How to pick the best tomato staking system
Though we’re several months away from being able to plant tomatoes in the garden, it’s never too early to think about how you’re going to support the plants. Planning ahead for this task gives you plenty of time to make sure you have all the materials you need to keep your tomato plants upright, no matter which varieties you grow.
Before deciding how to support tomato plants, it’s important to know which type of tomato you’re growing.
Determinate: Tomato varieties in the determinate category grow to a height predetermined by their genetics. Often called patio-type tomatoes, these varieties max out around 3 or 4 feet in height, and all of their fruit ripens around the same time. They’re great choices for smaller gardens or containers, or for folks who like to can tomatoes, sauces, and soups because all the fruits are ready to pick at the same time.
Determinate tomato varieties are the easiest to support. Typically they don’t need a huge amount of support, especially if you pinch off the sucker growth and keep the plant to a single main stem.
For determinate tomatoes, a single, 4 foot tall, one-inch by one-inch hardwood or metal stake is enough to support the plants, as long as you regularly fasten the growing vine to the stake.
Those flimsy metal grow-ring tomato cages also work fine for determinate tomato varieties planted either in the garden or in containers.
Indeterminate: Tomato varieties that are indeterminate will continue to grow until frost arrives in the fall. Their genetics do not determine their eventual height. Most popular varieties of tomatoes are indeterminate. There are thousands of different indeterminate tomato varieties, from rambling cherry tomatoes and old-fashioned heirlooms to a large number of hybrids.
Indeterminate tomatoes need a sturdier staking system as the vines can grow quite heavy. Which staking system to use for indeterminate tomatoes depends on whether or not you plan to prune the plants.
If you regularly prune off side shoots and suckers from indeterminate tomatoes, you can use a single stake or even one of those fancy spiral stakes where the tomato vine is coiled around the stake instead of tied to it (I have tried these and they work great, as long as you’re religious about pruning the plants to a single stem).
Pruned, indeterminate tomatoes can grow very tall in a single growing season, so you’ll need a stake that’s at least 6 to 8 feet tall. Anchor it firmly into the ground.
If you don’t prune your tomato plants and allow all or some of the side shoots to develop, you’ll need a wider, stronger staking system. This is where tomato cages, A-frames and trellises can really help.
For caging, surround unpruned indeterminate tomato plants with a 3- to 4-foot wide cylinder of concrete reinforcement wire. The 8-inch-by 8-inch openings in the wire give you easy access to harvest the fruits and the thick wire keeps the plants reasonably contained. However, you will need to anchor the cage to the ground. For this, I use a metal T-bar stake and some zip ties or jute twine.
Another option is to build an A-frame trellis from wood and heavy gauge wire hardware cloth (see photo). This system allows you to plant two tomatoes per trellis; one on each side. The plants ramble up and over the trellis. In doing so, they shade the area beneath the frame, making a nice cool place to grow summer lettuces and other greens.
Tomato trellises are also useful for unpruned indeterminate tomatoes. Made from wood or metal and anchored into the ground, the vines will have to be fastened to the trellis, but you can create quite a lovely display by training the vines to grow in certain directions. Trellises make harvesting a snap, too.
And of course, as with all things gardening, there are a dozen other ways to support tomatoes. The trick is to find the best one for you. However, don’t be afraid to try something new if the staking system you’ve been using isn’t quite performing up to snuff. Experiment until you find the best system for you, your garden, and your plants.
Horticulturist Jessica Walliser co-hosts “The Organic Gardeners” at 7 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio with Doug Oster. She is the author of several gardening books, including “Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden,” “Good Bug, Bad Bug,” and her newest title, “Container Gardening Complete.” Her website is jessicawalliser.com. Send your gardening or landscaping questions to [email protected] or The Good Earth, 622 Cabin Hill Drive, Greensburg, PA 15601.