Tomato Trellising Methods
By Caitlin Harwell
There are dozens of ways that have developed over the years to trellis a tomato plant, from staking to compost trellising and even growing them upside down. It comes down to the right fit for each garden and its gardener. Trellising methods are dependent on several things:
- type of tomatoes (determinate vs. indeterminate)
- size of the garden
- time a gardener is interested in dedicating to maintenance
Let's start with the first thing on the list. Probably the most important factor regarding how a tomato plant should be trellised is whether it is a determinate or indeterminate variety. How do you determine what your tomatoes are? Check the seed packet or the tag. The information is usually easy to find. If it is not provided, trying searching the variety name on the Internet. You will be surprised at how much information there is for each and every type of tomato.
Now that you have the info, what is the difference between an indeterminate and determinate tomato?
Determinate, or bush, tomatoes are varieties that grow to a certain height and typically produce all of their fruit at once.
- Pros: They are much lower maintenance than indeterminate tomatoes and are perfect for smaller gardens, containers and raised beds.
- Cons: After producing fruit once, their time is up for the season.
Indeterminate, or vining, tomatoes are varieties that continue to grow and produce fruit throughout the growing season, until there are killed by frost.
- Pros: They will produce all season. They can have ripened fruits and new buds all at the same time. Perfect for fresh slicing tomatoes all summer long.
- Cons: They take up significantly more space than determinate tomatoes, sometimes growing 6-10 feet high, and they require a great deal more maintenance and pruning.
So what are some popular methods of trellising and which is right for your garden?
Cage trellising is probably the most common method. A "cage" is a small structure made of medium size metal wire. They are easily made and just as easily purchased from a local garden center. The cage is placed over a young tomato plant and secured by pressing the legs, or the ends of the wire that protrude down below the cage, into the soil around the plant. As the plant grows, the cage acts as a support for the main stem and branches.
- Pros: Cages are very common and therefore easy to find at all garden centers and are also fairly easy to build. The level of maintenance is much lower than other trellising methods. The cost is relatively low and they can be used year after year.
- Cons: Cages only allow for so much plant growth. If a tomato plant outgrows it's cage it can become entangled or end up falling over on the ground, allowing the fruits to rot.
*Best for determinate tomatoes.
String trellising is a little less well known but used often by commercial growers. A support system must be built with stakes, bamboo or posts placed between every 3-4 plants. A long support is then placed perpendicular above the tomatoes and secured onto the stakes. Holes are drilled through the top support (one for each plant) and "strings" (usually of garden twine) are threaded through the holes and secured by tying. The strings are then tied to the base of each plant loosely so as not to cut off the stem. As the tomato grows, the gardener must wrap the string in a spiral along the stem and secure with tomato clips or a similar fastening device that will allow the stem room to grow.
- Pros: The string method works well for a long row of tomatoes and allows the tomato to grow to the height of the top support. If you prefer an organized and aesthetically pleasing set up, string trellising provides this.
- Cons: String trellising is more time consuming than other methods and requires effort from the gardener in pruning, as well as maintenance of the strings and structure. The initial cost of building the trellising structure is also more of an investment, as is the time it takes to build it.
*Best for indeterminate tomatoes.
Basket weave trellising is similar to string trellising in the fact that you need posts or stake supports set between ever few plants. However, the maintenance and cost is much less. Strings (usually of garden twine) are tied to the first post in the series and then wound from front to back through the tomato plants. The first string begins only inches from the soil, and as the plants grows, more strings are added higher and higher. This method also requires close attention to pruning.
- Pros: Basket weave trellising while it does require some effort in string lying throughout the season is much somewhat labor intensive than string trellising but provides similar support for the plants. It is also easy to set up in a larger garden where tomatoes are planted in long rows.
- Cons: Strings can become loose later in the season due to rain, wind and simply the weight of the plants. Making sure the strings are tight and secure can be more difficult when weaving, rather than tying off.
*Works well with both determinate and indeterminate varieties.
Cait Harwell has been gardening and farming for a good portion of her life and has developed skills in small industry vegetable production and farm maintenance. She lives in the Northeast where she has a small garden homestead and cultivates everything from squash and tomatoes to exotic plants. She recently received her Masters in Writing from FDU and hopes to pursue her life-long dream of owning her own farm.