Grow Up! How to Train Your Tomatoes

Whichever options you choose to lean on, these tomato supports will ensure your plants stay off the ground and away from pests and diseases.


seedlings
For healthy and protected tomato plants, keep the vines aerial and the grown covered.
Photo by Adobe Stock/Imarzi

Tomatoes. Every gardener grows them, and every gardener has strong opinions on how “thou shalt properly grow tomatoes,” especially on how to keep them controlled. And, let’s be honest, control wouldn’t even be an issue if tomato plants weren’t so, well, out of control. They sprawl across their neighbors’ beds, hogging space and muscling in on anything unfortunate enough to be planted nearby. Not only that, but they tend to hide their fruit under leaves and on the ground, where rot, slugs, and misplaced feet can take their toll on the harvest.

There’s good news, though. With so many tomato growers holding so many opinions on the subject, there’s more than one way to keep your tomatoes in their place. Staking, caging, trellising, and even upside-down planters harness vertical growth, and this article will help you decide which way is best for training your tomatoes.

cherry-tomatoes
Stake your determinate cherry tomato plants to keep them from sprawling on the ground.
Photo by Adobe Stock/Acrogame

Growing Pains

First, let’s discuss tomato growth patterns. Every tomato shows one of two growth habits: indeterminate or determinate. Indeterminate tomatoes never stop growing or producing tomatoes until they die. Heirloom cultivars and the monster slicers everyone loves are usually indeterminate. Determinate tomatoes are stockier and more compact, and they fruit all at once. Most hybrids and commercial cultivars are determinate. If you’re planning on making lots of sauce or canned tomatoes, determinate varieties are for you.

Without some sort of control, your tomato plant will outgrow its ability to hold itself up. For some crops, such as squash or watermelon, that’s no big deal. For tomatoes, however, sprawl is a major source of headaches, and it can result in diseases, pest damage, and even crop loss during harvest.



tomato-cages
Wooden tomato cages provide sturdy support.
Photo by Andrew Weidman

Most tomato diseases live in the soil, so keeping the plants off the ground is crucial. A lot of the creatures that like eating ripe tomatoes, such as slugs, snails, and tomato fruitworms, prefer hanging out at ground level as well. And who wants to spend hours rummaging through leaves and branches to locate ripe tomatoes — only to stick a thumb into a half-eaten fermented lump of mush, or to step on a ripe beauty, or even to snap off an entire branch sporting a dozen green tomatoes?

Providing good airflow and avoiding soil splash during rain and irrigation go a long way toward growing healthy, productive vines. The best solution is to keep the plant aerial and the ground covered, either with other plants or with some kind of organic mulch, such as hay or leaves. Commercial growers prefer plastic sheeting, but that can negatively affect the soil biology, suffocating the soil and leaving it pasty, soggy, and sour. It’s also a lot easier to hunt for tomato hornworms that are snacking on tomato leaves if you don’t have to bend in half to look under ground-level foliage. Some pests, such as chipmunks and squirrels, aren’t phased by tomato training. For controlling them, there’s the family dog.





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