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 cage.
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 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, 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; 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 six or eight inches as 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
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.
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.
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 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.
Ways to Support Indeterminate Tomatoes
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..
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
Whether you are using tomato cages or stakes, supporting 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.
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. 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 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
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
Suckers will sap the strength of the plant and should be pruned away when you find them. Suckers grow in the space between the main stem of the tomato plant and the fruiting branches. An additional benefit of pruning is that a more open plant enjoys better air circulation and will be less prone to disease.