Many people who are new to growing heirloom tomatoes in the ground start with a tomato plant, a bag of fertilizer and a tomato “cage” purchased at a garden center. Here are some alternatives to typical tomato cages that will result in more tomatoes, a longer season for tomatoes and higher quality tomatoes.
Range of Methods for Supporting Heirloom Tomatoes:
I too started with cages purchased from the local home improvement store, and tried them out in a variety of ways…none successful. I also tried these methods of support for a range of tomato varieties:
- the “basket weave” method of trellising,
- letting the tomatoes sprawl on a bed of straw,
- staking them to posts of rebar, and
- using large circular homemade cages of concrete reinforcing wire.
After years of trials (and tribulations), my husband rigged up a system for growing our heirloom tomato plants that has proven easy, efficient, and successful. I’ll show you what it looks like below, but first here is a list of pros and cons from my experience with other methods.
Note that some of these may be very effective for the small garden and not work for a larger garden.
I. Caging Heirloom Tomato Plants:
PROS OF CAGES:
- You don’t need to worry about pruning, pinching off the suckers, or training the plant
- There will be plenty of foliage to provide shade for the fruit and prevent sunscald
- Due to plenty of leaf cover, the soil will stay shaded and retain more moisture. Keeping the moisture level more consistent will help prevent cracking and blossom end rot
- You can easily adapt the cages to do double duty and give the tomatoes a head start in the spring. Wrap a circle of one-foot-high plastic around the bottom of the cage at ground level and secure the overlapping ends. This will give the plants some extra heat, protect them from winds, and may help protect them from cutworms.
CONS OF CAGES:
- Cages fall over. Tomato plants can get quite large (both in height and width), and they can become too heavy for the cages. This is especially true with some of the larger heirloom plants, where it is not uncommon to get one and two-pound fruits. The weight and size of the plant can topple light weight cages to the ground with strong winds.
- Takes up space. Larger cages in particular can take up quite a bit of space in a small garden. They also take up space in storage, if that is a concern.
- Longer time to ripen. By late summer, the cages are so full of foliage that the fruit is shaded and doesn’t ripen as quickly or as consitently.
What is Needed from a Good Tomato Cage
Most tomato cages from garden centers are simply too small and skimpy to support a healthy tomato plant all summer, especially the larger heirlooms. Here is what to look for in a cage, whether you make your own or find one to purchase:
- The cage should be at least five feet tall and 24 to 30 inches in diameter. It needs to be strong, made with something like concrete reinforcing wire.
- Make sure the cage has a large enough grid that you can get your hands through it to harvest the tomatoes..
- Set the cages over the plants shortly after planting the seedling so you don’t break the plant trying to fit the cage over the plant later on (under the right conditions, tomato plants grow fast).
II. Staking Heirloom Tomato Plants
PROS OF STAKING
- Staking takes up less space than caging.
- Simple to install.
- The vines & tomatoes are up off the ground, resulting in cleaner fruit and less rotting.
- Early harvest. Staking requires you to prune the plant more frequently, which results in more of the plant’s energy directed toward ripening fruit (note: you get earlier fruit but not as many if you prune)
- each individual tomato will be larger due to the pruning effect mentioned above
- it is easy to see the tomatoes and easy to harvest.
CONS OF STAKING
- It can be a hassle to prune and train the plant up the stake with ties. You have to be diligent and timely with training and pruning or the stems will break.
- The lack of heavy leaf cover makes the tomatoes more susceptible to sunscald problems
- Total yield is often lower, since staking requires pruning which lowers the total leaf surface of the plant. Less leaf surface affects the total yield
- Staked plants may require more water, as they are exposed more to the sun and drying winds, which leads to evaporation.
HOW TO STAKE TOMATOES
- Purchase a tall (6-8 foot), spiral tomato stake or use existing materials around home. I have used a six-foot piece of rebar fairly successfully, as it is quite sturdy, goes into the soil easily and has a rough texture that the plant ties adhere to.
