How to support tomato plants

How to support tomato plants

  • By Chris Stroupe
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  • December 2022-Vol.8, No.12
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  • 2 Comments

It’s never too early to think about summer tomatoes. Seed-starting is several weeks away, so now is the time for some planning. What varieties will you grow? Where will you plant them? And how will you support your tomato plants to keep them off the ground?

Why is it critical to support tomato plants? Without something to hold them up, tomatoes grow as vines snaking along the ground. Sure, they’ll grow just fine, but the leaves and fruit will touch the soil, keeping them wet and making them susceptible to soil-borne diseases.

This article will discuss a few of the most common methods for supporting tomatoes. With a little forethought, you’ll have no trouble devising a support system that’ll give you a productive, disease-free tomato crop next summer.

Cages

cylindrical tomato cage made from wire fence

Homemade tomato cage. Image: Thawley, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

tomato cages stacked next to a garage, everything covered in snow

Tomato cages stacked for winter storage. Image: Stephen Melkisethian, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Cages are just a wire grid encircling a tomato plant, with a spacing between wires of 6 to 10 inches. Choose a height that’s consistent with the plants: shorter for determinate plants, taller for indeterminate. (Here’s a quick explainer of the difference between determinate and indeterminate tomatoes.) Some cages are conical, with a larger diameter at the top than at the bottom. Other cages are cylindrical. Regardless, the bottoms of cages usually have wires extending downwards for several inches, so they can be secured to the soil. Some gardeners also stake their cages to the ground.

Put cages around plants while the plants are still very small. This is much easier than trying to fit a cage around a taller plant with large leaves! As the plants grow, it’s usually not necessary to attach them to the cages. The leaves will grow out through the gaps between the wires, holding the plants more or less upright. Pruning the plants is a good idea, though, to keep the interiors of the plants open to airflow, dry, and disease-free. To minimize disease transmission, prune when the plants are dry, and use clean, sharp tools.

Cages can be purchased at most garden centers, or they can be made from wire fence material (see picture). Choose cages (or fencing) with nice sturdy wire, and with holes large enough for easy pruning and harvesting. Livestock fence panels and concrete reinforcing mesh are good choices for homemade cages. (The length of fencing needed for a circular cage will be about 3 times the diameter.)

Pros:

Plants don’t need to be tied up.

Cons:

Lots of space needed for storage

Without pruning, plant interiors can be crowded, decreasing airflow and increasing the chance of disease

Stakes

tomato stalk tied to a stake: first the strip of fabric is tied around the post, then in a loop around the plant

A nicely tied tomato. Image: bluekdesign, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Stakes are simple and versatile. They should be at least 5 feet tall, more for indeterminate plants. Stakes can be plastic, wood, or metal. That said, I personally have never found a plastic stake sturdy enough to handle a large tomato plant. Wood stakes should also be sturdy, at least 1 inch across. Skinny bamboo sticks won’t be strong enough. Fence posts, e.g. T-posts and U-posts, make great tomato stakes, but they are heavy. ½” rebar is another great option: you can cut it to the desired length, and it’s virtually indestructible.

Drive stakes at least 12 inches deep. A rubber mallet or fence post pounder will make placing stakes much easier. Better yet, set the stakes in the same holes as the seedlings when transplanting into the garden. This will avoid damaging roots when driving stakes near an established plant. Either way, put the stakes about 2 inches from the bases of the plants.

Tomato plant tied tightly to a stake with twine. The twine is now cutting into the stalk.

A tie that’s too tight can cut into the stalk as it grows. Image: Cromley, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Tie plants to stakes with strips of fabric, nylon hose, or stretchy plastic garden tape. Leave an inch between the plant and the stake, so the plant will have room to grow (see pictures of correctly and incorrectly tied tomatoes). Some gardeners use specialized tomato clips that form a loop encircling both stake and stalk. Start tying plants when they’re a foot or so high, and add a new tie every 8 or 12 inches. When plants reach the tops of the stakes, I usually cut off their growing ends.

For tomato plants with multiple stalks, my solution is simply to attach the second (or third) stalk to a second (or third) stake a foot away from the first stake. Tying the extra stalks to the original stake will crowd the plant and leave it damp and prone to disease.

