Growing tomatoes

Taut twine, stretched from soil to ceiling, makes a perfect scaffold for tomato plants.

My vegetable garden is small but sufficient, cranking out a lot of produce from just a few beds.

Creating and providing structures for support is necessary for several crops, like beans, cucumbers and tomatoes.

Earlier this season, my husband and I brainstormed the ways we could better support our tomato plants. We only planted eight tomato plants this season, so we could afford to buy better supports for such a small number of plants. We opted for a fleet of heavy gauge galvanized tomato cages we found at the hardware store, which are sturdier than ones we’ve used in the past.

It’s important that gardeners know the options for tomato supports, and choose wisely depending on their types of tomatoes. Tomato plants are either determinate or indeterminate — meaning that they can grow either to a determinate size or an indeterminate size.

Determinate tomatoes are also known as bush type and are typically hybrid varieties. Determinates require less support, because they usually only grow 3 to 4 feet tall. Indeterminates are typically heirloom varieties and require significantly more support, as they can grow over 7 feet tall over the course of a season. There is much more to be said about these two distinctions in tomatoes — in terms of pruning, fruit production and harvesting — but let’s just stick to the subject of structural supports.

All kinds of options

There are numerous ways in which tomato plants can be supported in the garden. Perhaps the most common method is using a wire or steel cage. These are readily available at the hardware store or garden center, and come in a variety of sizes and strengths. The new ones I acquired this season are heavy duty 54 inch cages, which will last for years. Homemade cages are common, as well, and can be made out of welded wire secured with tie wire. Powder-coated steel cages are also popular, as they tend to last longer than a regular steel cage.

Tomato cages are the perfect support for determinate tomatoes, as you can be assured that they won’t outgrow the structure. Cages are also perfect for containerized or patio tomatoes, as you can pick and choose the size you need for your pot.

Supporting indeterminate varieties is a whole other beast. Because indeterminates grow so tall and wide, they can be harder to keep upright. Cages are acceptable for indeterminate varieties, if you build large cages. Tomato stakes are a good option for these heirloom varieties, since you’re able to tie the plant to the stake as they grow. Garden twine works well, as do strips of old fabric. I have a friend who saves old t-shirts just for this purpose.

The best tomato stakes are 2 x 2 wooden stakes, around 6 feet tall. Small stakes are prone to blowing over in storms or not being tall enough for the plant. I’ve made this mistake before and lost several large plants when the wind annihilated my wimpy stakes.

The Florida weave staking method is also a great option for indeterminate varieties. Many small and large scale farmers use this method, since it provides great support for a lot of plants. The premise is simple, and includes metal t-posts (or any stakes of your choosing) and twine. The t-posts are spaced along rows of tomatoes, usually between every second or third plant. Twine is run horizontally between the posts, essentially sandwiching the tomato plants. The plants can also be woven upward between runs of twine.

Other options

So metal cages, stakes and the Florida weave are the three most common forms of staking tomatoes. But there are lots of other options, whether purchased pre-fab or made from re-purposed materials. Collapsible tomato towers are a new thing, and work just like a metal cage, only they’re square instead of round. They are typically powder-coated and collapse flat for easy storage.

DIY tomato supports include structures made from PVC pipe, lashed bamboo towers and a mash-up of different supports. Inspired by a tomato-grower I met last summer, I am using my new hefty cages in conjunction with wooden stakes. I’m getting added support using the two together.

As with most things in the gardening realm, it’s best to have a plan put together before you execute. Know what you’ve planted, how it will grow and what you need to increase your yields. It’s amazing how encouraged vegetable plants can be when they’re given proper supports. It also makes harvesting easier and faster.

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If you have a gardening question or story idea, write to Amy Dixon in care of Features, Winston-Salem Journal, 418 N. Marshall St., Winston-Salem, NC 27101or send an email to her attention to gardening@wsjournal.com. Put gardening in the subject line. Find Amy Dixon on Facebook at www.facebook.com/WSJAmyDixon.

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