Supporting heirloom tomatoes

Supporting heirloom tomatoes

I really enjoy growing tomatoes, especially somewhat unusual heirloom varieties. By nature, these tend to be very tall plants, growing 8 to 10’ tall in a season, so figuring out how to support them has been part of my learning on how to grow tomatoes well.

One of the first things I figured out was that those metal contraptions called “tomato cages” don’t work for me—they’re too small and are really best suited to determinate tomatoes (the type that set all their fruit at once, ripen all at once and then are finished for the season). Most heirloom tomatoes are indeterminate, meaning that they start fruiting and then continue fruiting, ripening and growing taller right up until being killed off by frost.

What I’ve done to support my plants is adapt a system of stakes and strings. For this system to work I keep each tomato plant pruned to one, or at the most two, main stems (I share my tips for pruning tomatoes in this post).

 

Just after I plant the tomato seedlings in the garden and mulch them, I put a curly metal stake beside each one (you could use a straight stake. I just find these curly ones work really well–and when I found that the dollar store was carrying them I stocked up!)

 

As the plant grows I twist it around and up the stake.

When the plant gets to the top of the stake I run strings down from overhead supports that I built from metal t-bars topped by 2” x 2”s (I’ve nicknamed the structure Tomatohenge). I then tie the ends of the strings to the twisty stakes, about halfway down each, and start twisting the plants up the strings as they grow, in the same way I twisted them up the stakes.

This picture shows the overall structure of Tomatohenge.  Many of the plants did reach the top last summer, and fruited there. I did eventually have to climb a ladder to twist them up the strings and then harvest the top tomatoes.

 

Strings descend from the overhead supports, are tied to the stakes (straight green stakes in this picture) and then the tomato plants are twisted up and around the strings.

 

 

Reaching for the sky, with help from a string.

 

I’ve tried other methods over the years and this has been the most successful one for me. When I tried just using overhead strings to support the plants, without any stakes, I found that as the plants started to bear heavy fruit (some heirloom tomatoes weigh more than a pound each) the strings either broke under the weight or the plants slid down the strings to the ground. Having the stakes support the main weight of the plant solved this problem.

When I first started growing heirloom tomatoes and realized how tall they were going to get I pushed very tall stakes (one and a half 2x1x8’s screwed together, end to end) into the ground and then tied the plants to them as they climbed to their 10 foot or more height.

The single tall stake method I used several years ago. It did work but it was awkward. I also ran into trouble with racoons climbing the stakes (for the thrill of it, it seemed) and breaking the plants.

 

This worked if I could get the stakes into the ground deep enough. To do so, I’d have to climb a ladder and then whack them into the ground with a small sledge hammer. The stakes were so tall that the tops of them were above my head so this was a little bit dangerous and very awkward. I’m sure the neighbours were watching out the windows and placing bets on whether I’d knock myself in the head with the sledge hammer or fall off the ladder.

Even with this method I still found that the plants sometimes slid down the stakes once they started to have a lot of fruit. One solution I figured out was to put a long screw in the stakes about 4’ up (leaving about 1″ sticking out) and then repeating the process every 2’ up after that, and then I’d tie off the plants just above the screws. This provided an anchor and stopped the sliding. If I was only growing a couple plants this would be a workable system, but I just found it too cumbersome for my annual crop of 15+ tomato plants.

So that’s my system for supporting tomatoes. I realize that Tomatohenge is a bit extreme for the needs of most gardeners, but my hope is that I might have inspired you to think creatively about what you could use to support your own tall tomato plants. Just because the garden centres sell something called a tomato cage it doesn’t mean it’s your only, or best, option.

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