Pros:

Simple and inexpensive

Easy storage

Fruit and suckers are easy to access

Cons:

Repeated pruning and tying as the plants grow

Stakes can spread soil-borne diseases, so wash them at the end of the season

Florida or basket weave

tomato plants in a row, tied using the "Florida weave" in which twine is passed down the sides of the row and wrapped around stakes placed after every two or three plants

Tomato plants tied using the Florida or basket weave. Image: Dwight Sipler, CC BY 2.0

This is a great method for large numbers of tomato plants. (It’s also good for peppers.) Begin by placing stakes at the ends of a row, and after every two plants down the row (see picture). Use stakes with a height appropriate for the plants: shorter for determinate tomatoes, longer for indeterminate.

Tie one end of a roll of twine to the first stake, about a foot off the ground. (I like to use a taut-line hitch because it lets me tighten the twine later.) Run the twine down one side of the first two plants and loop it around the next stake while keeping the twine taut. Continue passing the twine down beside the plants, looping around each stake. When you’ve reached the last stake, reverse directions and pass the twine down the other side of the row, once more looping the twine around each post. Finally, cut the twine and tie the end around the first stake. Repeat every 8 to 12 inches up the stakes as the plants grow.

Use sturdy twine: 3- or 6-ply, with a diameter of 3 mm. (#60 and #72 twine also have the right diameter.) Twine made from natural fibers like cotton, jute, manila, or sisal will degrade, but thick twine should last a full season. UV-stabilized polypropylene twine is also a good option. It’s not biodegradable of course, but you should be able to re-use it a few times. Polypropylene twine also won’t stretch as much as natural fiber twine.

Pros:

Efficient for managing a whole row of plants

Inexpensive

Easy storage

Cons:

Repeated effort to secure plants as they grow

Plants must be pruned to stay within the twine

Overhead support

pieces of conduit supported on fence posts, forming an overhead support running down a row in a garden

Make an overhead support by running conduit down the row, supported by fence posts. Image: ©️ 2022 S. Christopher Stroupe

This is another way to handle a lot of plants. It’s very common in greenhouses, but works just as well outdoors. Place strong stakes, e.g. fence posts, at either end of a row. If a row is longer than 8 feet, put one or more stakes in the middle. Use stakes tall enough that the bottoms can be firmly placed in the ground while leaving the tops at about the expected height of the plants, i.e. 4 or 5 feet for determinate plants and 6 or 7 feet for indeterminate.

Then attach one or more pieces of 10-foot electrical conduit to the tops of the stakes, so that the conduit runs from one end of the row to the other (see picture). Attach by lashing the conduit to the stakes with twine. Or attach with two “zip-ties”, crossing diagonally and looping around both post and conduit. (There are many variations of this design, for example using rope or wire cable instead of conduit, or building open-sided structures from PVC or metal pipe.)

zip ties holding a piece of conduit to a fence post

Zip ties work well to hold the support to fence posts. Image: ©️ 2022 S. Christopher Stroupe

Finally, for each plant in the row, tie a piece of twine to the conduit. Run the twine down to the base of the plant, cut it, then tie it in a loose loop around the plant’s base. As the plants grow, pass the twine around the stems (or vice versa) several times to support the plants. (Be sure to wrap in the same direction each time). Alternately, attach the stalks to the twine using tomato clips or loops of fabric. Prune the plants so they have only one stem.

This method also works well for climbing beans, peas, and cucumbers.

Pros:

Flexible and efficient (once the support system is built)

Breaks down for easy storage

Cons:

Requires extra gear, e.g. conduit

A bit of a hassle to assemble

Needs repeated attention for pruning and tying plants

Concluding thoughts

There is no single best way to support tomatoes: use the method that’s most appropriate to your plants and your location. But I will offer two suggestions. First, it’s worth the time – and, likely, expense – to find sturdy and long-lasting materials for a support system. And second, time spent pruning and attaching plants to their supports will be rewarded with healthy plants and a plentiful harvest.

Above all, of course, have fun! The seed catalogs will be arriving in the mail soon.

 

References and further reading

featured image: Lufa Farms, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Epic Tomatoes (2015, Craig LeHoullier)

3 options for supporting tomato vines North Dakota State University

The stake and weave training system for training tomatoes in the home garden New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station

Stake your tomatoes Penn State Extension

Staking and pruning tomatoes in the home garden University of Georgia Extension

Three ways to trellis tomatoes University of Minnesota Extension

Tomato staking techniques University of California Master Gardeners, Santa Clara County, CA

Yard and garden: Staking tomatoes Iowa State University Extension and Outreach

 

 

 

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