- Try to put the stake on the downwind side so the plant will lean into it when the wind blows.
- Drive the stake into the ground right after transplanting so as not to disturb the roots.
- Set the stake in the ground about 3-5″ away from the plant, and set the stake deep (at least a foot) into the soil so it will not topple over during storms.
- As the plant grows, tie the stem of the plant to the stake with a soft tie. The coated wires they sell at nurseries work well, but nylons or cloth is fine also. Leave a couple of inches slack so the tie will not cut into the stem as it increases in width.
- As the plant grows up the stake, add more ties when it starts to flop over (you will know when).
- Regularly pinch off the unwanted, outward suckers and branches.
III. Sprawling Tomato Plants on the Ground:
PROS OF LETTING TOMATOES SPRAWL
- Least amount of work. No staking, pruning, tieing or training.
- More tomatoes. This method allows for the most leaf growth and the most amount of the plant receiving the sun. The plants bush out quite a bit and develop tomatoes on the side stems.
CONS OF LETTING TOMATOES SPRAWL
- Although you will get more tomatoes, many of them may not be edible. Sprawling results in tomatoes rotting from the moist soil or getting nibbled by animals and bugs. We tried several different mulches to let the tomatoes rest on, but the straw attracted mice and slugs and the plastic got wet and promoted mold.
- Space. You need at least one square yard for each tomato plant.
HOW TO GROW TOMATOES BY SPRAWLING
- Plant the tomatoes in a weed-free area, water, fertilize and have a cool drink.
- The medium you grow them on (bare soil, plastic, straw, etc.) will determine how many spoil. With straw you often get pest problems, with black plastic you get rot, and bare soil can carry a lot of disease. I have tried all the mediums and would not recommend letting them sprawll
IV. Trellising Tomatoes with Large Grid, Strong Fencing (aka hogwire or concrete reinforcing fencing)
PROS OF FENCING METHOD
- Space: The trellis requires very little space and tomatoes can be planted close together. My tomatoes are planted about 1 1/2 feet apart, alternating on each side of our trellis in a zig-zag formation (see photo).
- Maintenance: You can easily weave the tomato plants through the grid of the trellis as they grow. It doesn’t require a lot of training, pruning or tieing. I will initially tie the plant to one of the wires when the plant is about two feet tall and then just weave it through the grids after that.
- Reusable: You can leave the trellis up through the winter and just come back in the spring and add compost along the side of the trellis. Many gardeners believe you have to rotate your tomato plants constantly. I think you only need to do this if you have disease in your soil. I have grown heirloom tomatoes successfully every year for 15 years in the same spot with the same trellis. Same spot – new compost – healthy seedlings – great tomatoes
- Less cracking, less disease, less nutritional problems. The trellis allows for a lot of foliage, which shades the soil while still keeping the fruit off of the ground. When fruit are up off the ground, they don’t come into contact with soil-borne diseases or ground pests.
- No reaching through small grids on your hands and knees trying to find the ripe tomatoes that you can’t see inside the mass of leaves in the cages
- Easy Harvesting: Fruit tends to ripen one to two weeks earlier. More leaves are exposed to the sun which results in efficient use of the tomatoes food supply
- Sturdy support: During our first three years of growing tomatoes, we would start off with beautiful organic plants in our “well-designed” tunnels and cages… and then the storms came. Consistently. Every year. We finally went to iron and steel and built a heavily buttressed structure (tunnel) and hog panel trellises secured with iron T-posts. No more problems with wind, storms or hail
CONS OF FENCING METHOD:
- Start-up time. It does take some time to build a good trellis initially. The amount of time depends on what kind and how long of a trellis you’re building. We took a half of a day to pound in the stakes and attach the hog panels to them, but we ended up with approximately 500 lineal feet of trellis that has never been taken down or modified since the initial building.
- Expense. It is more expensive than caging or staking. I don’t remember the amount, but it didn’t seem like that much for something that will last the lifetime of the farm.
