There are several ways to support tomatoes, from the traditional conical cage to simple staking, and knowing about all the different options can help you decide which will be the best for your type of tomato plant as well as your lifestyle. In fact, tomato plants don’t require support; with proper spacing and mulching, tomatoes can be allowed to sprawl on the ground. Giving them some support, either from a commercially available device or by one you’ve built yourself, can increase air circulation and help prevent disease, as well as making harvesting easier and taking up less space. Here are the pros and cons of the different support options.
Conical tomato cages are readily available at gardening centers and come in different sizes, depending on the mature height of the plant you wish to grow. These cages generally work best with those tomato plants that are “determinate;” that is, they stop growing once they reach a certain height. Most conical tomato cages are too small to support “indeterminate” varieties, those tomatoes that will continue to add height throughout the growing season. One of the benefits of using this type of tomato support is that you won’t need to prune your plant, and there are cages available in more than just the typical steel wire, some have been coated with colors such as purple, green, orange, yellow, and, of course, red. Storing conical tomato cages can be a bit of challenge in the off-season, though.
Square cages are also available at many garden centers, and these provide more support than their conical cousins because they can be reinforced with stakes at the corners. This makes them better choices for indeterminate varieties. Square cages fold flat for easier storage and, as with conical cages, no pruning is necessary. You can purchase a commercially available product or build your own, using a heavy-duty wire mesh such as that used to reinforce concrete. Using heavy-duty wire or bolt cutters cut four pieces to the height and width you desire and attach at the corners, using twine or plastic zip strips. Assemble and place over your tomato plant, driving wooden stakes in at the corners for additional support. Just be sure to wear protective gloves, eyewear, and long sleeves when cutting mesh, as metal points are sharp.
Using water-resistant wood like cedar, redwood, or bamboo to build your tomato cage is another option. Provided the corners are driven deep enough into the ground, wooden cages are very sturdy and won’t bend as wire cages will. These are more attractive and less utilitarian-looking than metal cages and can be built to whatever dimensions your tomato plant requires. Use four stakes for the corners and attach cross pieces at every foot or so. Don’t, however, use pressure treated wood in a vegetable garden, as some sources suggest the chemicals can leach into garden soil and thus into your vegetables.
Staking is the least expensive way to support your tomato plants, although not necessarily the easiest. Tomatoes that are staked will require some pruning so that the plants don’t become too heavy for the support. Drive the stake into the ground six inches away from your newly planted tomato plant and begin pinching off any side shoots, training the plant to a single stem and tying it to the stake with twine or garden tape as it grows. While pruning tomatoes is more work, it also leads to an earlier harvest and bigger fruit. Instead of using a wooden or bamboo stake, you could also use one of the metal spiral tomato supports available at garden centers. The method is the same as for staking. Both stakes and spirals are easy to store.
Ladders are somewhere in between stakes and cages. As their name suggests, they look like ladders where the rungs are slightly bent out at the center. Using ladders will require you to tie up your tomato plant, but it doesn’t require pruning; any side shoots can be tied up just as the main stem is. Ladders are also easy to store.
If you are planting several tomato plants, you may want to try the Florida weave method. Drive two large metal stakes into the ground at either end of your tomato row, and then drive smaller metal stakes halfway in between each of your tomato plants. Run string from one large metal stake to the other, looping or tying it around each of the smaller posts. Do this at varying heights and weave your tomato plants in and out of the string as it grows. This eliminates the need for any tying or pruning, and the structure is easily dismantled and stored at the end of the season.