From the Department of, “do as I say and not as I do”, I missed a great opportunity this year to try out my idea for the perfect tomato trellising system. Since it doesn’t actually exist yet, I’m not ready to share my plans with you until I have a chance to test it first. But it looks like that won’t happen until next year.
In the mean time, here’s what I can tell you. The weight of a loaded bunch of full-size tomatoes is a lot. With countless methods and systems devised and improvised over the years, the common denominator to a good support system is that it has to be sturdy enough to hold the weight and contain the height of the plant. This reminds me why I dislike the flimsy wire inverted cone things so much.
One of the systems I used this year in a trial bed of indeterminate tomato plants (the ones that keep on producing and growing all season) was what’s known as the Florida Weave. Tall sturdy stakes or fence posts at the end of the bed anchor rows of twine running horizontally along the plants at various levels. The idea is to weave the line between plants growing in a single row as a way to support and contain the sprawling branches. It’s used in commercial growing operations a lot.
When done properly it works well and is very cost effective. However, in our case, we experimented in one bed with using natural jute twine. Our hope was to get a full season out of it before it rotted.
I’m sure you can buy thicker twine but we picked ours up at the big box store in the economy size. The thickness (or lack of it in this case) combined with the natural degradable fiber and we set ourselves up for subsequent trouble.
No sooner had the tomatoes formed on the vine and developed decent size and weight when the load became too much for the string we used to provide the support. The twine first stretched and over a few days, ultimately broke. That led to branches bending and snapping under the weight, often pulling other branches down with them. Without the necessary lateral support, full plants buckled under the burden.
At the first opportunity, we restrung the weave with nylon bailing line. It’s virtually indestructible. I wasn’t able to find this at Lowe’s or Home Depot but did find it in jumbo rolls, sold in a box of two for about $30 at Tractor Supply. I repositioned the wayward branches and pruned away damaged limbs. With the help of my intern Kristin, we re-weaved all the plants–not an easy job after the fact. Fortunately, tomato plants are very resilient. Indeterminate varieties continue to put out new growth. In a couple weeks I suspect these plants will be good as new.
In the mean time, I took the opportunity to help my plants along by reducing some of the load. Removing a few of the large almost fully red tomatoes was in order and I wasted no time moving into action.
Here’s hoping your tomatoes get all the support they need. May you have a great growing season and an abundant harvest. And when you do, please remember to share the bounty with your neighbors in need. AmpleHarvest.org makes it easy to find a food pantry near you that will gladly take your fresh produce donations.
Margaret Moon says
I am 75 and a widow. My whole lot is only 48x148ft,minus the house. I have to make use of every speck of dirt I have. I am in a semi-flood plain so I get the silt and weeds without damage to my house.
I start all my own plants so I know what i will get untill the VOLUNTEERS start comming up.Tomatoes that is. I can’t seem to throw them in the compost so I plant more.I stoped counting at 44. I also have cucumbers beans squash corn romaine lettuse cabbage beets and very little grass to mow. HOT DOG I use netting for most of my garden even in the front yeard. I love to share with my neighbors. I have enjoyed reading all your info. Thanks Again
Joe Lamp'l says
Hi Margaret. How lucky your neighbors are to have you living close by! Love your energy and spirit. Thanks for sharing your story here. Keep up the great work!
I have used nylon trellis netting hung from metal piping frameworks that are supported by rebar. They have held huge pumpkins and tons of tomatoes without any problems. I can usually get at least 1 year out of the netting before the sun damages it too much to be viable.
lesley pourciau says
When is it to late to start tomatoes in south Louisiana.
Joe Lamp'l says
Contact your county extension agent Lesley. They will know. Tomatoes will not survive when frost arrives so you need to work backwards. But I don’t know the specifics of your climate so a local expert or a reliable nursery person should be able to help you.
I would love to see pictures of the different ways other people have come up with to support their tomato plants.
