2015 Tomato Crop at Scholl Orchards, Kempton PA
Why should we stake tomatoes?
Tomato plants supported off the ground will produce higher quality tomatoes. This is true for a couple of reasons: getting plants and fruit off the ground reduces the incidence of rot, air can better infiltrate the canopy, and decreased leaf wetness prevents the spread of disease. Also, when properly pruned, staked or trellised tomatoes come into production about a week earlier than the same tomatoes grown on the ground.
Keep in mind that the decision to support tomatoes will affect other plans- staking or trellising systems will influence plant spacing and field layout. These systems also require an investment in materials and labor, so the benefits of these costs should be evaluated.
Tomato Biology 101
Tomatoes grow in one of two ways: determinate and indeterminate. Determinate tomato plants will grow to a specific height and produce all of their fruiting flowers at one time. This type can be grown supported or unsupported. The stems stop growing after producing 1 to 3 flower clusters, so side shoots are usually left on the plant for continued production. Indeterminate tomato plants continue to grow and produce fruiting flowers throughout the entire season. Because of this constant growth, this type needs to be staked and tied. Side shoots are often pruned to concentrate fruit production on one or two main stems.
Method 1: Cages
Perhaps the most familiar support system for tomatoes is cages- prefabricated options are easy to find at local home improvement stores. This system requires less labor than other support systems, but still protects plants from contact with the soil. Do-it-yourself cages can be made from sections of 6-inch wire mesh by folding a 5-foot length of the mesh into a cylindrical cage with an 18-inch diameter. Support the cage with a stake, or cut out the bottom wires so that the cage can be pressed into the ground. For indeterminate varieties, cages should be at least 5 feet high; determinate varieties can be grown with shorter cages. Branches should be lifted or turned to be supported by the wire. Tomatoes can be harvested easily through the openings of the mes
Method 2: Florida Basket Weave
Many growers use a production system known as the Florida Basket Weave for both determinate and indeterminate varieties. For more details, read this Penn State article. Stakes are driven into the rows and the tomato plants are sandwiched between two walls of twine to keep them upright and prevent them from flopping out in between rows. Since indeterminate varieties will grow taller, they will benefit from using a more substantial post and wire support system.
Method 3: String Trellis
Trellis systems are used to train indeterminate varieties. This system starts with support posts (3-6 inch) that stand 5-6 feet above the soil and are spaced about 15 feet apart. Heavy gauge wire is then strung horizontally across the top of the support posts. Vertical lengths of twine are attached to this top wire and secured either to the base of each tomato plant or to a bottom wire. The plants are pruned to one or two main stems, and each stem is twisted around the length of twine as the plant grows. Pruning (removing the side shoots) should be done weekly since they are most easily removed when they are a few inches long. Several leaves above the uppermost fruit cluster should be left to provide shade to avoid sunburn.
Method 4: Sprawl Culture, Ground Culture, Down System
The last method to discuss is simply to grow tomatoes on the ground unsupported. This system is more suitable for determinate tomatoes since their limited stem growth and bushy stature require less support. For obvious reasons, this system is much lower cost than the others are. However, there will be lower yields, lower fruit quality, and higher incidence of disease, and the fruit can be more difficult to harvest efficiently. Weed pressure can also be high if plants are grown on bare soil. Using mulch (either plastic or organic) will greatly reduce weeds as well as disease problems by minimizing soil contact with leaves and fruit.
There are several excellent videos on tomato support systems, check out a couple of them below.
New England Vegetable Management guide: Outdoor Tomatoes
Training Systems and Pruning in Organic Tomato Production