Tomato plants are rapidly growing vines that need support, especially once the heavy fruits begin to ripen. Tomato cages are a practical, affordable option, especially when you're growing just a few plants. Cages are designed to provide structure, support vines, and keep fruit from contacting soil which causes it to rot. Gardeners have plenty of options regarding size, material, and ease of use, but there are several factors to consider when choosing the best tomato cage for your crop.
Choose the Right Tomato Cage
The sturdiest tomato cages are constructed of metal, steel, or wood and may or may not have a weather-resistant finish. Powder coating extends the life of the product and protects your hands from hot surfaces when working with your plants.
Cages come in several shapes including square, triangular, cone-shaped, and rings. Standards differ according to shape but a cage between two and three feet wide and four and six feet tall accommodates most tomato varieties. Many offer adjustable horizontal bars that attach with connectors, allowing you to move them up the vertical stakes as needed. Vertical stakes extend at the bottom to anchor cages in the soil.
Many fold for easy storage but cone-shaped cages take up more room in the garden shed, though they are usually the least costly. A mature plant supported correctly should not fall over or collapse the cage.
Cages for Determinate Versus Indeterminate Tomatoes
Determinate tomatoes produce fruit all at once which increases the weight load on vines. Plenty have a bushy growing habit with shorter, thicker vines to support multiple fruits. A cage four feet tall and two feet wide constructed with sturdy materials is usually adequate. Good air circulation is especially important for compact plants, so use a narrower cage to separate and evenly spread branching vines from bottom to top. Triangular or square-shaped cages work well for determinate tomatoes.
Indeterminate tomatoes produce fruits all season, harvested as they ripen. This reduces weight load, however, vines often grow to 10 feet in length. A taller six-foot cone-shaped or square cage with a three-foot diameter is better suited for indeterminate tomato varieties. Cages with movable horizontal supports allow you to adjust as vines lengthen providing structure where the plant needs it most.
Cages for Potted Tomatoes
Growing tomatoes in pots limits your choices to cages that fit the diameter and depth of your pot. Anchor stakes should fit down inside the pot without bending. Cages as short as 15 inches and just six inches in diameter are available but keep your tomato variety, fruit size, and height of the mature plant in mind when selecting a cage support.
When to Add Tomato Cages
It's always a good idea to add cages at planting time. Add cages to potted tomatoes right after planting to make sure everything fits snugly and correctly. In the garden, you can wait until young plants begin to branch out, two to three weeks after transplanting. They are entering into vegetative growth when vines grow rapidly and root systems begin to spread. Waiting too long to place a cage can leave you stymied by a tangle of vines and anchor stakes can damage feeder roots.
How a Tomato Cage Supports a Plant
Tomato plants have a built-in anchor called a tap root that can extend into soil to depths of three feet, but this rarely balances out heavy top growth. Cages provide additional support and help you manage vines for better disease control and fruit production. Strong vines will support fruit.
When the main stem begins to branch each new vine is attached to the lowest horizontal support, separated, and placed to balance growth evenly. As vines lengthen upwards they are attached to the next horizontal support in the same manner. The idea is to reinforce their weight-bearing capacity along as much length as possible.
When used correctly, a tomato cage allows good air circulation in the plant's center. It prevents stress damage to vines that can weaken and break with heavy fruit or environmental factors like high winds.
How to Add Tomato Cages to Your Plants
Tomato cages are an easy way to get started with an uncomplicated, workable system for supporting your crop.
- Select a size and design based on your tomato variety.
- Position the cage with the planted tomato seedling in the center.
- Push the anchor stakes into the soil to a depth of eight inches applying pressure evenly on the top of the cage. Extensions on the bottom are designed to penetrate the soil easily, however, if you meet resistance, try applying pressure on the lower part of the cage first, or use a mallet to gently tap the top bars.
- Find a section on the first branching vine with a well-developed leaf and stem on either side and place a soft tie, like twine, on the vine below the leaves. The double "V" formed by the leaves prevents the vine from slipping.
- Tomato vines thicken as they mature so always allow space by tying them loosely to the cage. If the branch is already flowering or a small fruit has formed, leave extra room for it to develop or choose a different spot to attach. It's fine for fruit to develop inside the cage.
- Knot the twine against the bar of the cage. Knots placed against vines can rub, strip the surface and invite disease and pests.
- Follow the plant's natural upward growth pattern and avoid attaching vines in a way that stretches or pulls. New growth is flexible and can be positioned but tying it to a support can cause it to break or wilt.
- Heavy rain and high winds can displace tomato cages. Reset the cage, centering it, and gently ease the anchor stakes back into the soil. Single metal, wood, or bamboo stakes can be added and tied tightly to vertical cage supports if needed.
How do you put tomato cages on?
Position the cage with the plant in the center. Apply pressure to the top of the cage to push the anchor stakes evenly into the soil. If you're growing in containers be sure the stakes fit down into the pot without bending
When should I put tomato cages on?
It's always a good idea to get supports in place as soon as seedlings are planted. For garden-grown tomatoes, you can wait until plants begin to branch two to three weeks after setting out, but no later. Set cages on pot-grown tomatoes right after you plant them.
Why use tomato cages upside down?
A traditional cone-shaped wire cage could be turned upside down if you've waited too long and need support to fit over a mature tomato plant. You will need to add single anchor stakes to the exterior since cage stakes are now at the top. It's much easier and less time-consuming to cage a tomato early right after or within a few weeks of planting.