The truth is, there is no one-size-fits-all method of growing tomatoes. There are so many varieties of tomatoes and so many different garden spaces. However, after having tried many different tomato-growing methods, let us spare you from some of our own mistakes and frustrations.
Tomatoes grown in a garden will sprawl if you don’t support them. If you let them sprawl, the tomatoes themselves are more likely to sit on the ground and rot, even if you have a good layer of hay mulch for them to sit on.
So how to grow them vertically? You can (basically) use either stakes, trellises, or tomato cages. With any of these methods, your tomatoes will be up off the ground and less likely to rot.
Stakes were our least-favorite method of growing tomatoes. But don’t let me influence you because they may work really well for you.
- It takes up less garden space AND storage space than either of the other methods.
- Easiest to install.
- The stakes can be removed each year, allowing for rotation of the tomato patch.
- Because you have to prune your tomatoes when using the staking method, your tomato plants will produce tomatoes sooner, and each tomato will likely be larger. This is a result of more of the tomato’s energy going toward ripening the tomatoes, rather than in leaf growth. (But there will be fewer tomatoes overall.)
- The tomato plants will be more open and airy, making them less susceptible to some diseases.
- Easy to harvest the tomatoes.
- Most time-consuming to maintain. (With 8 tomatoes growing along a row, we had to prune and tie at least one tomato every day to keep up with it.)
- If you don’t tie the tomato up consistently and in multiple places, too much pressure may be placed on one stem or branch, causing it to snap.
- The pruning will open the plant up more, allowing more light to reach the tomatoes, which can cause sun scald.
- Pruning also results in fewer leaves available to catch the light of the sun. This reduces the plant’s overall production ability, so the total yield will be smaller.
- The tomato plants will be more open to sun and wind, so the plant will require more water. This shouldn’t be much of a problem, as long as you mulch heavily. (We prefer wood chip mulch.)
- The steel fence posts are heavy, and the pounder (or driver) is even heavier.
Our experience growing with stakes wasn’t great. It was a huge hassle to prune and tie the tomatoes. The yield was pretty good, but we had many tomatoes (I’d say about 10-20%) with sun scald. If a branch snapped, the tomatoes would end up on the ground and rot before the next day (in our hot, humid weather) since there wasn’t a second tie or lots of other branches that would catch it, like there would be with a tomato cage.
You can use rebar or wooden stakes (at least 6-8′ long), or “T” steel fence posts (pictured above). We’ve even see tomatoes staked with bamboo teepees. Bamboo probably isn’t strong enough to use as a flat stake, but a teepee should be strong enough. All stakes will need to be driven at least a foot or two into the ground for stability. You’ll need a post driver or a mallet for steel or wooden stakes.
You’ll want to get the posts in the ground before transplanting your tomatoes to avoid damaging the tomato’s roots. Plant the tomatoes 3-5″ away from the stakes.
*Tip: If you drive the stakes in downwind of where the tomato plants will be, the tomatoes will lean into the stakes with heavy wind. Of course, wind directions can change, so use the prevailing wind direction to determine where to drive the stakes.
Tie the stem of the tomato plant to the stake as it grows. Prune when necessary, and remove all suckers. You can use strips of nylon stocking, yarn, zip ties, coated wires, tomato velcro, or bailing twine. Do NOT tie the tomato stem flush against the stake. It will need room for movement on windy days, and for growth.
The right tomato cages are one of our favorite ways to grow tomatoes.
- They provide good all-around support.
- Once they’re all set up for the year, no more pruning, pinching off suckers, tying, or training the vines.
- The tomatoes are less likely to be damaged by sun scald due to large amounts of leafy cover.
With the full leaf cover, the soil will stay shaded. Especially with a good layer of mulch, this means more moisture will be retained, keeping levels consistent which helps prevent cracking of the tomatoes and blossom end rot.
- You can easily wrap the cages with greenhouse plastic (a foot or two high) in cooler weather, which may give the tomatoes a little extra warmth and protection, and help the soil around the tomato warm up more quickly in the spring.
- You can either remove the stakes and cages at the end of each year and store them in a shed or garage, allowing for rotation in the garden. Or you can leave them out from year to year, planting tomatoes in the same spot. (See notes below.)
- If you get the wrong tomato cages, or set them up wrong, tomato cages can easily tip over (due to wind or the weight of the tomatoes themselves), mangling your plants possibly landing on other nearby plants. They’re also difficult to get back into place when this happens.
Can be difficult to harvest some tomatoes, especially if you have to keep reaching in through the wires. But in my opinion, this is a heck of a lot less time than the pruning, tying, and training required with other methods.
