How to Trellis Your Tomatoes in 7 Easy Steps
Trying to trellis your tomatoes this season, but aren't quite sure where to start? Trellising tomatoes is good for many reasons, including the fact it can help free up room in your garden. In this article, gardening expert and tomato enthusiast Merideth Corhs takes you through seven simple steps for perfectly trellised tomatoes this season.
“There ain’t nothing better in life than true love and a homegrown tomato.” I’m sure who originally said this since it’s one of those sayings that seems to have been around forever. But it certainly does ring true! I think my summers would seem really sad and empty if I didn’t have fresh tomatoes to look forward to.
I think we can all agree that growing tomatoes is awesome. We think that everyone should do it and laugh when naysayers say that tomatoes at the grocery store are cheaper. Who wants a cheap tomato when you can have one with flavor?!
But in order to grow a plant that will produce tomatoes with a lot of flavor, we have to set ourselves up for success. This means making some decisions on how to best support our tomato plants. A lot will depend on the type and variety you choose to plant this year since some plants need more support than others. Read on to discover our top 7 steps for trellising your tomatoes this year.
The Importance of Growing Vertically
You may not know this, but tomato plants will grow happily along the ground if you let them. Unfortunately, this can invite fungal tomato diseases, give pests and rodents easy access to fruit, and can inhibit yield. Because of all this, gardners have long trained their tomato plants to grow vertically.
Supporting your tomatoes properly can be an interesting process. Much will depend on the type of tomato you choose to plant. Determinate – or bushing varieties require much less support than sprawling indeterminate types. But in the end, all tomatoes that grow vertically need some help in getting there.
Regardless of the type of support system you use, plan to install it at the time you put your tomatoes in the ground. This will ensure delicate root structures aren’t damaged later on, and you can ensure the base of the plant has adequate support.
How to Trellis Tomatoes
From choosing the best tomatoes for your family to figuring out the best type of support for that plant, there are a few steps to consider when it comes to trellising. Let’s take a look at the most important steps to ensure your tomatoes are properly supported this year.
Step 1: Choose a Variety You Love
Choosing the right variety is all about identifying how you like to eat them. You can grow beefsteak varieties for slicing (perhaps with fresh mozzarella and basil!) and sandwiches, saucing varieties like Romas and San Marzanos, or sweet cherry tomatoes that you pop right off the vine and into your mouth!
If you are picking up seedlings from the nursery or your local garden center, you’re kind of at the mercy of what they happen to be selling. The good news is that since they are so popular, there are generally a good amount of options available.
If you’re not super familiar with what kind of tomato you want, don’t hesitate to ask one of the garden associates. They can give you a few recommendations based on your preference.
If you’re interested in starting your tomatoes from seed this season, the sky is really the limit as to what’s available to you. Online seed catalogs completely opened up the world of seed starting.
They contain a huge selection of varieties including cherry, grape, plum, cocktail, beefsteak, paste, and heirlooms. You can find indeterminate or determinate varieties of each of those, and choose from fruits that range in color from red, green, yellow, orange, purple, and striped!
Step 2: Decide on Determinate or Indeterminate Plants
Quite a few vegetables have both bushing and vining varieties. Tomatoes are no different. But in the case of tomatoes, they are referred to instead as determinate and indeterminate.
So what does this mean and why do you need to choose between the two?
Determinate tomatoes are considered a bushing plant. They grow to a predetermined height and set fruit all at once. This can be a great option for paste tomatoes that you want to preserve or turn into pasta sauce. Determinates still need support to grow vertically, but you can usually get away with a solid cage and stake.
Indeterminate tomatoes, on the other hand, will continue growing and setting periodic fruit until the end of the growing season. In fact, some indeterminate cherry varieties grow to really impressive heights of 10-14 feet!
Indeterminate plants tend to be quite sprawling and require additional trellising as the plant grows. The small cages most people pick up at garden centers aren’t really suitable for this type of vining plant. They do much better with a larger trellis system.
Step 3: Choose the Right Support System
Now that you know whether the tomato plants you chose are determinate or indeterminate, you can choose the proper way to trellis them.
Tomato cages come in many different shapes and sizes. A cage system will be best suited for a determinate variety, but they can work for certain indeterminate varieties if they’re tall enough.
This is by far the most common type of cage and the one most are familiar with. You’ll see these brightly colored cages stacked at garden centers starting in the spring. u003cspan style=u0022font-size: 1.125rem;u0022u003eThe problem is that these cages are often cheaply made and quite flimsy. And because of the shape, the base of your plant doesn’t really get the support it needs.u003c/spanu003e
This option is the virtual opposite of a cone cage. Many people DIY tripod cages by creating a teepee shape with a few bamboo canes. You can tie wire (electric fencing wire is a popular option since it is so sturdy, but any wire will work here) around it at intervals creating the cage sections. This gives the base of your plant excellent support while still giving the growing tops something to tie onto.
Heavy Duty Cages
These come in square and round options and provide excellent support for the entire plant. They tend to be more expensive than the other options, but they can be reused for many many years. These heavy duty systems are the gold standard for tomato cages.
Your indeterminate tomatoes will need more support than their determinate cousins. Remember that Some cherry varieties can grow to between 14-16 feet in ideal conditions!
Trellis options like square mesh netting and the Florida Weave are ideal if you plan to grow quite a few plants. If you’re planting 10 or less, opt for a tall, sturdy cage, fencing support, or single plant trellis options.
Let’s take a look at a few trellis options when it comes to more traditional supports.
Square Mesh Netting
This setup requires support poles set every 12 feet and is perfect if you have a long row of tomatoes to support. Tie netting to the pole vertically and stretch across to the end of the line. Place the bottom end of the netting about a foot above the ground and finish at the top of the poles. The height of your poles will depend on the mature height.
