By Ashley Troth, PhD, Durham County Extension Agent, Agriculture-Consumer and Commercial Ornamental Horticulture
They may look small and sweet now, but don’t let your tomato plants fool you. Without proper support, tomatoes are sprawling vines that can often have problems with disease, leading to poor fruit set. By planning ahead and selecting the right supports for your type of tomato, you can keep plants off the ground, increase air flow around leaves, and give your plants a fighting chance against many southeastern tomato diseases.
Tomatoes come in two major varieties: determinate and indeterminate. Determinate tomatoes set fruit over a short period and are typically smaller plants overall. Many dwarf tomato varieties are determinate. Indeterminate tomatoes grow and set fruit throughout the season, leading to large plants that can reach 10+ feet tall. Many cherry and grape tomatoes are indeterminate, as well as many heirloom tomatoes.
While many dwarf tomato varieties require little support and can get by with tomato cages, for larger determinate and indeterminate varieties, it’s worth doing some extra work upfront to set your tomatoes up right.
One good option for supporting smaller determinate tomatoes is the Florida weave (also call “basket weave”) system, which uses fewer stakes than individually staking plants. This system can be used for indeterminate varieties as well, but they will need to be trimmed once they reach the top of the stakes and are overall more likely to be too heavy at maturity for this support system.
To begin, place 5 to 6 feet sturdy wooden or metal stakes every two to three plants at transplant, with double stakes at the end of each row for strength. Stakes should be set at least 6 inches deep, although consider setting stakes up for a foot deep for extra support. For indeterminate varieties, taller stakes will provide better support.
Once stakes are set, weave twine in a figure eight pattern between tomato plants, wrapping twice around each stake down the row. At the end of each row, begin weaving back down the same row in the opposite direction, gently sandwiching young plants between twine rows. The first row of twine support should be placed 6 to 12 inches above the soil and can help plants from leaning and allowing leaves to contact the soil. As plants grow, weave another layer of twine every 6 to 8 inches to keep plants well supported.
Larger indeterminate varieties of tomatoes truly are vines that will just keep growing given the right conditions. These large plants will benefit from heavy trellises or cages. Large cages can be built from wood, rolled wire fence, or agricultural fence panels. Examples abound online, but keep in mind that whatever material you choose, you will need to be able to easily reach around the plant to collect fruit, prune, and scout for pests. Openings in the trellis or cage that are at least 4 inches square are recommended. Secure plants to trellises with soft materials such as jute twine or bits of old stockings or t-shirts to prevent ties from cutting into the plants. Always tie plants gently, with a bit of give where they are secured.
Another option for larger plants is to provide overhead support. In this system, tall posts (8 feet or taller is preferred) are anchored on either end of tomato rows, with heavy wire run between the posts. A length of twine is hung from the wire for each individual plant, and plants are secured to the twine as they grow using specialty tomato clips. Prune plants to keep only the central vine (remove suckers/off-shoots), and clip every 12 to 18 inches to secure. Removing suckers will cause plants to produce fewer fruit, but fruit will be larger overall.
Want to learn more about growing your dream tomatoes? Check out the excellent resources below.
Resources and Additional Information
The University of Maine has put out a great video series on multiple approaches to support tomatoes. Check out all three short videos to see what’s best for your plants!
How to Grow and Stake Tomatoes
How to Stake Tomatoes: Basket Weave Technique
How to Stake Tomatoes: Trellis Technique
Author Ashley Troth’s Video on Tomato Staking Methods
Pruning Tomato Plants
An excellent resource from UNH Extension covering multiple training and trellising techniques as well as pruning.
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