Tomato Cages and Trellises
By: National Gardening Association Editors
Tomato vines that ramble over the ground are much more likely to suffer damage from slugs, and the fruits are prone to rot wherever they touch the ground. Keeping fruit off the ground and exposed to the sun enhances ripening, and is especially important where the growing season is brief. There are a number of ways to accomplish this. You can use stakes or cages to support the plants, for example, or train the tomato vines to a trellis or up a string.
It's helpful to understand how different types of tomatoes grow, so you can match the training system to the type of tomato.
Indeterminate vs. Determinate
You've probably seen the terms indeterminate and determinate used to describe tomato varieties. Below is a chart explaining the differences. Note that these are generalizations, and that varieties will vary in the degree they exhibit these characteristics.
- Vines continue to grow all summer
- Produces mature fruit later than determinates
- Produces fruit over a long season
- Overall, produces more fruit than determinates
- Tall vines require staking or trellising
- Vines stop growing once fruit has set
- Produces mature fruit earlier than indeterminates
- Crop ripens all at once (good if you plan to can or freeze your harvest)
- Overall, produces less fruit than indeterminates
- "Bush" varieties may not require support, but most will need the support of a cage or stake
Tomatoes form shoots or "suckers" in the crotch where a leaf meets a stem. If you let a sucker grow, it simply becomes another big stem with its own blossoms, fruits and suckers.
Pruning tomatoes involves pinching off these suckers to limit the number of stems on the plant.
At planting time, insert a sturdy stake about 6" from the stem. As the plant grows, use soft plant ties or strips of fabric to tie the stem to the stake at regular intervals.
For determinate varieties, a 4-foot stake is adequate; for taller indeterminate varieties, use a stake that's at least 6 feet in length. Drive the stake about a foot into the soil.
Prune staked plants to just one or two main stems by removing suckers.
Cages are one of the simplest and most popular training systems. Cages are available in a number of different styles and sizes. You can also construct your own using wire fencing. Note that cages should be anchored to the ground with stakes to keep top-heavy plants from toppling.
Small commercial cages are adequate for determinate tomatoes, but you'll want a cage that stands at least 4 feet tall for indeterminates.
You can either prune plants to just a few main stems, or allow the plants to branch freely, tucking wayward stems back into the supports on the cage.