The Florida Weave is a popular choice for trellising a lot of plants. Start by securing a sturdy metal or wooden post at either end of your garden rows. Add wooden support posts every 4-5 feet in between. Tie garden twine to the end post and then weave it in between your plants to the other end. Then, come back over the same line weaving in the opposite direction, forming a pocket that will keep the vines straight.
Fencing is a great way to trellis plants and make use of something you already have installed in your yard. You can build raised beds near fences or simply place containers along the fence line.
Purchased or DIY Trellis
For a smaller number of tomatoes, you may want to look at options that don’t require large rows to be successful. You can find many different types of trellis options at your local garden center or you can choose to build your own. If you’re purchasing a trellis, make sure the interior isn’t too thick or it may make tying your vines difficult. For DIY options, the sky is really the limit. I have seen DIY trellis using chicken wire, fishing net, bamboo, and even reclaimed bicycle wheels!
Step 4: Pick a Correctly Sized Support
If you choose a cage or trellis system that isn’t tall enough, your plant will spill over the top. This can cause vines to snap under their own weight or break due to wind damage. It’s important to know your plant’s growth habits prior to choosing your trellis.
Also, remember that you will sink a solid 8 inches of your support system into the ground for stability. For cage systems especially, this can significantly shrink the support remaining for the tomato.
For larger trellis systems, you’ll need to consider length as well as height. If you’re only planting a few tomatoes this year, you’ll need much less trellis than if you chose to plant long rows.
Step 5: Install Your Trellis at Planting
Unless you are using a trellis system like the Florida Weave, you’ll want to install your cages, stakes, or trellises at the time of planting. This will minimize any damage to your tomato’s root systems and ensure that the plant’s growth isn’t negatively impacted later on.
Anchoring your trellis or cage into the ground is an important step. Remember that this is the only support the trellis has to protect against wind and the weight of your growing plants. Tapping your trellis a few inches into the ground and hoping for the best really won’t cut it.
Aim to push your trellis or cage about 8 inches into the soil. If you’re planting in containers or raised beds, the supports should hit the bottom.
Step 6: Tie Vines Loosely
Unlike a lot of vining plants like cucumbers and peas, tomatoes do not send out tendrils. Instead, you will have to tie vines to your supports manually.
A lot of beginner gardeners tie vines and branches too tightly. Its an easy mistake to make – we want our tomato babies to be well supported! But its important to remember that those stems and branches will continue to grow and thicken as the plant matures.
If they are tied too tightly, you can actually wind up suffocating the plant and prevent it from transferring nutrients correctly. Just like kids, tomatoes need room to grow!
A general guideline is to attach your tomato vine to its support with a loose tie every 6-8” as the plant grows. You’ll need to be flexible here though, and pay attention to branches that also need support.
Always place your tie above flowering stems so it doesn’t cut into the stem after its weighted down with fruit.
While it may seem like a small detail, the material you choose to tie your tomatoes with can have a big impact on how they grow. If your ties are too stiff and unwieldy, you can inadvertently cut into the stem and damage the plant.
On the other hand, if they’re too thin or loose, a strong gust of wind can simply snap them. Let’s look at some of the most common materials and if you should use them.
|Fabric||Yes||Cost effective and allows plant room to move.|
|Garden Twine||Yes||One roll can last multiple seasons. Customizable.|
|Garden Tape||Yes||Perfect single use option and can be compostable.|
|Uncoated Wire||No||Can cut into stems and branches, and may also rust.|
|Nylon or Zip Ties||No||Made of plastic and not eco-friendly.|
|Fishing Line||No||Can cut tomato plants, causing disease.|
Step 7: Know When and How to Prune
Even though you’re containing your plant inside a cage or tying it to a larger trellis system, you can’t forget to prune it effectively. If you skip this step because your plant is a bit harder to access, you’ll wind up with a disappointing yield this season.
Like watering, pruning is a goldilocks area when it comes to tomatoes. Pruning stresses out your plant, but it’s essential for keeping it healthy and growing efficiently (although there are some gardeners who firmly believe pruning of any kind does more harm than good).
No matter which side of the pruning debate you fall on, everyone agrees that excessive pruning is a bad idea. It can cause a number of problems including yellowing or curling leaves, stunted growth, and a decrease in fruit production.
As we know, determinate tomatoes grow to a determined size and produce a determined amount of fruit. Pruning these types can have a negative impact on fruit production.
Before the plant sets its first flower, you can prune off the bottom-most branches that may be touching the soil. Leaf contact with the soil – either directly or through water splashing back on the underside of leaves – can cause a number of fungal diseases and other problems.
This will improve air circulation underneath the plant. But no matter what, do not prune determinate tomatoes AT ALL once the first flower appears.
Indeterminate tomatoes benefit greatly from gentle pruning throughout its growth cycle. You’ve probably heard of pinching off suckers… This is simply the removal of new growth between the primary and lateral stems of your tomato.
This forces your tomato plant to put its energy into the main growth lines rather than creating a lot of branches that won’t ever produce fruit. Limiting each plant to 2-5 primary stems will help it maximize fruit production.
Indeterminate varieties will also benefit from the removal of the lower branches to improve air circulation and prevent soil splash back.
Growing tomatoes is a joy and one of my favorite parts of summer gardening. Now that you know how to best support your plant as it grows, you can look forward to an abundant yield this season.
Remember that trellising your tomatoes is just one aspect of caring for this incredible plant. Make sure to also take time to learn how to water correctly, manage pests, and prevent disease. Happy planting!