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.
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.
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.
Craft a Tomato Cage
You’ve probably seen the welded-wire cones that show up at hardware and big-box stores each spring, situated beside the tomato transplants, with three or four wire legs on the small end of the cone. The idea is to position one over each baby tomato plant and push the cone’s legs down into the soil to support the plant as it grows. They actually work pretty well — for supporting pepper plants. For tomatoes, they’re woefully underpowered. Other heavier cages are available, but even they tend to be too small for a healthy tomato vine.
You’re better off making your own cages. An ideal cage is a stiff wire cylinder that’s 18 to 24 inches in diameter and 3 to 4 feet tall. Mesh size is critical to success; select wire panels with openings of at least 6 inches square, or you’ll never get those big, beautiful beefsteak tomatoes out of the cage. Concrete reinforcing (remesh) panels, stock panels, and woven-wire fencing can all be made into effective cages, as long as they’re flexible enough to be rolled into a cylinder. Just to make the math simple, a 6-foot panel will roll into a cylinder just a little smaller than 2 feet in diameter. Wire the ends together, center it over your tomato plant, and anchor it with a few sharpened “Y” sticks or tent stakes.
Determinate tomatoes respond to caging better than indeterminate ones do. Pruning is usually minimal, although stray branches will escape from time to time and need to be rerouted inside the cage or pinched off. Airflow around caged tomatoes is good, but still somewhat restricted compared with other methods, especially if you have several cages close together. Plan for comfortable working space around all sides of the cages. At the end of the season, pull out the cages, strip out the dead vines, and open the cylinders up to store flat, or stack them in an out-of-the-way corner for the off-season.
Stake Your Sprouts
The next tomato-training method is the traditional stake. The idea is pretty simple: Drive a 7-foot stake into the ground at least 1-foot-deep, and plant a tomato at its base. As the tomato grows, tie the main leader to the stake. Here’s where it gets controversial: Many gardeners nip off, or “sucker,” side branches to maintain the single leader, claiming that suckering produces bigger, better fruit, if fewer of them. Meanwhile, many other gardeners claim that suckering makes you the sucker, reducing the solar collection capacity of the plant and limiting its ability to pump sugars into its ripening fruit. But one thing is certain. Not suckering the vine leads to an uncontrolled tangle of side branches at severe risk of snapping off.
Sucker or not, select good, stout stakes to support your tomatoes. If they’re wooden, use stakes that are at least 1 inch thick. Metal fence posts, while not pretty, offer great support, and, if they have notches, hooks, or knobs for attaching electric wire insulators, they provide great attachment points for tying off leaders as the plant grows. There are some pretty fancy tomato stakes on the market too, from corkscrew patterns to “tomato ladders.” Avoid bamboo stakes; they tend to be too flexible and hard to tie to.
Use soft material for tying the vines, such as T-shirt material torn into strips, pieces of old nylon stockings, or jute twine. Tie the vines loosely with a looped figure-8 sling to allow for growth. And proceed with care, as tomato vines snap easily if manhandled. Staking works well with indeterminate vines and provides great airflow. It also makes finding ripe fruit much easier. It does require extensive pruning throughout the season, and it tends to limit the production of individual vines. One way to boost production a little is to allow each lateral branch to produce one flower cluster before pinching it back. Those laterals may require extra support so they don’t snap under the weight of the ripening fruit.
Trellising takes up more space than staking, but offers less chance of vines snapping under their own weight. A trellis can be as simple as two heavy 8-foot posts driven into the ground with a third post resting across their tops, or as elaborate as an A-frame made of 2x4s. Old pipe-frame swingsets can be upcycled into trellises. Heavy sapling A-frames add an attractive, rustic touch to the garden and can be sourced for free if you have access to a woodlot. Sure, a vegetable garden is utilitarian, but no one said it can’t be visually pleasing at the same time!
Plant tomatoes directly below the top bar of the trellis, at 2-foot spacing. Hang twine tied to the top of the trellis down to the base of each tomato plant. Anchor the end of the twine in the ground beside the plants to create tension, or, on two-post trellises, tie it to another piece of twine stretched horizontally from leg to leg, just above the ground.
