How to Support Tomato Plants
To keep your tomato plants healthy and produce the greatest yields, they require a means of support. Supporting the plants keeps the fruit clean and away from pests, provides better air circulation to help prevent disease, and makes it easier to harvest the fruit. More tomato plants can be placed in a smaller area by trellising them and there are several simple structures that are readily available or easily made to keep your garden looking attractive and orderly.
Tomato cages can be purchased almost anywhere in the spring and summer. These wire structures encircle the tomato plant and are placed into the ground when the tomatoes are planted in the garden. If you are planning on having just a few plants, this is the easiest support to use as they are inexpensive and can be used for several years. You can use the cage without wire ties so as the tomato grows and fills the basket, stems can be moved inside the wire cone to support the plant. The one problem with these tomato cages is that they are not very strong and large indeterminate tomato vines can quickly grow past the top ring of the basket and topple the whole plant. High winds from summer storms can also cause these cages to fall over. Determinate tomato varieties are best suited with these cages or brace the cage with stakes when the vines get larger.
For larger indeterminate tomato varieties you can make cages out of concrete reinforcing mesh that can be purchased at your local hardware store or home center. Make sure the mesh is large enough to get your hand through while harvesting a tomato. Typically 5-foot wide mesh with 6-inch-squares works well. To make the cage, cut a 5 to 6-foot-long piece, roll it together so the ends meet, then secure them with wire to make a cylinder. Consider anchoring the cage to the ground with ground staples or stakes.
One problem with tomato cages is that they take up a lot of space when stored. Cages made out of concrete mesh can be untied and stored flat against a wall. There are also collapsible tomato cages that fold for easy storage if your space is limited.
If you have a more hands on approach to tomato growing and you are constantly pinching off shoots and pruning indeterminate tomatoes, you may want to use stakes. Pound a 6-foot oak or cedar 2x2, or a metal fence post about a foot into the ground and plant your tomato about 6 inches away from the stake. As the tomato grows, prune it to a single stem by pinching off any side shoots that emerge from the main stem. Tie the stem loosely to the stake with soft twine or reusable Velcro ties. Make sure that the tie is around the stake before tying it around the stem so it doesn’t slide down the stake. You can also notch wooden stakes or insert a nail or screw to hold the tie in place.
A tomato spiral is another option to staking as it is acts like a stake and a cage. Tomato spirals are a 5-foot metal corkscrew shaped wire stake that you wind your plant around as it grows. You may not need to tie the plant up, but you will still want to pinch out any side shoots. Tomato ladders are another invention that is like an open cage with rungs like a ladder and three wire stakes that are inserted into the ground. Tomatoes grown on ladders don’t need to be pinched into a single stem as the side shoots can be tied to the rungs.
Another option is to make a tripod or tuteur from three stakes driven into the ground on an angle to make a pyramid. A single plant can be placed in the middle of the tripod and trained to three main stems by keeping the lowest side shoots and pinching out the rest, or place a plant at the base of each leg of the tripod and train each plant to a single stem, which you would tie to that leg.
A quick and easy staking method for supporting several tomato plants at once can be done with the use of a Florida Weave. The tomatoes need to be planted in rows and at the ends of the row metal fence posts are driven into the ground at a slight outward angle. Between the plants place 1x1 wooden stakes into the ground and allow the plants to grow until they start to lean over. Tie twine around one end post and weaving it in and out of the plants until you get to the end of the row. Tie the twine off to the end post and then weave the twine the opposite way so that each plant is caught between the twine.
Tomatoes inside a Florida weave do not need to be pruned or trained, but as the plants grow taller, add more rows of twine about every 8 to 12 inches. Depending on how long the row is, you may need to run a wire between the end posts for additional support once the plants start producing fruit.
Whichever method you use, it is important to keep the fruit off the ground and promote air circulation between the plants to reduce the chance for disease.