It’s that time of year when garden vegetables and weeds alike are growing inches overnight. If you’re like us, tomatoes are a darling in your garden, but it can be tricky to keep these wily vines in check. There are lots of ways to stake or trellis tomatoes and keep them contained. Here are some of our favorites.
Why stake tomatoes?
Before we get into how to stake tomatoes, let’s back up and ask why. In the wild, tomato plants (Solanum lycopersicum and other species) don’t have a friendly primate following them around, making sure they don’t sprawl all over the ground. That’s because they’re naturally vining plants and they don’t mind the ungainly posture. In fact, adventitious roots will grow where their stems contact soil. This means they can get more water and nourishment. Or, if a vine breaks, it can make it on its own as a whole new plant. When tomato fruits rot, resting on the ground, their seeds spread and make more tomato plants.
So why do we want to give tomatoes a lift by staking? Well, because we have different goals for the tomato plants than they have for themselves. Our main objective is more sweet, juicy tomato fruits. Whereas their main goal (at least biologically; I’ve never been able to ask a tomato plant existential questions) is to perpetuate themselves as tomato plants.
When we stake tomatoes, we’re getting them to give us more of what we want. These are the benefits of staking tomatoes:
- Staking keeps the fruit from rotting on the ground
- Picking is easier when fruit is elevated
- Lifting the plants up allows for more airflow (which reduces fungal and other diseases)
- Less soil contact = fewer chances of late blight and other diseases infecting the plant
- Staked tomatoes are trained to stay in their own space and not crowd their neighbors
- It’s easier to prune tomato plants that are staked
- Mulching is much easier under elevated plants
How to choose a tomato staking method
Just like everything in the garden (and life), there isn’t just one way to support your tomato plants. How to stake tomatoes depends on several factors. When you’re deciding how to stake your tomatoes, ask yourself these questions:
- How many tomato plants are you growing?
- Are your tomato varieties determinate (bushy) or indeterminate (tall, viney)?
- What is your climate like?
- What materials do you have on hand?
- What’s your budget for staking tomatoes?
If you’re growing just a few tomatoes, any of the options below will do. But if you’ve got a big field of 20+ plants, cages are probably impractical. When you’re dealing with determinate varieties of tomatoes, staking can be less beefy and cages more flimsy, whereas indeterminate varieties need strong support.
Here in the Southeast, we get a lot of summer rain. Our climate is loved by all manner of fungi, including those that destroy tomatoes. Because of this, we need to choose a system that allows for maximum airflow around our tomato plants. The “Florida weave” (see below) isn’t our best bet. If you live in a drier climate, it might be more ideal.
Lots of materials that you might have lying around could be helpful in staking tomatoes. Some examples are old pieces of wire fencing, bamboo poles. string, wire, even old panty hose (to rip into strips and use to tie tomatoes to their stakes)! Things like T-posts and UV resistant rope can be helpful, but aren’t necessary if they’re out of your budget.
How to stake tomatoes – 5 different methods
These 5 methods have different advantages and disadvantages. It’s even possible that you will use more than one of them if you have tomatoes planted in different locations, or are growing several different varieties. Trying out more than one method from year to year is worth it so that you can determine which works best for you.
- Tomato cages
- Wooden stake (with optional tripod variation)
- String trellis
- Fence panel
- Florida weave
Tomato cages are those round wire contraptions you see for sale at garden stores. You can also make your own out of wire fencing rolled into a cylinder. If you choose this option, make sure that there is room to get your hands through the fencing to prune and pick your tomatoes. Cages are ideal for smaller gardens (including tomatoes in pots), determinate varieties, and in cases when a generally bushier growth habit is desirable. This means less airflow and more chance of fungal disease, but potentially more fruit per plant. Tomato cages are bulky and can be a pain to store. Homemade ones can be unrolled for easier storage. Using tomato cages to stake your tomatoes means the least amount of work tying plants onto their support throughout the season.
Wooden stakes (with optional tripod variation)
This is the tomato staking method that really involves stakes! You will need one tall (8’+ for indeterminate varieties), strong wooden stake (2″x2″) or one piece of stout bamboo for each plant. Bury the end of the stake deep enough into the soil so that it is stable. Use string or wire or strips of old panty hose to tie the tomato plants to the stake. You’ll need to prune off any suckers and maintain one central leader or “trunk” for this method to work.
For extra strong stakes, set them up as tripods, with the tops fastened together and the buried ends at an angle. Our beloved founder and director, Natalie Bogwalker uses this method. And she sure grows some beautiful and delicious tomatoes!
Tomatoes grown in greenhouses are most often supported by string trellises. However, this method of staking tomatoes can be used outside too. In essence, it’s just like staking with wooden or bamboo stakes, but the string becomes the stake. Each tomato plant has a string coming down to it from a bar, wire, or rope suspended above. Then, as the tomatoes grow, you simply twine them around the string in a spiral motion. There’s no need to tie the plants to anything with more string, which is handy. With this method, you also will need to prune off suckers and maintain a single leader or “trunk.” The key to a good string trellis is to make sure it’s strong and secure. In the past on our farm we’ve used t-posts with stout bamboo poles attached to them to support a thick, UV resistant rope. We anchor the rope at either end of the row with more t-posts, pounded at an angle, and tension it using a variation of the trucker’s hitch. If you have a greenhouse, you’ve already got a strong structure to work with.
Fence panel tomato trellis
So-called hog panels, or cattle panels are sections of fencing made from thick, galvanized rods that are welded together. Flimsier “welded wire” fencing is also available, but it may flop over or sag when your tomatoes are juicy, ripe, and heavy. To use this method of staking tomatoes, simply pound t-posts or wooden fence posts in your row of tomatoes and attach the fencing with string or wire. After that you can simply tie or weave your tomato plants onto the fencing as they grow. An advantage of this method is that you can choose to prune either for a central leader, or for 3 or 4 leaders. In either case you will still want to prune off subsequent suckers.
Large-scale commercial growers almost exclusively use this method of staking tomatoes. Why? Because it’s cheap, fast, and doesn’t require any regular maintenance like suckering or pruning.
The basic approach is to pound wooden stakes in between each tomato plant (sometimes you can get away with putting your posts between every 2 plants, if you have a shorter row). As the tomatoes grow, weave string along the rows horizontally, sandwiching the plants between the string and winding it tightly around each post to hold tension and keep it up. Some of the leaves and fruits will get squished in the weaving process if you’re not careful, and it’s much harder to prune plants in a Florida weave. In dry climates, or if you have lots of tomato plants and not a lot of time, this can be a good choice.