Supporting your growing tomato plants

Tomato plants tend to be highly vigourous plants showing no indication of ever stopping to grow. While this is definitely true for indeterminate type of tomatoes, the same cannot be said for determinates or bushy varieties, and the dwarf tomato plants. All tomato plants need some kind of support though. Even if they are doing fine without support when they are in the growth phase of their development, the moment they startdeveloping fruit things tend to go wrong. Even dwarf plants can produce so much fruit that it becomes too much for the stem and it bends or worse, snaps. Even if the stem just bends a potted plant can fall over because of the oneven distribution of the weight. In short, there are very few cases where tomato plants do not need support. Here follow several ways how to support your tomato plants!

1. No support

Not supporting tomatoes is actually a special way of supporting tomatoes as we will see. By not supporting tomato plants you basically decided to let them sprawl. Where ever a tomato stem touches soil, the fine hairs on the stem will develop into roots. You can use this fact to dramatically increase the root capacity of a tomatoplant by letting it just sprawl. Side shoots will naturally bend down, and some will make contact with the earth and develop extra root systems. Over time such a plant can develop into a behemoth. While this all sounds great there are some disadavantages to this method. Close contact with the soil also increase contact with soilborn pathogens such as fungi, and it increases the exposure of the plant to rain spatter and moist conditions. None of this is optimal for fruit and plant development. Developing fruit can also be hidden or difficult to access. The other major disadvantage is that one plant will occupy a lot of space. If you have the space then by all means give it a go. It is pretty amazing to see a plant develop like this.

So how is this supporting a plant then? The support in this case is the earth, soil, ground surface surrounding the plant. The plant will spread mostly horizontally instead of vertically.

2. Staking

The easiest and often most economical way to support a plant is to use stakes. This can be anything. A branch collected from a bush in your garden, bamboo sticks, or a fancy support stake made out of metal or plastic bought in a store. They all do the same job. Stick it into the soil next to your plant, preferably before the root system has developed because it will damage the root, and tie the main stem to the stick. Whenever the plant has grown tie the new growth to the stake.

While this works fine for smaller tomato plants and dwarf varieties especially, more vigourous varieties will outgrow their support quickly. And once fruit starts to form the stick often turns out to be inadequate to support the drastic increase in weight. You often end up adding more stakes when the season progresses. This works fine in the field, but with pots, especially the smaller ones, you often reach a point that the entire thing becomes top heavy, starts leaning towards one angle and will fall over when it is windy.

4. Cage

The tomato cage is especially popular in the USA. A tomato cage is a wire structure that surrounds the entire plant, is tall and is inserted into the soil to provide a secure foundation. The plant grows in the center of the cage and its sidebranches and suckers can freely expande throw the sides of the cage. The plant is often secured with ties or strings to the cage as it grows. It is a very neat and efficient system when growing a few to a medium amount of plants. Cages can be very costly though although plenty of guides exist in which it is shown how to make your own cages from economical materials.

3. Trellis

There are several forms of the trellis suitable for tomato plants support. A trellis system consists out of 2 sturdy vertical poles. One way to support your plants is to tie horizontal strings between the two poles. A special form of this is called the florida weave. We will come back to this later. A string is woven through your row of plants as they grow. You can also string your horizontal lines in advance and tie the main shoots to them as the plant grows.

If you are growing indeterminates and want to control its growth and prune it accordingly a better system is to use the T-post trellis. A horizontal pole now connects the two vertical poles and from this horizontal pole you lower a string for each plant. The string is wrapped around the main stem as it grows. Once the main stem reaches the top you can prune the main stem. This system is essentially the same as they use in professional greenhouse systems. It allows for maximum control of the plant, a good airflow, easy access, and maximizing growth space. All growth is vertical.

4.The vertical wire

The vertical wire is not limited to a trellis system. It is also perfect for your greenhouse or patio/terras if this area has an overhang or roof. It allows for a very organized space with plants that are efficiently pruned. Hang a wire from above and wrap it around the main stem while the plant is growing. But be aware that a fully grown plant with fruit can be very heavy. If your support or wire is too flimsy the whole plant can come down.

5. The Florida or Basket Weave

You could consider the Florida weave a trellis system as well, but originally it was designed not for indeterminate tomato varieties such as the trellis system usually is but for determinates. Bush tomato plants are grown on a large scale in the USA outside the greenhouse (which is more common in Europe) and the florida weave was developed as a technique to efficiently support a large number of plants, temporarily, using as little labour as possible. Vertical poles are placed with 3 to 4 tomatoplants between them. These poles do not have to be very tall. Determinate tomatoes do not grow very tall. The string of a ball of string is guided through a short hose (30-50cm) and attached to one pole. The string is now woven through the row of plants moving the hose back and forth. If there was only string and not a tube, the string would constantly get caught in the branches. But the tube lets you guide the string through the branches without damaging them. It all sounds very complicated but the best way to understand it is to see it in person. The best visual demonstration I have ever seen is a demonstration video of the University of Maine.

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