The traditional tomato plant (Solanum lycopersicum) is naturally a sprawling vine, which surprises some non-gardeners. But this fact will not surprise those who know the tomato is related to bittersweet nightshade (Solanum dulcamara), a viny weed. Tomatoes are not like the cucumber (Cucumis sativus), a true climber, that has tendrils that allow the plant to grab onto objects and scale them. Traditional tomatoes sprawl out all across the ground unless you take the trouble to train them onto a support like a stake or a cage.
Why to Stake Tomatoes
For one thing, tomato vines simply look messy when allowed to run along the ground. But the reasons for providing support for them go way beyond aesthetics:
- Letting them grow along the ground invites diseases, and the fruits may rot if they are lying on wet earth.
- Unstaked plants make the fruits more accessible to pests like groundhogs and insects that will eat them.
- A tomato plant growing vertically will be easier to care for. You will not have to worry about stepping on its vines to gain access to the fruit, and you will not have to bend over so far to prune the plant or inspect it for diseases and pests.
- Training tomato plants to grow vertically saves space in the garden.
One of the few downsides to training tomatoes to grow vertically is that the plants will need more water. Tomato vines rambling along the ground put down roots that soak up additional water, which they will not get when suspended from a support.
Before Getting Started
The first step in staking tomatoes is to find out whether you are growing a determinate type or an indeterminate type. A determinate plant grows to a predetermined size and bears all its fruit during a period of about two weeks. Read the label on the seed packet or tomato pot to find out if a particular variety is determinate or indeterminate. A number of modern hybrid tomato varieties are determinate.
- You will have less work supporting a determinate kind. It should still be staked, but it will be a smaller vine, something compact enough that it could be grown in a container on a patio.
- Supporting indeterminate tomato plants is more difficult because they get bigger and heavier. However, a traditional indeterminate tomato plant grows larger and produces more fruit. With proper care, it will continue to produce fruit until the first frost kills the plant.
Supporting tomatoes calls for a supporting structure—stakes or a metal cage—and fasteners. Choose a fastener that will not cut into the vine. Bare wire, for example, is a poor choice for a fastener, while a strip of fabric is a great choice because it is soft. You can usually recycle objects from around the house to use as your fasteners; strips of old pantyhose or socks work well.
Whether you are using a cage or stake, fasten the vine to the support with a loose tie about every 6 or 8 inches as it grows. Make your tie 1 inch or so above a flowering stem so that the fastener does not cut into the stem after it becomes weighed down with fruit.
Equipment / Tools
- Small sledgehammer
- Utility knife (if needed)
- Tomato plants
- Wooden or plastic stakes
- Tomato cages
- Strips of scrap fabric
How to Stake Determinate Tomatoes
Install Cage or Drive Stakes
You can simply buy a small or medium-sized tomato cage for a determinate tomato plant. Place this support around it while it is still small so that you do not damage the plant. The tomato plant will fill out its support as it grows and you will only have to tie it off in a few places, thanks to the compact form of the plant.
Alternately, you can use wooden stakes for your determinate tomato. The advantage of staking is that it is less expensive; the con is that you have to be careful to tie the vine to the stake securely (but without damaging it) because a stake provides less support than a cage. So you must decide between low maintenance and low cost. For fans of low maintenance, another benefit of determinate tomatoes is that, because they stay so compact, you do not have to bother pruning out the suckers.
Wooden stakes can be made or purchased, but should be about 2 inches square and 4 to 7 feet tall, depending on the size of the cultivar you are growing. If necessary, trim the bottom of the stakes to a pointed tip. Pound it into the ground about 15 inches.
Secure the Plant Stems
Use strips of cloth fabric (or stretchy vinyl plant ties) to loosely secure the stems of the tomato plant to the cage or stakes.
How to Stake Indeterminate Tomatoes
A stake for an indeterminate tomato should be at least 7 feet tall and 2 inches x 2 inches across; taller is better. It must be sturdy because a vine loaded with tomatoes can get quite heavy. One end of the stake should be pointed to make it easier to drive into the ground. If you buy one that does not come with a point, trim off some wood at one end to create a point.
Drive the Stakes
Pound the stake about 24 inches into the earth using a small sledgehammer. Place the stake about 5 inches away from the tomato plant so that you do not cause root damage. Or, place all of the stakes and then plant the tomato seedling.
Secure the Stems
Use strips of soft fabric to secure the plant stems to the stakes. Alternately, you can use stretchy vinyl plant ties to secure the stems.
Prune Away Suckers
Cut away the suckers that can sap the strength of the plant. These shoots tend to grow in the spaces between the main stem and the fruiting branches. This type of pruning also improves air circulation and makes the plant less susceptible to disease.