Tomatoes pose a unique challenge to gardeners large and small. Indeterminate varieties can reach towering heights but are unable to support themselves, especially once they begin to set fruit. All varieties of tomatoes gain several benefits from support. Plants are able to dry out more quickly, leading to less rot, ripening is more thorough and even, and harvest is easier and faster. Three popular and effective methods of supporting tomato plants are using a freestanding structure, trellising with an overhead string, and the Florida Weave.
Many home gardeners choose to support each tomato plant with its own freestanding structure. Tomato cages and field stakes are the most popular choices, allowing plants to grow at different rates while being supported at any height.
Stakes should be at least four feet tall and set no less than one foot deep. They can be made from bamboo, scrap wood, or an iron bar. Place each stake about 2-4” away from the base of the plant. As the plant grows, tie the vine to the stake with loose knots, preferably just below a major branch.
Tomato cages come in many shapes and sizes, and can often be made at home with repurposed materials. The most popular are cylindrical woven wire secured by stakes pushed into the ground. Tomatoes may need to be tied in order to grow up the center of the cage. Alternatively, they can be carefully trained by hand.
Another trellis technique preferred by growers is overhead string support. As an especially efficient use of space, this method is ideal for high tunnel tomato production, but can be put to use indoors or out. With overhead support, each tomato plant is given one string, running from floor to ceiling, on which to climb. It is important to have a strong support system, such as the hoops or rafters in a greenhouse or an A-frame structure. Make sure any structure can handle a heavy load before setting any strings.
Tie one string per vine directly overhead, making sure it is long enough to reach all the way to the floor. Securely tie the string to the base of the vine, keeping the line taut but the loop not so tight as to damage the stem. Many start by pruning tomato plants down to one or two vines, but I’ve strung as many as five vines per plant using this method.
As the plants grow, there are two popular ways to train the vine up the string. Some choose to wrap the vine around the string a little bit at a time. This can be hard if the string is too taut, but if done well, wrapping the vine can very evenly distribute the weight of the plant. Alternatively, vines can be tied or clipped to the string, allowing the plant to grow straight up. Many growers purchase tomato clips, which are specifically designed for this method of trellising; twine is a perfectly good substitute. Attach clips directly to the vine below a major branch.
An increasing number of tomato growers are using what has come to be called the Florida Weave. While there are many variations to this approach, the basic premise is the same for each. The Florida Weave is easy to put up and take down, as well as simple to maintain during the season. This method works best for tomatoes grown in the field in long single rows.
Start by driving long stakes at least one foot into the soil every 2-5 plants. Set the stakes in the middle of the row, equally spaced between two plants. Using lightweight twine, tie the first line to an end post about eight inches above the ground. Run the line on the front side of the first set of tomato plants, on the back side of the next post, and then return to the front of the tomato plants. This first string will be run in front of all the plants, and behind all of the posts. Make a full loop around at least every other post to keep the line from slipping. At the last stake, tie off and work down the row, mirroring the first line. This second line will run behind all the plants, and in front of all the posts. The two lines will form figure eights as they are woven.
As the plants grow, repeat this process, setting another line about every eight inches. Tuck in wayward branches when necessary, and be sure to maintain tension in all lines. Before long, you’ll have a wall of plants ready to bear the weight of a heavy fruit set. I recommend anchoring the two end stakes securely, as they are under the most pressure. A guy line and tent stake work well, but be careful not to trip when you’re admiring those gorgeous, ripe tomatoes!
General Trellis Tips:
- Prevent the spread of bacterial and fungal disease by pruning, staking, or stringing the plants when they are completely dry.
- Make sure all stakes and posts are secure – at least a foot deep, but more if possible.
- Try to match the size of your trellis system with the plants you’re growing. An indeterminate variety will quickly outgrow a small tomato cage.
- Whenever possible, avoid breaking major branches or bending the vine against its will.
- Before a hard wind or rain, check the strength of all structures and tighten anything that is loose.