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 year.
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 values.
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.
The Florida Weave
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 remesh. Conway 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 tomato patch.
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 superior.
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 a garden.