There is no wrong or right way to support your tomatoes! Some gardeners let their tomatoes grow wild and bushy in cages, while others prefer to keep them pruned, tidy, and trained. It simply depends on your personal preference, growing space, tomato varieties, and how involved you want to get. We’ve utilized a combination of methods over the years – sometimes several different styles in one season!
No matter which method you choose, all tomato plants need some type of support system as they grow. Tomatoes are naturally tall, bendy, and usually unable to stand upright on their own – especially once they’re heavy with fruit! So let’s explore 6 different ways to support or train tomato plants. This article will explore the pros and cons of using cages, stakes, trellises, string, the Florida weave, lower and lean system, and more – with tips and photos on how to execute each method!
But first, let’s lay some important groundwork about tomato varieties and pruning. If you need more tomato tips in general, be sure to check out our tomato grow guide.
Supporting and Pruning Determinate vs Indeterminate Tomatoes
It’s key to know the difference between determinate and indeterminate tomatoes when considering a support system or training style – because the two have considerably different needs and preferences! Each tomato plant description or tag should tell you if it’s a determinate (D) or an indeterminate (ID) variety. There are also semi-determinate varieties which have characteristics of both.
Determinate tomatoes, also known as “bush tomatoes”, stay far smaller in size (growing up to three or four feet tall). They bear the bulk of their fruit over a shorter period of time, and generally have a shorter growing season and lifespan. Determinate tomatoes do not like to be pruned, and doing so will significantly limit their production. Plan to support your determinate tomatoes with a modest cage, the Florida weave, or stakes (but not pruned to a “single leader” up the stake).
On the other hand, indeterminate tomatoes continue to grow well over 6 feet (often taller) and produce fruit over a long growing season – right up until frost arrives. Indeterminate tomatoes are the most common among home gardeners, and take well to pruning (though you don’t have to). Without adequate support, indeterminate tomatoes will sprawl out on the ground an/or break. You can use any of the tomato support options we’ll cover below with indeterminate varieties.
How to Prune Tomatoes: Removing Suckers
Several of the tomato support systems described below require some level of pruning, so let’s refresh on what that means! Pruning tomato plants involves removing excess side branches – also known as “suckers”. Suckers always grow out from the main stem just above a leaf branch, as shown in the diagram below. Don’t confuse it with a flower bract, which grows slightly higher on the stem!
To remove tomato suckers, simply pinch and snap them off. Or, use a clean pair of pruning snips for larger suckers. Do not top the plant or cut the main stem (the terminal growing tip), and avoid removing flower or fruit bracts. As the season goes on, you may also want to cut off unproductive lower leaf branches as they begin to yellow and fade.
Diligently removing all the suckers will result in a single long tomato vine. Removing all but one sucker will leave you with two “leaders”. Or, you can remove just some of the suckers, resulting in several leaders but an overall more manageable plant. It’s best to remove suckers when they’re still nice and small – before they start drawing energy from the rest of the plant. (They’re called suckers for a reason!)
If allowed to grow, suckers become large new secondary vines, producing more and more branches, flower bracts, and suckers of their own. The result is a much bushier tomato plant, and yes, a greater number of fruit per plant! However, the fruit itself can be smaller and inferior in quality compared to a tomato plant that was pruned. Pruned tomato plants can focus all their energy into growing fewer but higher-quality fruit instead. They may also ripen sooner!
6 TOMATO SUPPORT METHODS & IDEAS
Cages are a classic way to support tomatoes. They also happen to be the most simple and low-maintenance option! In a cage, you can essentially let your tomato plants grow au natural; no pruning required. The only task you’ll need to do is occasionally (and gently) tuck branches in and up to keep them inside the cage as much as possible. You could also provide a stake in the center of the cage to support the main stem, though it’s usually not necessary.
Tomato cages do take up more space than some of the other tomato support styles, but they’re perfect if you’re growing just a handful of tomato plants! Finding good, functional tomato cages can also be a bit of a challenge. Most pre-made tomato cages are fairly small and flimsy. Or, nice big ones can cost a pretty penny! An average tomato cage may be sufficient for determinate bush tomatoes (and work great for peppers, eggplant, or tomatillos) but you’ll want a large, extra-sturdy cage to support wily indeterminate tomatoes. We make our own and reuse them for years to come.
Learn how to make an easy, large, inexpensive, and durable DIY tomato cage in this article – or check out the video tutorial below!
2) Single Stake or String Method
Another popular option is to train tomatoes up a single tall stake, or up a string connected to an overhead beam. This tomato support method is works best for vining indeterminate varieties, and requires heavy pruning. Most (if not all) side branches or “suckers” are removed as they emerge, resulting in only one leader stem (maybe two). As the tomato grows taller, secure the main vine to the stake or string with ties or tomato clips. We like to use this soft coated garden wire.
The single stake (or string) tomato training method is great for small spaces, or for gardeners that want to grow a large variety or many tomato plants. Keeping the plants well-pruned means you can space them much closer together: a foot or so apart instead of several feet. So, it’s possible to fit many more tomato plants in a single garden compared to using cages, plus have room for other companion plants around their base.