- It may take tomatoes near the middle of the plant a little longer to ripen with the amount of foliage filling the tomato cage by the end of the summer.
- With lots of foliage, the tomato may be more susceptible to molds, mildews, and fungi diseases. You can help prevent this by watering only at ground level (and not getting any water on the leaves), and with a good layer of mulch, which will keep diseases in the soil from reaching the leaves.
- Tomato cages take up the most space in the garden of all three methods.
- If you pull the cages out of the garden and store them for the winter, they take up a large amount of space. (We put them around other things – pots, tools, etc. – to try to minimize the amount of ‘lost’ space.
Since tomato cages are so varied, and since your success with tomato cages depends a lot on setting them up right in the first place, here are some things you need to know.
The store-bought cages are simply not going to cut it for most tomatoes you’ll grow in your garden. They may be suitable for some of the shorter determinate varieties. If you want to grow any indeterminate varieties, you’re probably going to have to make your own tomato cages.
- To make your own, make sure you get good, strong wire, like concrete reinforcement wire. (I knew it as ‘hogwire’ or ‘hog panel’ when I was growing up, but you may not find it under that name any more.) Here’s a great DIY Tomato Cage Tutorial from Cottage at the Crossroads.
- Make sure you get wire that has square openings large enough for your hand to easily fit through. Definitely not rectangle openings.
- You will need to stake the tomato cages somehow.
- You can use steel fence posts (the same that you would use for simply staking a tomato plant), pounding it into the ground and tying the cage to the stake. If you stake the tomato cages in a row, each tomato cage, except the two end cages, will be tied to two stakes. Even better. This is my favorite way to do it. Might as well make each stake pull double-duty.
- Or you can use tent stakes. It works best if your garden has clay soil, or you live in a low wind area. Tent stakes aren’t large enough to penetrate deeply, and sandy or loamy soil won’t hold them very well. This is a quicker, easier method, but they’re certainly not as sturdy as using steel fence posts.
- If you choose to leave your stakes and cages out in the same spot for easier planting the next year, be aware that they will rust more quickly. Also, if you leave them in the garden so you can plant tomatoes in the same spot each year, your tomato plants may be more susceptible to diseases, though we have found this to be less of a problem with a good, thick layer of wood chip mulch (which protects from soil-borne diseases).
Like tomato cages, trellises come in all shapes and sizes. The basic form is a row of stakes with wire or string forming horizontal supports in between the stakes.
Using hog panel and steel stakes to form the trellis is my other favorite way of staking tomatoes.
- The tomatoes can be grown closer together than when using tomato cages. You can plant them every 18-24″, planting them on every other side each time.
- If you use hog panel (or cement reinforcement wire) as your trellis, it’s easy to weave the tomatoes back and forth through the large squares. However, this is a more permanent method. Though the stakes and panels can be removed each year, it’s very time consuming. It’s more likely the stakes and hogwire trellis will be left in place from year to year. To prevent tomatoes from becoming diseased, use a thick layer of mulch (we like wood chip mulch) and plenty of compost, and water properly. This trellis method also allows the tomato plant to produce plenty of foliage, which will shade the ground, providing the same benefits as caged tomatoes.
- Trellises formed from stakes and string/rope are easy to set up, and the tomato plants have a little more support than they would with just a stake. BUT, you would still have to do an awful lot of tying and training as the tomato plant grows. If the tomato plant isn’t growing However, the stakes and strings are much easier to remove each year than stakes and hogwire panels are.
- No matter what stake and trellis form you use, the tomatoes are easier to harvest than they are with tomato cages.
- Tomatoes along trellises can usually grow fuller in form than staked tomatoes, which protects the soil and shades the tomatoes (more detail above, if you missed it).
- Hog panel and stake trellises are labor intensive to set up, and are usually at least a permanent feature after that. They’re also more expensive initially.
- You will have to do some weaving and tying up and training with trellises. The amount of time involved varies, depending on which type of trellis you use and your tomato plants’ growth.
Tomatoes that Don’t Need Staking
Shorter and stockier tomatoes may not need staking. Some indeterminate varieties, and dwarf or patio varieties may only need light support (eg. the tiny tomato cages you buy from garden centers). They usually produce smaller tomatoes (often cherry or grape tomatoes) but if you grow these types of tomato plants, you get the reward of juicy, vine-ripened tomatoes without the hassle of staking your tomato plants.
No matter what form of support you use to grow your garden tomatoes, it’s always worth the effort!