By Skip Richter
When the last average frost date
arrives, gardeners across Texas head outdoors to set out
transplants of the garden's most beloved vegetable, the
tomato. We all have our favorite varieties, growing
techniques and fertilizer concoctions for establishing
the new transplants and getting them off to a great
Once the tomato patch is in it's time to
provide some support on which the vines can grow. Some
folks just let them sprawl, which is fine but leads to
increased problems with fruit rots and other diseases.
It also means the meandering plants will take up quite a
bit of garden space, which is usually at a premium.
Most gardeners choose to stake or cage their plants.
This gets them up off of the ground, reduces losses to
fruit rots, makes harvest easier, and saves garden
space. If you are new to gardening and seeking guidance,
or if you're an old pro looking for a few new ideas,
here are some basic tips and techniques for providing
support for your garden tomatoes.
Staking is the most basic of all techniques. It involves
tying the main stem to a stake driven in the ground next
to the plant. Side shoots which emerge from the stem
where each leaf is attached are removed to direct all
growth and energy in the main stem.
more labor intensive than most other growing techniques.
Staked tomatoes generally ripen earlier since the first
clusters are not competing with all the side shoots. The
fruit may also be larger for the same reason.
Staking has its drawbacks, however. You will need to
purchase more plants per given bed area since staked
plants are generally planted a little closer together.
Staked plants are more susceptible to sunburn,
especially varieties that produce less dense foliage
If you choose to stake your plants, tie
the vines to the stake with a soft tie material to avoid
damaging the stems. Jute twine works fine. You can also
make simple, easy to use garden ties by cutting a length
of women's hosiery across the leg in narrow strips.
A not-so-common technique that is
similar to staking is hanging. Here's how it works.
Attach a steel fence post or section of pipe to the top
of 2 vertical posts lined up down the row of plants. Tie
sections of nylon twine to the pipe above where each
plant is growing. Tie the other end of the twine loosely
to the base of the plants, leaving just a little extra
slack in the twine. As the tomatoes grow, loosely wrap
the main stem around the twine. Remove suckers as you
would for staked plants.
Greenhouse growers use a
similar system for supporting plants. They usually use
special clips that grip the twine and loosely lock
around the tomato stems. Such clips are not readily
available in garden centers, so if wind is causing the
plants to unwrap from the twine, you can use twist ties
to help hold the twine in place around the tomato stems.
A variation on this technique is to use a strong
wire as the horizontal support and to include more
vertical posts down the row to minimize sagging.
The most common way to provide support for home garden
tomatoes is with the use of cages. There are several
nifty commercial cages on the market, some of which will
fold up for easy storage, a major plus. Most gardeners
still make their own cages.
A common material for
cage construction is concrete reinforcing wire. It comes
in rolls 5 feet wide and if cut into sections about 5
feet long can be bent to form a cylindrical cage that is
5 feet tall and about 20 inches in diameter. Concrete
reinforcing wire is very sturdy and lasts a long time,
making it a favorite among gardeners.
a stake to support them or wind will blow the plants
over as they grow larger. A steel fence post or long
wooden stake works great for this purpose.
tomato shoots grow they will tend to grow out of the
cages. Keep them tucked in for the first few feet up the
cage to create a more upright column of foliage and
Caged plants can be left unpruned but may
do better if three or so stems are left and then other
sucker shoots are kept pinched out for at least a month
or two. There is no real rule here and the particular
variety you are growing will be the determining factor.
Determinate types need little if any pinching while
indeterminate types may develop into quite a jungle of
vines if not pinched at all.
alternative to tall single cages is to use smaller cages
set close together. This works very well for determinate
types such as 'Bush Early Girl.' Make cages about 2-1/2
feet tall by cutting the 5-foot wire in half. Use
lengths of 3 feet which when wrapped into a cylinder
make a cage about 1 foot across. Cutting the 5 foot
width of wire in half will make for cages with a
"smooth" top side and prongs sticking out of the bottom
side. These prongs can be pushed down into the soil to
provide support for the cage.
Place the cages
side by side about 8 inches apart in a double row down
the bed. As the plants grow, allow the shoots to extend
out of the cages and they will tend to interlock making
a wide sturdy row that doesn't need stakes for
supporting the cages. Once again I will point out that
the low cage system is best suited for determinate types
The primary drawback to caging
tomatoes comes at the end of the season when it is time
to store the cages. Unless you have a folding type of
cage, a moderately large tomato patch can leave you with
quite a pile of wire cages to have to deal with over
winter. While cages make good supports for growing cool
season peas and other vining crops, the seasons of such
vegetables often overlaps the tomato season making it
difficult to get double duty from the cages.
only other problem with the concrete reinforcing wire
cages is that I find it difficult to get the tomatoes I
grow through the 6-inch wide openings.
Livestock panels make excellent
supports for vining plants in the garden. These panels
have pretty much replaced tomato cages in my garden. The
panels are made of galvanized steel and are 4 feet tall
and 16 feet long with 6-inch by 4-inch openings. Some
panels have smaller openings at the bottom or 4-inch by
4-inch all over but these other types are heavier and of
no advantage for garden use so I go with the standard
Livestock panels cost about $1 per linear
foot. They last forever, making them a good investment.
The 16 foot panels can be a challenge to move around so
I cut mine into 2 or 3 sections using a bolt cutter or
reciprocating saw. Because they are so rigid they stand
much better than wire fencing and because they are flat
they store very easily in a small space when not in use.
Sections of livestock panel attached vertically to
posts can be used to trellis tomatoes but this requires
frequent attention to tie the vines to the trellis or
weave them through the openings. The advantage of a
trellis system is that the vines form a wall of foliage
and are easy to access and harvest.
tried a slanted version of the livestock panel trellis
and it worked great. Simply place the posts along one
side of the bed. Then set the base of the trellis panel
on the other side of the bed and lean the top against
the posts. Plant under the leaning trellis down the
middle of the bed. Orient the upward side of the slanted
panel to the south for maximum exposure of the foliage
to the sun.
As the tomatoes grow they will come
up and through the panel openings. Every week or so you
can simply take any growing downward on the top side of
the panel and orient them up the sloped panel. Those
falling down on the backside can be lifted up and woven
once or twice through an opening in the panel. Their
leaves will help them "hold" onto the panel.
vines prefer to grow upward and so this system requires
very little in the way of maintenance. The fruit are
well shaded from the sun and hang in easy reach for
harvest. At the end of the season just pull off the
vines and the panels can be stacked easily in an
A friend uses a variation of
the trellis system in which cut sections of livestock
panel are set horizontally on cinder blocks laid down
the tomato bed. The vines grow up through the panel
openings and then basically the vines flop around on top
of the panel keeping the fruit about "cinder block high"
off of the ground. Sounds like a good hangout for the
family cat to me!
Another creative trellising
technique is to use bamboo to form a trellis. Drive
steel posts in the ground along both sides of the tomato
bed then attach bamboo to the posts horizontally to form
multilevel platforms rather like a multilevel
tic-tac-toe game over each plant. Such a trellis system
is unique to say the least.
When it comes to
devising trellises for tomatoes there are no doubt a
million creative techniques and designs out there. If
you have a system that works great for you let us hear
from you. Gardeners love new ideas and when it comes to
growing tomatoes we are forever perfecting the system.