|By Skip Richter
hen 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 start.
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.
Staking is 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 cover.
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.
Cages need 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.
As the 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 fruit.
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.
An 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 of tomatoes.
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.
The 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 ones.
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.
I recently 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.
The 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 out-of-the-way spot.
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.