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. If the tomato were a climbing vine, that would be one thing; for example, the cucumber (Cucumis sativus), a true climber, has tendrils that allow the plant to grab onto objects and scale them, all on its own, which means less work for you. Not so with traditional tomatoes, which will sprawl out all across the ground unless you take the trouble to train them onto a support.
Why You Should 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 (especially unpruned) invites diseases, and the fruits may rot if they are lying on wet earth.
- It also makes the fruits more accessible to pests who will eat them, such as groundhogs.
- A tomato plant growing vertically will be easier for you to care for. You will not have to worry about stepping on its vines to gain access to the plant, and you will not have to bend over so far to prune it or to 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 such plants will need more water from the garden hose. Tomato vines rambling along the ground will put down roots that soak up additional water, water they will not get when suspended from a support.
Choosing and Using Fasteners to Support Tomatoes
Supporting tomatoes calls for a frame 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; old pantyhose is another favorite.
Fasteners are used in basically the same way whether the supporting frame is a cage or stake. Tie the vine loosely to the support to avoid damage. Fasten the vine to the support about every six or eight inches it grows. Make your tie an inch or so above a flowering stem so that the fastener does not cut into the stem after it becomes weighed down with fruit.
How to Stake Determinate Tomatoes
Just how much trouble it will be for you to support your tomato plant depends on whether it is a determinate type or an indeterminate type. You will have less work supporting a determinate kind. You still have to bother supporting it because it is still, technically, a vine (despite the fact that determinate tomatoes are sometimes called "bush tomatoes"). But it will be a smaller vine, something compact enough that, with a little help from you, could be grown, say, in a container on a patio.
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.
It is a breeze to stake or otherwise give support to a determinate tomato. Simply buy a small or medium-sized tomato cage for it. Place this support around it while it is still small so that you do not chance damaging your 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.
Alternatively, a determinate tomato can be staked. The pro 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, in and of itself, than a cage does. 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.
Ways to Support Indeterminate Tomatoes
Indeterminate tomato plants are another matter altogether, being much more work to grow. Supporting them is more difficult because they get bigger and heavier. The traditional tomato plant is "indeterminate," meaning it's only the fall frosts that stop it from growing more and bearing more fruit.
To support indeterminate tomato plants, use:
- Cages (but only the biggest cages will be effective)
- Stakes (but they must be sturdy)
How to Stake Indeterminate Tomatoes
As with using tomato cages to provide support, staking tomatoes should not be an afterthought. Begin early because it is easier to keep a tomato plant under control if you start training it while it is still young. The first thing you have to get right is working with a stake that will be effective.
A stake for an indeterminate tomato should be at least 7 feet tall and 2 inches x 2 inches across; taller is better. It also needs to be sturdy because a vine with lots of tomatoes on it can get quite heavy. One end should be pointed because it is easier to drive a pointed stake 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. A hatchet works best for this task, but hatchets are dangerous, so take all the safety precautions you can.
Pound the stake about 15 inches into the earth using a mini-sledgehammer. Locate it about 5 inches away from the tomato plant so that you do not cause root damage.
Once your stake is in place, you will have two jobs for the rest of the growing season:
- Tying new growth to the stake
- Pruning out suckers so that the stake does not become overwhelmed
Prune out suckers whenever you find them. Suckers will sap the strength of the plant. An additional benefit of such "thinning" is that a more open plant enjoys better air circulation and will, therefore, be less prone to disease.