Hey there my name is Marietjie I have a big area to plant vegetables I stay in Mozambique I want to prepare my planting area on week before plantin out my little plants that I have plant from seed in clear compost what I want to know is if I can mix cow manure mix with compost and how much must mix must I put in the soil is very dead here an my vegetables had suffered to grow last year I wil be thankful if you can give me any valuable written help sorry for my poor English because I’m Afrikaans hope you have understand my request.
Joe Lamp'l says
Hi Marietjie. The best thing you can do is add plenty of organic matter to your “dead” soil. By adding a mixture of compost and cow manure, you will provide nutrients and other important amendments your plants will need to grow. The existing soil is really an anchor for your plant roots. The nutrient rich organic matter you can add and mix in to the top 6 inches or so, will really help. And keep doing it. Continue to add more compost twice a year to the top of the soil or work it in to the top inch or so.
Also, try to make sure the cow manure you add is not fresh. It should compost down (or rot) a bit before using it directly in your soil. Otherwise, it could burn your tender plants. Good luck.
Mike Lee says
I knew there had to be something better than the typical, conical tomato cages. So I made some out of what some call concrete wire mesh, which is used for (somewhat) reinforcing concrete slabs.
It is 10 gauge (ga.) wires electro-welded into a 6″ sq. grid pattern. It is more accurately called 66×1010 WWF (or similar regional name) which means: a 6″ x 6″ grid of 10 ga. x 10 ga. Welded Wire Fabric. The key is the 66×1010 part. 10 ga. wire is beefy enough to support some weight and to last for several years. The 6″ grid is big enough to easily stick your hand through, and will allow most ‘maters to pass back out.
You can find it at Home Depot and the like, though your local store may only have it in flat sheets. Depending on how big you want the cages, those sheets may be big enough – my current cages were made from sheets. Those cages are about 19 inches in diameter and 5 feet high. The bottom has its closing, cross-wire cut off, and the remaining cut-wire ends get inserted/anchored into the soil about 6″, so the cages stand about 4.5 ft. high. These have proved big enough (more later) and as the tomatoes start to form up, I push/weave the canes back into the cages. I also cover the rows with bird mesh that I weigh-down out a bit from the base of the cages. I lift an edge of the bird mesh and reach into the cages to harvest.
To make the cages, you don’t really need anything else except some beefy wire cutters (or small bolt cutters) and pliers, though gloves are handy. Map out the cages you want to make, and cut your panels leaving an open cut along one edge (top-to-bottom when used in the garden) and along the (eventual) bottom. The other edge and top should still have a closing, cross-wire on them. Roll the sheet into a cylinder and bend each of one edge’s cut-wires around the other edge’s vertical (when upright) closing wire. The end of the cylinder with the cut-wires becomes the bottom.
If they need it, the bird mesh is usually enough to provide lateral support against the winds, though I have been known to provide additional lateral support by using some masonry twine (synthetic, very strong for its small diameter) to tie rows of cages together along the top and to string some guy-lines to stakes.
A bonus, season extending advantage – We are in the Central Valley of California. Hot tomato heaven. I lay the ‘maters out in rows, and in addition to using the cages to hold the bird mesh above the plants, the cages also support tarps that I have used to cover the ‘maters overnight when a clear, cold night sky threatens to end the ‘mater season before Thanksgiving.
Yesterday morning I watched a ‘Victory Garden’ (in its present incarnation) segment. Roger Swain was showing part of his garden. I noticed that he had tomato cages that looked similar to mine.
The WWF also comes in long rolls of fabric that are wider than the sheets I mention, above. I made my first cages from scraps of rolls and they were taller and may have had a slightly larger diameter (the diameter gets bigger based on how many 6″ grid sections go around the circumference). Turns out the extra height was useful, then. I had a patch of old dirt driveway I wanted to plant, but picks and shovels bounced off. After scratching/mulching in a cover crop, followed by building massive compost heaps on the area, the first row of tomatoes I grew there were about 8′ tall, and I definitely had to guy them against the wind. My smaller, current cages have worked great, year-to-year.
The most weathering these cages get is from the cut ends that anchor the cages into the soil. I place them top-down in the winter, and have had my current ones for at least 8 years. I have, rarely, seen galvanized WWF in this configuration. Use it if you want.
