Trellis system Aug. 14 - Green Zebra

Trellis system Aug. 14 – Green Zebra

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.  Many people also come back the next year to buy tomato plants from me and have sad tales to tell about their experience with the cages.

Range of Methods for Supporting Heirloom Tomatoes:

I too started with cages, and tried them out in a variety of ways…none successful, I might add.  I also tried the “basket weave” method of trellising, letting the tomatoes sprawl on a bed of straw, staking them to posts of rebar, and using large 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.  Some of these may be very effective for the small garden and not for a larger garden.

Caging Heirloom Tomato Plants:

PROS:

  • Empty tomato cage in greenhouse

    Empty tomato cage in greenhouse

    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:

  • 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 tomatoes.  The weight and size can, too frequently, topple the cage to the ground – especially in the light-weight commercial cages.
  •  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 readily.

 

tomato cage made with concrete reinforcing wire

tomato cage made with concrete reinforcing wire

HOW TO CAGE:

  1. Make your own cage.  The cages garden centers supply are simply too small and skimpy to support a healthy tomato plant all summer, especially the larger heirlooms.
  2. 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.
  3. Make sure the cage has a large enough grid that you can get your hands through it to harvest the tomatoes.
  4. Either fasten stakes to the cages that can be driven into the ground, or cut your mesh grid so the spikes will enter the ground (see photo).
  5. 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 (under the right conditions, tomato plants grow fast).

Staking Heirloom Tomato Plants

PROS:

  • Staking takes up little space.
  • 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;
  • each individual tomato will be larger due to the pruning effect mentioned above
  • it is easy to see the tomatoes and easier to harvest.

 

Sunscald on heirloom tomatoes

Sunscald on Heirloom Tomatoes Grown Outside

CONS:

  • it’s a hassle to stake, train and prune, and you have to be diligent about it (not everyone’s strong suit);
  • 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 require more water, as they are exposed more to the sun and drying winds.

HOW TO STAKE

  1. 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.
  2. Try to put the stake on the downwind side so the plant will lean into it when the wind blows.
  3. Drive the stake into the ground right after transplanting so as not to disturb the roots.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. As the plant grows up the stake, add more ties when it starts to flop over (you will know when).
  7. Regularly pinch off the unwanted, outward suckers and branches.

Sprawling Tomato Plants on the Ground:

PROS:

  • 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:

  • 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

  1. Plant the tomatoes in a weed-free area, water, fertilize and have a cool drink.

HeathGlen’s Method of Trellising Heirloom Tomatoes:

PROS:

  • Early Spring Heirloom Tomato Plants in Trellis System

    Early Spring Heirloom Tomato Plants in Trellis System

    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 nine years in the same spot with the same trellis.  Same spot – new compost – healthy seedlings – great tomatoes.
  • Trellis & heirloom tomatoes on August 14, 2012

    Trellis & Heirloom Tomatoes on August 14, 2012

    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.

  • Easy harvesting.  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.
  • 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

  •  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.
  • Time.  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 HEATHGLEN’S TRELLIS SYSTEM

  1. Trellis system for heirloom tomatoes using T-posts and hog panels

    Trellis System for Tomato Plants Using T-posts and Hog Panels

    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.

  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Trellis system for heirloom tomatoes - outside setup

    Trellis System for Tomato Plants – Outside Setup

    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.

  5. 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.
  6. Till in compost on each side of the panel and plant you tomatoes 1 1/2 feet apart, alternating each one to a different side of the panel.
  7. 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.

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.

Tomato Varieties that don’t require support

Raspberry Lyanna Determinate Tomato Variety

Raspberry Lyanna Determinate Tomato Variety

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 sill 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, 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 it is a little more difficult to place larger cages 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 early.

Dwarf (or patio) tomatoes never need staking, but they only grow two or three feet tall and produce small tomatoes (cherry size).  I have not grown the dwarf tomatoes before, but popular varieties in the catalogs seem to be Pixie and Small Fry.

Conclusion on Supporting Heirloom Tomato Plants:

Early season basket of heirloom tomatoes

Early season basket of heirloom tomatoes

Grow some tomatoes.  Experiment.  Do what fits your space and your personal comfort level of maintenance.  Grow some tomatoes.

23 Comments

  1. D. Boisvert on June 28, 2020 at 6:36 am

    Due to space constraints I need to do container gardening.
    What type of tomatoes do well in a 5 gal. bucket?

    • dorothy stainbrook on June 28, 2020 at 6:48 am

      The easiest tomatoes to grow in a container of any size are determinate varieties. There are a number of tomatoes that are determinates, so you have to look up the variety name to see what it is. Determinates grow to about 2 1/2 feet, they have stocky stems and the tomatoes are generally fairly small. The determinates I grow in pots are called “Patio”, “Totem” and “Principe Borghese”. There are many others however. If you can get a bigger container than a 5 gallon bucket you’ll get more tomatoes. Other tomatoes will grow in a container but they will need staking and they’re not as easy.

  2. Jacqui McCarthy on June 20, 2020 at 4:50 pm

    Trying to understand this thread about using hog panels for tomatoes. Someone also asked once. But the reply was just as confusing. 6’ tall, stuck in the ground to hold them in place , and are 6” above the ground????

    • dorothy stainbrook on June 20, 2020 at 6:28 pm

      The 6’ posts are pounded into the ground. You then hold the panels themselves up about 6” above the ground and attach them to the posts. That means the grid where the panels start will be 6” above the ground so the plants have some room to grow upward before they are tied to the panels.

  3. LuAnne Barnett on June 8, 2020 at 4:28 pm

    I am a first time gardener. Do you plant your tomatoes in a row or a section?

