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Tomatoes are one of the easiest fruits to grow if you’re just starting out as a gardener. You only need the essential elements: fertile soil, sunny yet sheltered space (tomatoes love heat but not too much) and a good collection of your preferred variety, from beefsteak to plum. But what’s the best way to grow tomatoes?
Experienced tomato growers have two options: tomato cages and stakes.
The method of growing can determine whether you’re going to have an easy time of harvesting your plump, juicy produce. The right method also encourages you to pursue cultivating an edible garden because if it’s not too difficult to set up as a beginner gardener, you won’t give up halfway through the job.
Is it Better to Stake or Cage Tomatoes?
Tomatoes tend to be susceptible to disease, like bacterial wilt, early blight and septoria leaf spot, among others. These diseases develop through infested soil, infected seeds and fungus borne of high humidity. One of the best ways to keep your tomatoes free from infection is by providing support that keeps the vine plant off the ground. A support structure allows your backyard produce to grow up instead of sprawl out, making it vulnerable to the elements.
Although tomato stakes sound like the easiest solution to the plant grown in pots, it’s not always the right one. Because choosing how to support your tomatoes should be based on the kind of tomato you’re cultivating, the resources you have and the level of pruning you’re inclined to do.
A tomato cage can come in different shapes (not just square like a typical cage) and sizes. The vine plant grows in the middle with the horizontal frames providing support at every level. You can make the structure on your own or you can get them from any gardening supply store. Online stores will also have different cages in different materials, from metal to plastic.
What’s the best tomato cage?
It doesn’t matter which store you get the tomato cage, from Lowes or Amazon; what matters is that the structure is sturdy so that it doesn’t topple over easily. It should also be strong enough to support varieties that may grow heavily, like the beefsteak types that weigh in at 2 to 3 pounds come harvest time.
The tomato cage you get should also be high enough for the variety of tomato you’re growing. Some varieties grow up to 12 feet whereas others stop growing at 4 feet. The shorter varieties tend to be more compact, which means you’ll also need a cage that has enough room in the middle. You’ll want to choose a cage with sufficient grid because this will make harvesting easier.
Tomato cages are also referred to as tomato trellis since both allow for vertical and horizontal support.
Caging or trellising comes with some advantages for tomatoes, namely:
- It offers a lot of leaf cover, keeping your tomatoes safe from sunscald
- Leaf coverage also protects the soil, allowing it to retain moisture
- It saves you from pruning
But choose the wrong type of tomato cage, and your fruit could suffer from:
- Rotting from moist soil after falling to the ground when the cage topples over
- Ripening too long because of too much foliage cover
- Pest infestation as bugs and other animals eat the fallen tomatoes
Tomato cages also take up space. Most gardeners are likely to use them when they’ve built greenhouses or have more square footage in their property. If your home only allows for vertical gardening or container gardening and the variety you’ve chosen doesn’t require too much support, tomato stakes may be a better option.
When you stake tomatoes, you’re simply driving one post into the soil so that the plant clings to it as it grows. Stakes are easily the most sensible support if you can’t make a cage or don’t have the space for cages yet.
You can use wooden or metal posts in your tomato garden, these things are also available in stores or online shops. Some stakes are made of plastic, but these posts may not be strong enough to support the plant. Most gardeners tend to use wood or metal. If you have particular design for your backyard garden, choosing certain materials — from the planters to the support structures — is crucial.
When you have some bamboo posts, these would be perfect for staking tomatoes, too. A bamboo stake isn’t just durable but should blend well into your Asian-inspired edible garden.
Staking is better than caging when you’re growing bush tomatoes. Bush tomatoes are determinate plants. These varieties don’t grow as tall and as unwieldly as indeterminate tomatoes.
But staking may take more of your time in the garden. If you love doing yard work on the weekends and are a serious gardener, you won’t mind pruning and clipping the bottom part of the plant often. This doesn’t mean that indeterminate tomatoes don’t need pruning; you’ll still do a bit of nipping because it’s beneficial to the plant, whatever the variety.
- Attach securely to the stake, strengthening its structure
- Be safe from diseases because it stays upright as it grows
- Stay healthy, bearing better quality fruit
So when do you stake your tomatoes?
Start ‘em when they’re young, about 6 to 8 inches. You’ll want to tie the plant to the post at that height because they’re vulnerable to the elements. You need to provide support early on and train them to grow the way you’ve planned.
Now do you have a variety in mind?
Growing Indeterminate and Determinate Tomatoes
Do you grow determinate tomatoes or indeterminate?
Determinate or bush tomatoes set and ripen during a specific period, typically in one to two weeks. So the growing season for this variety is shorter than indeterminate (or vine) tomatoes. Many determinate tomatoes are canned, made into sauces or juices, making Roma tomatoes a determinate variety.
Some examples of bush tomato varieties are:
- Amish paste
- San Marzano
Vine tomatoes, on the other hand, grow slowly and steadily. This variety grows up and out, extending branches at every level, making tomato cages necessary for this variety.
Indeterminate tomatoes include:
- Sweet million
- Big Boy
So What’s the Perfect Support?
The perfect support for some can be a mix of caging and staking. If you have enough square footage in your backyard, you can set up simple cages and drive a stake in the middle for added support. This is assuming you intend to grow some pretty big tomatoes. If you’re looking to beat the world record for heaviest tomato or plan on cultivating competition-worthy tomatoes, you’ll need both structures.
Both support structures could also help you maximize yield, giving you enough tomatoes to can or sell at a farmer’s market.
But if you want to keep it simple, start with determinate tomatoes and a few stakes in pots or on raised beds in your garden. You’ll get ripened tomatoes in no time and you don’t need a big space to start an edible garden, so you can eat healthy.
Tomatoes are easy enough to grow. Just make sure you have the right elements together, along with the perfect support structure.
38-year old supervisor of an organic produce company. In-charge of overseeing greenhouse efficiency five days a week.