Garden Tips: Learn to properly support tomato plants

Marianne C. Ophardt, WSU Benton County ExtensionFebruary 6, 2014 

For the past several years, I have been trying tomato cages for supporting my tomatoes, but these efforts have usually ended in failure. Last year, windy weather caused all my cages and plants to blow over. Since I am not an expert on staking tomatoes, I have been researching where I went wrong.

Tomato plants are a vine. When not provided with some type of support structure, they will grow along the ground. If left to sprawl like this, an indeterminate tomato variety can take up as much as 16 square feet of area. That's a lot of space for just one tomato plant. Plus, many of the fruit that develop touch the ground, increasing the potential of fruit rot.

Maximize garden space and minimize fruit rot by providing vines with support and growing them upright. Before discussing caging, staking and trellising, let me explain the difference between determinate and indeterminate tomatoes.

Determinate tomatoes are varieties with bushier, more restrained growth. Vines are shorter, growing from 3 to 4 feet in length. The main vines develop numerous branches, which stop growing when the plants begin to flower. With the flowers and fruit developing at the same time, commercial tomato growers favor determinant tomatoes for processing. The varieties, Celebrity, Oregon Spring, Bush Early Girl and Rutgers, are popular determinate garden tomato varieties. Many early season tomatoes are determinate varieties.

Indeterminate tomatoes are varieties with vines that keep growing until frost kills them. Their vines can grow from 6 to 12 feet or longer. They flower and fruit during a period of two months or more. While indeterminate varieties typically develop mature fruit later in the season, they tend to produce more tomatoes during the entire season. Many of the heirloom varieties have an indeterminate growth habit.

So where did I go wrong? I used tomato cages, the 3- to 4-inch types, commonly sold to gardeners. These cages will work fairly well for caging determinant tomatoes.

The indeterminate tomato varieties that I have been growing are too big for these short cages. They require taller, more substantial support in the form of a wire cage, sturdy trellis or strong stake, especially when living in a region that can experience strong summer winds.

Indeterminate tomatoes can be "caged" by constructing a 2-inch diameter cylinder cage with 5-inch hog wire, or use a heavy gauge wire cattle fencing panel to make a square cage with 18-inch-wide sides. The cage must be anchored to the ground, especially in windy areas, such as placing a length of rebar inside the cage and pounding it a foot or more into the ground. Place cages 3 to 4 feet apart in the garden.

Consider making your own cages like these for growing indeterminate tomatoes. Caged tomatoes are unpruned (less work) and tend to yield more fruit per vine than staked tomatoes, but the fruit is smaller. Next week, I will finish up this "Tomatoes" series with information on staking and trellising tomatoes.

-- Marianne C. Ophardt is a horticulturist for Washington State University Benton County Extension.

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