- Training/tieing/weaving the plants: It does take some monitoring of the plants, and some time to tie them up initially and weave them subsequently. More time than a cage would take and less time than staking.
HOW TO BUILD A STURDY FENCING TRELLIS SYSTEM
- Equipment needed: 5-foot T posts, 16-foot hog panels, aluminum wire ties, two-handled post-driver, electric hacksaw, a good strong man or woman and a patient assistant.
- Allowing 1 1/2 feet between each tomato plant, use the hacksaw to cut panels in desired lengths. We used the full 16-foot panels, which allowed 10 plants per panel. We placed posts 9 feet apart down the length of 72 feet of panels, overlapping the panels slightly to add stability
- Lay the panels down flat on the ground where your trellis will stand. Laying the panels on the ground will help you determine where to pound in the posts, and help you keep your posts in a straight line
- Starting 3″ in from one end of the panel, pound in a T-post approximately 18″ deep. Go to the other end of the panel and pound in a T-post 3″ in from that end. Go to the middle and pound in another T-post.
- Lift the panel 6″ from the ground, with the narrower parts of the grid at the bottom (towards the ground). Have your assistant hold the panel in place while you secure the panels to the T-posts with the aluminum ties
- Dig or till in compost on each side of the panel and plant your tomatoes 1 1/2 feet apart, alternating each one to a different side of the panel.
- Run some T-tape or a soaker hose down the row of tomatoes so you don’t have to water from above. This helps keep moisture consistent and prevents disease from soil splashing up onto the plants.
V. Other Popular Methods of Supporting Tomato Plants:
Many commercial growers use a method called “Basket Weave”, and many others use a “Stringing” method where the plants climb up the strings secured to the top of the greenhouse. I am not covering these, as they are designed more for the commercial grower and they require more in-depth information than I can present on a blog post.
Determinate Tomato Varieties that don’t require support
Most tomato plants are considered either determinate or indeterminate (a few varieties are also considered dwarf). Most ”heirloom” tomato varieties have an indeterminate growth habit, which means they will continue to grow in height throughout the season (sometimes considered a vining habit).
If you have a long growing season, and continue to fertilize, indeterminate tomato plants can get quite tall, anywhere from six to 20 feet high (in Minnesota, mine will usually grow to around six or seven feet).
Determinate tomatoes however, will stop growing at a certain height, usually around three to four feet. Determinate plants tend to be quite bushy and have thick stems that will support them without the need of stakes or cages.
Determinate varieties will produce a large amount of fruit in a relatively short timeframe (around 3 weeks), whereas indeterminate varieties will produce a lesser amount of fruit over a longer period of time.
I usually recommend determinate varieties to people who want to grow tomatoes in containers, as indeterminate tomatoes require taller staking or cages and that can be tricky in pots.
If you want to grow indeterminate tomatoes in containers, it is best to grow them near a trellis or fence that you can train them up, or use very large pots that will allow large cages.
Determinate varieties that I have grown and found to be sturdy enough to not require staking include: Bush Champion (hybrid), Raspberry Lyanna (heirloom), Principe Borghese (heirloom), and Oregon Spring (hybrid). Determinate varieties also tend to be smaller fruit and the fruit is often earlier.
Dwarf (or patio) tomatoes never need staking, but they only grow two or three feet tall and produce small tomatoes (cherry size). I have grown the Totem variety as a dwarf tomato and it did very well in an unstaked pot.
More Help on Growing Heirloom (and Hybrid) Tomatoes
- How to Grow Tomatoes in Pots
- How to Get the Earliest Tomatoes
- Matching Tomato Varieties to Intended Use
- Best Tasting Tomato Varieties (how color makes a difference)
- Preventing Tomato Disease at Seedling Stage
Conclusion on Supporting Heirloom Tomato Plants:
Grow some tomatoes. Experiment. Do what fits your space and your personal comfort level of maintenance. Grow some tomatoes, heirloom or hybrid the taste of homegrown tomatoes is always better than grocery store tomatoes.