A couple years ago I planted a Sungold cherry tomato that grew into a jungle: ten feet wide, taller than me, I wanted a machete to hack into the middle to grasp those golden fruits. I supported the plant in no manner.
That’s an option for tomato growers, no support. But most of us give some kind of props. When I lived in Lesotho, I was charmed to find that many people used branches pruned off their peach trees to stick into the ground and let their tomatoes crawl over. This kept most of the fruit off the dirt and made picking involve less bending.
Those are two of the main goals of supporting the sprawling vines of the tomato plant: unblemished fruit and easy harvesting. My giant old Sungold plant gave me neither gift — because I hadn’t given it the gift of something to lean on.
These days, I set five-foot tall cages around all of my cherry tomato plants, two-and-a-half-foot tall cages around many of my other tomato plants, and occasionally stake or refrain from supporting a tomato plant at all.
Those are what I see as the four common methods. Each has a place, and each has advantages and disadvantages.
Other methods of training and supporting tomato plants that I doubt I’ll ever bother with again include tying to a chain link fence (too much effort), cages built with stakes and string (too much effort and a pain to take down), those little inverted wire pyramid tunnels that are sold as tomato cages (a pain to stick in the ground, can only handle small tomato varieties that would do fine without any support), and twisting up a string that hangs from an eave of the roof (see photo below: looks cool but takes a lot of twisting and pruning work).
One of the four common methods (no support, staked, short cage, tall cage) is usually best for a given situation. It depends on a number of factors, the principle ones being the growth habit of the tomato variety, the money you want to invest in materials, the time you have to tend to the plants, the space you have for storing cages or stakes, whether you’re going for maximum yield, and how much land you’re devoting to the plant.
Below are photos of different varieties of tomatoes in my yard today, May 26, being supported in the four different ways. I note why I chose each method according to the context.
‘Early Girl’ variety: No support
This plant is growing in a somewhat remote corner where I am unlikely to tend it well but it can sprawl as widely as its heart desires. I also didn’t stake or cage it because I don’t want the plant reaching tall since I want the avocado tree next to it to get maximum sun.
‘Champion’ seedling: Staked
This plant is growing in a location where I can’t let it get wide or it will block a walking path, so I’ll be tying it up this six-foot tall stake and pruning the lateral branches a bit. Tying and pruning will take some time, but it’s only a single plant. It’s a volunteer from a Champion plant that grew here last year. Champion is a hybrid, so I’m unsure of how good the fruit on this plant will be; therefore, I’m not concerned about getting the most fruit possible. (Those tomatoes in the photo at the top are the Champions from last year.)
‘San Diego’ variety: Short cage
This variety of tomato has reached about four feet tall in my yard in past years, so the short cage should be sufficient. Vines will eventually reach the top and cascade down a bit.
‘Sweet 100’ variety: Tall cage
Cherry tomatoes have the smallest fruit but the largest canopy of foliage. By the end of June, this plant will already be spilling over the cage’s rim. If I had a ten-foot tall cage it probably wouldn’t be tall enough, but then I’d need a ladder to pick the tomatoes. Other tomato varieties, like ‘San Marzano’, grow large canopies as well. See a photo of a ‘San Marzano’ plant in one of these five-foot tall cages a few Julys back in my post titled “San Diego tomatoes, and supporting tomatoes.”
I’ll post an update in July showing all of the tomato plants pictured above so we can see how each one has cooperated with its method of training and support.
A note on my cages: I made them from concrete reinforcement wire (steel remesh) that I bought at Lowes. I got the idea from Don Shor of the Davis Garden Show (here’s a post I wrote about the excellent Davis Garden Show.) Similar cages can be bought, including square or triangular shapes that fold for easy storage, but they’re more expensive than homemade. As regards cost, do remember that these cages are versatile and can be used to support pole beans, cucumbers, peas, etc. I’ve found them a worthwhile investment.
Here’s a sketch of a chart ranking each of the four methods according to their advantage in the categories you might care about (click to enlarge); this might help you make a decision about how to support your tomato plants, or it can give you thoughts for next year: if you planted in March and haven’t supported them yet, your plants are probably already jungles. In that case, happy hunting for the fruit!
Please let me know if you have had different experiences with the methods of training and supporting tomato plants that I mentioned above, or if you have a totally different favorite method; maybe there’s something I haven’t tried that will be the ultimate. Also let me know if you’d like more information about any of the methods I mentioned.