As the tomato plants grow, twirl the leaders around the twine, and sucker side branches just beyond the first flower clusters. If the plants’ growth gets away from you — don’t worry, it happens to all of us — you can tie additional twine to the top bar and train the additional leaders in the same fashion. This does reduce airflow, however, so do your best to prune through the season.
The Florida Weave is a simple, fast trellising method developed specifically for commercial field-grown tomatoes, but there’s no reason you can’t use it in your own garden. Drive a sturdy 5- or 6-foot stake into the ground at the end of a row. Plant two tomato plants in the row, followed by another stake, allowing 2 feet between each plant and stake. Repeat this pattern of one stake between every two plants until you run out of row or plants, whichever happens first. Don’t forget to allow space for a final stake in the row.
Tie twine to the first post, about 6 inches above the ground. Stretch the twine to the second post, and loop it around the post at the same 6-inch height. Continue looping your way to the far end of the row, and then loop your way back to the start, on the opposite side. When you’re finished, each tomato plant will have twine holding it upright at 6 inches high. As the plants grow throughout the season, add more twine every 6 inches to create a web or lattice of support. Sisal baling twine works well; buy a spool from a farm supply store, or upcycle twine saved from baled hay or straw.
This method is ideal for fields full of determinate tomatoes. It’s fast and convenient, and custom-made for working in rows. Try growing indeterminate cultivars with this method, but be prepared for a lot of pruning and weaving branches back into the row. If you have high production in mind, this is the method for you. Use disease-resistant hybrids or grafted cultivars for high-density plantings.
Which Way’s Up?
The final vertical-growing method is more of a novelty, although many patio-growing gardeners swear by it: the upside-down method. A container of potting mix is suspended 6 feet above the floor, with a planting hole cut in its bottom. A tomato plant is set in the hole, with its roots in the container and its “top” dangling. The idea is to confuse pests and to allow gravity to pull the branches toward the ground and keep fruit at a comfortable picking height.
In practice, the system has definite flaws. The trellis or structure supporting the planter must be strong and robust. Most commercial systems are much too small for even the most petite cherry tomato plant. Plants naturally want to grow up, not down, so branches will snap easily if the planter is hung in a high-traffic area, at risk of getting jostled. Watering becomes a daily commitment, possibly even twice a day in the heat of July and August.
If the only spot you have to grow tomatoes is under a pergola or on a patio, then this may be the method for you. Use a 2-inch hole saw to cut a hole in the bottom of a clean 5-gallon bucket, along with five or six 1/2-inch drainage holes between the center and the sides. Set the bucket upright on two sawhorses, and insert the root ball of a compact or dwarf cherry tomato plant through the hole. Cut a slit in a piece of paper and slide it around the stem inside the bucket to support the plant as you fill the bucket with light potting mix. Hang the bucket by its handle on a sturdy support. Water from the top until the excess water runs free. Fertilize weekly with a liquid organic fertilizer.
Whichever way you train your tomatoes, get ready to actually enjoy the harvest, without the risk of accidentally crushing fruit underfoot; snapping branches; grabbing a handful of half-eaten, half-fermented mush; or breaking your back. You’ll be glad you made them grow up right!
Andrew Weidman lives and writes in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. He grows his tomatoes on an A-frame trellis. For details on building your own A-frame, read “Build an A-Frame Tomato Trellis” in the May/June 2018 issue of GRIT magazine, MOTHER EARTH NEWS’ sister publication.
Emma Biggs shares different ways to grow and train tomato plants in her online workshop “Trials and Tribulations of a Teenage Vegetable Grower,” part of our “Real Food” online course. You can participate by visiting MOTHER EARTH NEWS Fair.
EZ Step Combo Pack
Take your garden to new heights! Use the EZ Step Combo Pack to grow your garden vertically. This combo pack includes one EZ Step-In Post (60-by-1/2-inch diameter), one EZ Ring Multi Pack (with ring diameters of 8 inches, 10 inches, and 12 inches), three support arms, and three nuts to secure the rings to the support post. This product is available at the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store or by calling 800-234-3368. Item #10602.