The one drawback of pruning tomatoes to a single vine is that each plant will produce fewer tomatoes (albeit better quality). Lacking excess foliage, the fruit may also be more susceptible to sunburn or scalding.
Because the plants are focusing all their energy on growing up rather than out, tomatoes that are pruned and trained to a single leader can grow very, very tall – easily upwards of 10 feet or more – so be prepared! Therefore, choose sturdy stakes that will extend at least 6 feet above ground once installed (such as 8 foot stakes). The lower and lean system is one way to deal with excessively tall tomatoes, explained next.
3) Lower and Lean
The “lower and lean” system is a great way to train and support tall indeterminate tomato plants, and keep the fruit in reach! This method is common in commercial greenhouse settings, but gaining popularity among home gardeners as well. Similar to the single stake/string method described above, the tomato are diligently pruned to just a single leader and spaced close together. Each tomato vine is trained up a vertical string – either with tomato clips, or by gently winding the string around the stem.
Suspended from some sort of horizontal support above (such as a wood beam, A-frame, pipe, electrical conduit, or other clever DIY solution), each string is connected to a tomato below – usually gently tied around the base of the plant. Each string also has has several feet of extra slack at the top, either dangling free or kept tight in a spool. Use any type of natural twine or garden string. These specialized tomato spool hooks are made just for the lower and lean system!
As the tomatoes grow taller and taller, let slack out of the line from the top to literally lower and lean the plants down and out. That way, you don’t have to worry about your tomatoes growing taller than their support system! Remove leaf branches from the bottom portion of the vines as they’re lowered and possibly end up laying along the ground. Check out this video from Johnny’s Seeds to see the tomato lower and lean system in action.
4) The Florida Weave
The Florida Weave is a fantastic way to train many tomato plants growing in a row. The goal is to essentially sandwich the plants between layers of string, holding them upright and supporting heavy branches of fruit. You may also hear it referred to as “basket weaving” tomatoes. With this system, you can choose how heavy or light you wish to prune the plants. The more you prune them, the closer you can space the plants – ranging from 1 foot to several feet apart.
To create a Florida weave tomato support system, start by placing tall sturdy stakes or t-posts between every plant (or every other plant). A stake may also be provided at the base of each tomato for additional support. Next, weave horizontal rows of garden string or natural twine between the stakes every foot or so. Tie and secure the string at each stake as you go. You can start out with many rows of string and tuck the plants between them as they grow, or continue to add more layers of string to the top as needed throughout the season. See the diagram below.
Since it offers support for the leaders as well as side branches, the Florida weave requires less intensive pruning than the single stake or lower and lean methods. It also takes up less space than providing cages for every plant. The Florida weave is great for both determinate, semi-determinate, and indeterminate tomatoes alike.
5) Flat Trellis
It’s quite easy to train tomatoes up a vertical flat trellis. You can use a small trellis to support a single tomato or two, a larger trellis behind a row of many tomato plants, or even plant tomatoes along both sides of a trellis (but offset from one another). As the plants grow, secure the branches to the trellis using twine, soft plant ties or clips. Tomatoes will not cling to structures on their own like peas or beans do.
Like the Florida Weave, you can prune the tomatoes as much or little as you please. The trellis can function similarly to the single stake method, supporting many closely-spaced tomatoes with only one or two leaders per plant. Or, give the plants a little more space and allow most of the suckers to grow, pinning those back to the trellis too. If things start to get bushy and unruly, we’ve strung twine horizontally across the front of the trellis to keep the plants pulled back, similar to a Florida weave.
Looking for trellis ideas? Learn how to make simple, inexpensive, and sturdy DIY trellises using panels of remesh wire in this article. We use them for pole beans, peas, passionfruit, cucumbers, and more! Hog and cattle panel are also popular options to create a homemade trellis. Nylon mesh netting strung between stakes is another affordable, lightweight trellis option.
6) Arched Trellis
One final option is to grow tomatoes over an arched trellis. The idea is essentially the same as the flat trellis method we just explored, but with even more drama and flair! Who doesn’t love a good arched garden trellis, and especially one dripping with ripe homegrown tomatoes?! This style is best to support indeterminate tomatoes, as determinate varieties are too short and bushy to extend over the arch. You can use plant ties to secure branches in place, as well as gently tuck and weave the vines through openings in the trellis.
We buy our pre-made arched trellises at a local nursery, but you can also make them from hog or cattle panel! Learn how in this article. Or, if you’re not up for a DIY project, check out the awesome arched trellis selection from Gardener’s Supply here.
And that concludes this round-up of tomato support methods
Well friends, I hope this guide gave you ample information, inspiration and ideas on how to train and support your tomatoes. As you can see, there are SO many options – even more than we covered today! You can get creative and combine various styles like we do, or get crafty and build other unique support structures of your own.
Please share your favorite tomato training styles in the comments below, and feel free to ask any questions! If you found this article to be valuable, please consider sharing or pinning this post. Thank you so much for tuning in today. We wish you a very fruitful tomato season ahead!
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