[I can send a picture of the cages in use (or make a diagram) for you, or reference on the website, if y’all choose to include any of this.]
Joe Lamp'l says
Many thanks Mike for this excellent summary of your cages. Of everything I’ve seen and used to day, something similar to what you are describing is the best I’ve every tried. Your detail in sourcing the write material and assembly will be of great help here.
For vertical stability, I’ve driven rebar or tall wooden stakes along the side or weaved it into the cages. In addition a long horizontal pipe over the top and secured at the ends with vertical pipes or stakes helps a lot! But your idea sounds good too, especially for the frost protection.
Thanks again for the time you took to provide this most helpful info!
p.s. I don’t think I have a way of posting pics in the reply thread. But fortunately you’ve described the process very clearly.
Cheryl Cunningham says
I have 8 foot 4×4’s upright and in line with my tomato rows. The 4×4’s are bolted to the raised bed. 2x4box near top. 8 foot 1×2 tomato stakes nailed to top box and stuck into soil. 1Have nails hear an there as secondary and tertiary branches I chose to keep grew. I hung juke twine from the nail , tied it to stake at branch and wrapped the line around the branch as it grew higher. So far so good..It’s August and my plants are over 8 feet high.
Joe Lamp'l says
Nice Cheryl. This is another example of gardeners taking it on themselves to solve their staking problem. As they say, necessity is the mother of invention. I love seeing these ideas of what works and so glad you are sharing your information with us here. Thank you.
We are having a similar problem with our tomato plants. A friend gave us some tomato seeds from WWll and I forgot about them until this year. I put them in peat pots under grow lights in my basement in March. I transplanted them outdoors in raised beds. They are over 4 feet tall now with large green tomatoes. I had no idea they would grow so big. I have tried everything to support these monstrous plants. I want to save the seeds for next year so I am trying everything I can to help them out now. Love all the suggestions! Thank you!
For years I’ve used the heavy-duty tomato cages with much success. However, I attach them to a steel fence post with zip ties. I’ve never had a cage topple over and this method supports my tomatoes well. It takes some effort to pound the fence posts in but my husband is more than willing to do that for me.
Joe Lamp'l says
Hi Karen. I agree it take more than the cage to provide the support. As you’ve done, steel fence post and zip ties are a huge help to making them more functional for reality of how big a tomato plant can get. The added step of providing twine or some sort of horizontal support I feel is also necessary when those branches want to wander and weight of the fruit higher up pulls them down.
Shannon D. says
I have found that if I tie the cages themselves together at the tops (I kind of make a web between them with strips of cotton torn from old sheets) the cages seem to support and balance each other out as the plants grow larger. Later on I run twine around the outside of the cages at ever higher levels to support the laden branches of the plants.
I just love it when you share your successes and failures. Of course, I don’t really see them as failures, just learning opportunities! And isn’t that what makes gardening fun and interesting? Thanks for sharing your story.
Joe Lamp'l says
Totally agree with you Rachel. I think the key to becoming a wise gardener is making the most of those times things didn’t quite go as planned! That’s why I’ve become such a fan of sharing my experiences publicly. I’ve learned a lot along the way through my years of personal experience but I’m always learning new things. If I can help make other gardeners smarter in the process, especially by doing them in an environmentally responsible way, then I’m happy to do that.
Thank you taking the time to share your comment here.
I’ve had good luck with a heavy jute twine. Nylon is a synthetic product made out of petroleum products which won’t decompose. Since you’ve purchased the nylon, perhaps you can sanitize it with a bleach solution and use it again next year. I see BLT’s in your future.
Diane Stecik says
I am using the old fashion wood stakes tied up with pantyhose. So far so good , with the tomato plants. I always have trouble pruning off the correct part of these plants. I can’t wait until you
come up with a good tomato item. Nylon cord sounds like a good solution. I do agree with you that the wire tomato cage is horrible.
Thanks for sharing and keep me posted.
