There are several advantages to training tomato plants in the home garden. Training tomatoes conserves valuable garden space for gardeners with small plots. Trained tomatoes are easier to cultivate and harvest. Foliar disease problems are generally less severe because of better air circulation. Plus, trained tomato plants often produce better quality fruit than those allowed to sprawl on the ground. Training methods vary, but the three most common methods are the single stake, wire cage, and weave system.
One way to train tomato plants is by staking. Within 2 weeks of planting, drive a single, 7- 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 stretch ties or 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 a plant to a single stem, pinch out the sideshoots or suckers that form in the axils 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 as the removal of sucker growth reduces the leaf canopy. Total yield is lower than other 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 cultivars as yields will be drastically reduced. A wire cage or the weave system is more appropriate for determinate cultivars.
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 allow the fruit to be harvested. 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 5½ 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 1 or 2 stakes into the ground next to the cage. Then fasten the cage to the stakes.
Plants grown in wire cages don’t need to be tied to the cage or pruned. As the plant grows, simply place wayward stems back within the wire cage.
For the weave system, tomato plants should be spaced 18 to 24 inches apart within rows. Use sturdy 6- to 7-foot-long wooden stakes and pound them one foot into the ground every two plants. Use metal stakes as end posts for added strength. When the plants are 12 to 14 inches tall (before their tops flop over) begin the weave at 8 to 10 inches off the ground.
Tie twine to the end post and sweep the twine past the two plants along one side of the row. Then loop the twine around the first stake and pull it tight. Continue this process while pulling the twine tight as you go down the row keeping tension on the twine all the way down. At the end of the row, make a loop around the end post and turn around to repeat the process on the other side of the row enclosing the plants between the two strings of twine. When you get back to the starting point, tie the twine tightly to the end post. As the plants continue to grow, add another layer of twine 6 to 8 inches above the last.