time the plants increase 6 to 10 inches in height. In peak
gardening season, with weeds encroaching and fruit ripening in droves, finding
time to twine tomatoes can be difficult. If you wait too long, twining becomes
a lost cause, as the weight of sprawling stems prevents twine from being pulled
taut. Also, don’t use rope or twine that stretches, or sagging will occur.
A tomato trellis
Some farmers prefer to weave tomato stems. Tom Conway of
Tall Clover Farm in Vashon Island,
Washington, is one such farmer
who advocates tomato trellises.
Before planting tomatoes, Conway builds a fencelike structure of remesh
supported by T-posts down the middle of a trenched row. The trench helps funnel
water toward the plants, and Conway
uses a deep layer of straw to preserve water and prevent weeds. As his tomato
plants grow, he weaves the stems and branches through the openings in the
says, “You just guide it through — in, out, in, out through the wires.” Usually
weaving alone is strong enough to support the weight of tomatoes. However,
since tomato plants lack the tendrils of most trellising plants, Conway says that
fastening the stems to the trellis with plastic zip-ties or baling twine is
sometimes necessary. He doesn’t pinch off suckers, but instead fans out the
various stems and branches throughout the remesh.
Trellising also is popular among folks who do pinch suckers.
Some gardeners run a series of wires, with one wire per plant, vertically from
a beam supported by T-posts or an A-frame. They remove all suckers and are
therefore left with a single stem per plant, which they wrap around the wire as
the stem grows. With this method, called “single-growth-point trellising,” the
weekly chore of removing new suckers and wrapping stems around guide wires is a
must, but the benefits of earlier and larger fruit make this method appealing
for market gardeners.
Besides weekly attention, another possible downside to
single-growth-point trellising is a higher rate of sunscald. Without the
protective foliage of multiple stems, tomatoes often dangle at the mercy of the
summer sun. Many farmers who use single-growth-point trellising grow tomatoes in high tunnels or greenhouses where the
sun’s rays are filtered and less intense.
Despite the threat of sunscald, trellising may still be a
good option for backyard gardeners. It certainly has the potential to be
aesthetically appealing, as gardeners can neatly weave stems through a
decorative lattice. And pinching suckers from a handful of plants can be a
relaxing diversion, whereas pinching suckers from hundreds of plants can
quickly become a chore.
Although conventional wisdom says tomatoes need something to
hold them upright, tomatoes don’t know this. Letting tomatoes sprawl may lead
to more issues with diseases and fruits with bedsores, but a tomato vine
branching out and draping itself across the ground is just doing what nature
intended it to do. Going au naturel is definitely the least expensive and least
labor-intensive method, and some commercial farms do grow tomatoes on black
plastic mulch without any support at all, making more or less a large scale
In the end, countless ways to grow and support tomatoes
exist, from no support to elaborate trellises and rugged cages. No matter what
stance you take in the great stake debate, remember to be friendly and polite
to those of other persuasions. Smile kindly — even if your method is far
Read More: Check out this easy, versatile DIY raised-bed trellis.
Stephen Bishop and his wife, Natalie, live in Shelby, North
Carolina, where they keep bees and chickens, and tend