    • dorothy stainbrook on June 10, 2020 at 7:25 am

      I plant my tomatoes in rows a couple of feet apart. Because I grow so many tomatoes, it ends up being what might be called a “section”. They are in 3 rows that are 90 feet long and spaced 3 feet apart. For the home grower, just take advantage of whatever your space allows. It doesn’t really matter.

  4. Charles Bowen on May 14, 2020 at 3:09 pm

    Heirloom tomatoes in a 5gal bucket . Cherokee Purple and Yellow Stripey . They can grow 9’ tall . Will pinch the top out at some point . What is the way to support ?

    • dorothy stainbrook on May 14, 2020 at 3:31 pm

      Charles, Most tomatoes, including heirlooms like Cherokee Purple and Yellow Stripey are indeterminate tomatoes, meaning they will vine and grow until frost. The height they end up getting depends on the growing season where you live and how much of a head start they have when you put them in the ground. I would not plant indeterminate tomatoes in a 5 gallon bucket. It is not enough room for their root systems and you won’t get as many tomatoes and you would still need a support system of some sort. If you want to go the container route, get as big of a pot that you can and lean it against a fence or a trellis that they can climb up (you’ll need to tie the stems to the support system as it grows. Otherwise just grow in the ground and put in a trellis or support system. I prefer the hog panels listed in this post but there are a number of support systems you can use. You’ll need something strong. Those particular tomatoes are large and a good crop can get heavy.

  5. Marge from Oregon on May 12, 2020 at 11:54 pm

    Great advice and photos; I think you’ve convinced me to try your trellis system instead of building cages. But I’m still confused about dimensions in the directions. You recommend 5′ T-posts and say that your hog panels are 6′ tall, but the photos show T-posts that rise above the height of the panel. Also, your March 30, 2014 response to a question says that the panels should be inserted in the ground for stability but still rise 6″ off the ground (the directions indicated the panel being wired in place 6″ off the ground as well). What am I missing? Help! Thanks.

    • dorothy stainbrook on May 13, 2020 at 7:07 am

      Hi Marge, you’re right and my recommendations are not absolute. Indeterminate tomatoes will grow until frost, so their height is going to depend on where you live and what kind of summer you have. My best advice is to go with the tallest posts you can find. We ended up doubling the height of the hog panels last summer because they were too short for our growing season. I’ll try and share a photo later this week of what they look like in 2020.

  6. Ligia Giles on April 17, 2020 at 7:00 am

    First time raise bed farmer, shoud stake the plant or cage if it is stake how tall should be the stake

    • dorothy stainbrook on April 17, 2020 at 7:46 am

      It depends on what it is that you are growing and what zone you are growing in. For indeterminate tomatoes with a long growing season, you need something around 8 feet tall. For pole beans you would need to stake also, but not for bush beans. Look at the individual type of plant that you are growing and read about how tall it would get and go from there. Re stakes vs. cages, I line out the pros and cons in the article.

  7. amber on May 11, 2016 at 7:51 am

    could you use this same method for cucumbers and peas? thanks so much!

    • Jason on July 4, 2016 at 7:50 am

      I know a guy that uses the Heathglen trellis system for tomatoes, peas, anything viney, It seems to work out real well.

  8. Dan Plough on April 18, 2016 at 4:16 pm

    I have come up with a great way to do most of my vine plants. I go to the local tire store and purchase old tires. I take them home on one side of the tire I drill hole in the rubber to allow the water to seep out of them. I then work the ground below the tire, set the tires down and fill them up with good soil. I put my plants then inside the tires and stake them up. Oh I also attached gopher screen on the bottom to keep the gophers out of my plants.

  9. Gary Pardo on April 9, 2016 at 8:24 am

    Do “hog panels” fall under a different name? Where do you buy them from? Thank you.

    • Dorothy Stainbrook on May 5, 2016 at 6:53 pm

      We got them from Menards. I don’t really know what else they are called.

    • sonja on May 5, 2016 at 7:39 pm

      They are typically called hog pannel or hog fencing and you would find them at a farm supply store such as Fleet Farm

    • Les Hollands on June 26, 2016 at 2:45 pm

      Cattle Panel, Horse Fence, Welded Wire, Field Fence

  10. granolagirlatheart on March 30, 2014 at 7:49 pm

    Oh, and I have read that my tomatoes have the potential to sprawl 10-12 feet. So do I pinch off the top growth at a certain point, aim them back toward the ground, or just pray that they will flop in an orderly manner?

    • Dorothy Stainbrook on April 7, 2014 at 6:07 am

      Hi Granolagirlatheart, The question of to pinch or not to pinch is somewhat debatable. I don’t pinch at all, especially not the leader. Frost comes mid to late Oct here in MN so they don’t get 10-12 feet tall. They do outgrow their trellis but I gently weave them back down. Pinching the suckers is something else that I need to do a lengthy post on. Pinching “can” give you bigger and potentially earlier tomatoes, but now as many. I have too many tomatoes to baby them, so I don’t pinch. I’ll try and post on that in the coming weeks.

  11. Sue Koci on March 27, 2014 at 10:26 am

    Great info! I’ve been trying for many years to find the best tomato training method.
    How tall are the hog panels you’re using? Noticed some are on or very close to ground and all the holes are the same size. Your instructions say to raise the panels 6″ off the ground. Can you please clarify?

    Thanks for taking the time to share your experiences!

    • Dorothy Stainbrook on March 30, 2014 at 6:29 am

      Hi Sue, The hog panels we used were 6 feet tall, which lost some of their height when put in the ground. They should be inserted in the ground deep enough that they are stable, but still rising 6″ off the ground…if some of mine look like they are close to the ground it is probably because they have been there a number of years and the soil has built up around some of them. There is a good article on this in a recent Fine Gardening magazine (the magazine is a special edition dedicated to tomatoes – it’s pretty good)

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