Without doubt, tomatoes are home gardeners favorite vegetable to grow. After preparing your soil, selecting the best variety and planting, comes providing support.
There are many ways to grow tomatoes, but in a small garden, upright supports are often used to save space. This method provides other benefits as well as saving space. When
tomatoes are grown off the ground, they will not be damaged by ground rots and will be out of reach of some insects. They will be easier to harvest and easier to treat for insect or diseases and will produce fruits that are cleaner and larger.
For those who want to avoid as much pruning and tying as possible, the tomato cage is the best method of plant support. A tomato cage is a cylinder or wire mesh that holds the stems upright as they grow. Generally, concrete reinforcing wire with a 6-inch mesh is excellent because it gives good support and the squares are large enough to reach through to pick tomatoes. Reinforcing wire will rust, but you will get at least 10 growing seasons from each cage. Galvanized fence wire can also be used. Some nurseries and garden centers have ready-made cylinders available for use, but these are often
inferior to those you can make.
Healthy tomato plants should fill a cylinder about 4 or 5 feet high and 2½ feet in diameter. To make a cage about 2½ feet in diameter, cut the wire of the selected height in sections about 7½ feet long. When this is rolled into a cylinder and fastened together, it provides the 2½ foot diameter. The wire cage should be anchored to the soil in some way. A stake to which it is fastened will often do the job. You can cut the bottom of the cylinder leaving 6 inch spikes, which can then be inserted in the ground, helping to anchor the plant.
Tomato plants may be either determinate, semideterminate or indeterminate. The determinate and semideterminate varieties develop short bushy plants that stay
fairly low. For these types, lower cages may be used, because the cage serves
mainly to support the plant only enough to keep the fruits off the ground. Indeterminate varieties are those that continue to grow upright all summer and, therefore, require taller cages.
Little pruning is required for tomatoes grown in cages. Shoots that hang outside the
cage may either be pushed back inside or cut off. When growth becomes extremely
dense in the cage, some thinning to increase light penetration and air circulation will
reduce chances of disease build-up.
Tomatoes grown on stakes require more pruning and some extra time for tying. Wooden stakes may be used and should be at least 6 feet in length. Strength is important since a heavy load of fruit near the top of a stake may cause the stake to break during a summer storm. Two-by-two lumber, commercial metal stakes, metal fence posts, or sections of concrete reinforcing rods can all be used. Place each stake about 4 inches from the plant and drive the stake into the soil at least 10 inches or until firm.
At this time of year, plants should be growing vigorously, with pruning and tying often
required weekly. After fruits have set and are developing, the growth rate slows and less
frequent tying is necessary. Use soft cords, strips of cloth or other materials that will not
cut into the stem.
For gardeners with plenty of space, tomatoes may be allowed to sprawl without support.
To avoid the development of fruit rots, a thick straw mulch can be beneficial. Mulch
will also increase production of staked or caged tomatoes by keeping down weeds and
maintaining a more uniform soil moisture.
Submitted by David Koester, Agent for Horticulture, Boone Co. Cooperative Extension