There are several advantages to training tomatoes to stakes or growing them in wire cages. Training tomatoes conserves valuable garden space for gardeners with small plots. Cultivating and harvesting trained tomatoes are easier. Tomato blight problems are generally less severe because of better air circulation. Plus, trained tomato plants often produce more usable fruit than those allowed to sprawl on the ground. Training methods vary, but the two most common methods are staking or growing in wire cages.
One way to train tomato plants is by staking. Within 2 weeks of planting, drive a single, 6- to 8-foot-long stake 1 to 2 feet into the ground 3 to 4 inches from each plant. The roots of the tomato plants may be injured if the stakes are put in later in the season. As the tomato grows, tie the plant to the stake with strips of old nylon hose or cloth about every 12 inches up the stem. Tie the material in a loose figure 8, with the stake in one loop and the stem in the other. When training the plant to single stem, pinch out the sideshoots or suckers that form in the axil of the leaf and stem. Staking tomato plants to a single stem should produce an earlier crop. However, the fruit of staked plants are more susceptible to sunscald and blossom end rot because the removal of sucker growth reduces the leaf canopy. Total yield is lower than alternate training methods. If the lowest sucker is allowed to develop into a second stem, the additional foliage should reduce the occurrence of sunscald. Staking is not recommended for the shorter growing, determinate tomato varieties because yields will be drastically reduced.
A popular method of training tomatoes that requires less attention is the wire cage. A tomato cage can be constructed from concrete reinforcing wire or similar material. Manufactured cages are also available at garden centers.
When constructing a wire cage, the mesh must be large enough to enable you to pick the fruit. A wire cage 20 to 24 inches in diameter and 4 to 5 feet tall is excellent. To form a cage 20 inches in diameter, the fence section should be 5 to 5 1/2 feet wide. (The circumference of a circle can be found by multiplying 3.14 by the circle diameter.) Remove the horizontal wire at the bottom of the cage and stick the vertical wires or feet into the soil. For greater stability, drive one or two stakes into the ground next to the cage. Then fasten the cage to the stakes.
Plants grown in wire cages don't need to tied to the cage or pruned. As the plant grows, simply place wayward stems back within the wire cage. The yield from tomatoes grown in wire cages should be larger than other growing methods. There should also be fewer fruit problems.
While there are other methods to train tomatoes, the single stake and wire cage remain the favorites of most gardeners.
This article originally appeared in the 5/9/2003 issue.