Joe Lamp'l says
This bed is a real lesson in what not to do (which we’re ok with by the way…wanted to try a lot of different things). We threw a lot of things at this that many gardeners would see as common sense things, like inexpensive bamboo stakes. They come in packs of 10 or so for a couple bucks. Even though they seem tall enough, at around 5 feet, they’re not. And worse, they’re super flimsy or they break. We used these but no way do they work for indeterminate varieties.
Your idea Diane of wood stakes is better, especially if they are long enough. We’ve done some of that too. The pantyhose is smart. We used rolls of velcro tape you can find in the garden centers to do the same things. We love using that.
But I’m promising myself to get the systems made that I have in mind so that next year, all beds will be awesome!
Can you share more pics of it? Please.
Joe Lamp'l says
Yes Dave. Will do. I meant to do that when I posted this. Will try to get more up today.
I use 50lb fishing line for my tomatoes. 300 ft for less than $10. About once a week I twist the top of the plant around the line. The top of the line is tied to nails in the wood beam of my patio roof. The bottom of the lines are attached to a heavy metal street sign post.
You can see pictures here. There are two sets of lines. Tomatoes close to the roses and morning glory close to the patio.
Here they are in June 23 2013 :
And here they are on 8-2-13:
Joe Lamp'l says
Ah yes. I used a similar system several years back with filming Fresh from the Garden. We build a frame over the bed and dropped the lines down from it. What we didn’t do that would have helped was what you did. Provide a solid base to secure the line at the bottom. We used the base of the plant, which many people do. But it doesn’t work very well that way. Your system looks much better. And the price is right! Thanks for sharing the visuals Allan.
I’m not finds of the inverted cones myself undo find them handy in the beginning. As the plants get higher we use galvanized 3/4inch pipe from the local hardware store. We get 8 foot pieces. They can be used year after year. We place 4 or 5 around each tomato then wrap bailing wire in rows of various heights around them stringing the tomatoes as they grow. They get tall but it leaves plenty of room for the air to flow and tomatoes to flourish! It’s been a tried and true method!☺
Joe Lamp'l says
Yes! I saw a similar system earlier this year at a nursery in San Antonio. It was impressive and I’m convinced it worked. They did a similar thing to what you did. The cones were reinforced with those green fencing stakes. Then they used 8′ bamboo on the inside of that to provide the height. And like you, some line running horizontally at various levels to give the lateral support. It was very sturdy and not unattractive. I thought I might try that this year as well. But obviously I didn’t. So it’s still on my list to try. Thanks for the reminder Lisa. I need to def. give this a try.
Barbara Ketchum says
My problem that is bigger than supporting the tomato plants is keeping the squirrels off of the plants without spending a small fortune on repellents or having to build an enclosure with a ceiling.
(Probably doesn’t help that there’s a nearby bird feeder that attracts squirrels, rabbits and birds.)
Joe Lamp'l says
Agreed Barbara. Squirrels are a difficult pest to control without completely enclosing your plants. Plus they only nibble on them, just enough to ruin the fruit. Perhaps that will be my next challenge to solve. Good luck!
I have a Very real looking rubber snake that I keep in my garden. My garden is only 12′ x 12′ so one works… but I get only a few critters here and there in my garden. It seems to work quite well.
Just be sure to tell unsuspecting human visitors to your garden. 😉
Wanda Lang says
Hi husband and I have struggled with cages
on our tomatoe plants. Both being farmers, we started using hog panels, sturdied with rebar, placing the panel right along the tomato plants. Then as the plant grows tie it to the hog panel. Tomato plants grows, then, on both sides of the hog panel. This seems to do the trick for us.
Joe Lamp'l says
You know Wanda, this is exactly was I “almost” did. We use hog panels a lot in the garden to support our cukes and peas, etc. I would have been so easy to place those in the bed as you’ve described. Unfortunately, all my panels were currently being used to protect my blueberries from our free ranging goats. Those panels are very useful for so many things around the garden. And I love that once you buy them, you have them forever. And they store so easily unlike cages and cones. I must try this next season. Thanks for sharing your success.