Question: I love growing tomatoes but have trouble keeping them orderly. They fall to the ground, pull the stake down or outgrow their cages. What is the best method to support your tomatoes?
Answer: Supporting your tomatoes is important for several reasons. Most importantly it saves space and reduces disease. The most common methods are cages, stakes or trellising. Before planting your tomatoes decide on the method of support you plan on using.
There are two types of tomato growth habits, determinate and indeterminate. Determinate plants produce many short branches ending in flower clusters, with a short harvest period. Indeterminate plants are large, growing to more than 6 feet tall, and will produce fruit until frost. Semi-determinant varieties are more compact than indeterminate but will also produce heavy crops until frost.
Staked tomatoes should be planted 12 to 15 inches apart. The stake should be a 2- by 2-inch stake, 5 to 6 feet long. As the tomato plant grows, twine should be used to tie the plant to the stake. Never tie below a fruit cluster because the weight of the fruit may cause the plant to sag. The suckers or side shoots should be removed above each leaf before they reach 4 inches. The larger the sucker, the larger the wound and more energy wasted that is going into producing that sucker. Properly pruned plants produce larger and earlier fruit than non-pruned plants. Continue to remove the suckers as you tie the plant to the stake.
If you stake your tomatoes in rows, an alternative style of staking is called the Florida weave. Start with a cord that doesn't stretch and tie it to the stake at 6 to 10 inches high. Connect to the second stake and wrap it around the stake at the same level. Repeat down the row. Reverse the process coming back on the opposite side of the stake. The plants are being held between the cord. Repeat this process as the plants grow.
Tomato plants supported by cages are less work because no tying and minimal pruning is required. Plants should be spaced 3 feet apart in the rows. Caged plants are usually pruned to 4 or 5 fruiting branches. As the plants grow keep the branches inside the cages.
Trellising is only for indeterminate tomatoes. Plant your tomatoes 1 foot apart and prune to just one stem. Support posts should be 20 feet apart with the tops 6 feet high. Stretch heavy wire between the posts and attach heavy twine to the wire. Tie the twine to the base of each plant and as plants grow wrap the twine for support. Trellising produces earlier fruit which is larger but the total yield is less.
Mona Bawgus is a certified master gardener and consumer horticulturist with Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Atlantic County. Write to her c/o Rutgers Cooperative Extension, 6260 Old Harding Highway, Mays Landing, NJ 08330. Email: