Q. Mike: I recently saw a PBS show that featured garden techniques from, I believe, the 17th century. The tomatoes were supported by lattice work placed horizontally, not vertically, over the bed. The lattice was hung about a foot above ground level and the vines climbed through and spread out over it for support. I find this idea fascinating but fear I might be missing something since I have never seen it elsewhere. Any thoughts or comments on this technique? Love your show!
- ----John; now in Willow Grove PA, formerly South Carolina
And support them you should; never let your plants sprawl on the ground. Tomatoes are vines, and although they do start out life as fairly upright citizens, they're mostly just waiting for you to turn your back so they can lie down on the job for the rest of the season. Some articles and books say that you can safely let smaller plants sprawl if you mulch heavily with straw to keep the tomatoes off the ground, but that's BEGGING mice, voles, slugs and other pests to consume the fruits before you do; and inviting disease to take its toll by making it difficult (actually close to impossible) for the plants' leaves to dry off after rain or morning dew.
And the varieties that gardeners prefer—the 'indeterminate' types (like the treasured heirloom varieties) that keep growing to provide a sequential harvest of tomatoes throughout the season—can easily reach ten to fourteen feet in length. That requires some serious support.
My preferred tactic is to 'stake and cage'. I surround the baby plants with large cages—almost two feet in diameter—made of sturdy welded animal fencing or concrete reinforcing wire; with a stake driven into the ground to hold the cage in place. Some metal caging systems offer a lot of lateral support, and thus also support big vines, but they don't need a stake (or are their own stakes!) You can use smaller cages for more compact tomato plants, like cherries, paste/plum and 'determinate' varieties. You'll also find lots of pre-made caging systems for sale; the only one without merit is the tiny funnel-shaped variety popular in hardware stores; they're barely big enough for a full-size pepper plant, much less a huge tomato.
Some people choose to stake alone, betting they can keep tying the rapidly growing plant to the stake. This typically ends in tomato heartbreak when the restraints cut into the stems; or the plants, heavy with fruit, insist on responding to that nasty old gravity thing mid-summer and snap apart. And remember, an indeterminate variety is going to grow much higher than your stake. That's the magic of a big cage; the tomato plant can sprawl around inside it and use up a lot of length going laterally.
Then there's 'stake and weave'. In one popular manifestation of this technique (there are as many variations as there are gardeners), tall supports are driven into the ground at three or four-foot intervals along both sides of a row of plants and sequential layers of twine are wrapped around the outside of the stakes, beginning about twelve inches off the ground and repeated every foot or so. The tomato plants lean onto, and are supported, by the strings. This offers much of the support of a cage, while allowing much easier harvest access.
But I strongly suggest you stick to weaving your support on the outskirts of the plants, as I've just described. Some of the more complex designs promoted online weave in and out of the plants like a driver addicted to lane changing, and look like they'd create a tangled mess that would be near impossible to weed or harvest.
(No matter which design you choose, be sure to follow two basic rules of tomato growing. 1) Don't skimp on the space between plants; big slicing 'beefsteak' tomatoes grow lush and need lots of airflow to keep disease at bay. And 2) Don't design a staking system that requires you to tread all over the root zone of your plants to tend and harvest them. Soil compaction is second only to over-watering as a cause of human-induced crop failure.)
Now, the method our listener saw on TV is a variation I'll call 'stake and fence'. You drive stakes or some other form of support around your widdle baby plants and then lay a big piece of open mesh fencing or lattice work overtop so that it lies flat above the plants about a foot or so off the ground. The plants grow up through the mesh (or you help them do so) and then sprawl over the fencing. Some professional growers utilize this technique, but you need an enormous amount of room between the plants to allow for proper airflow—otherwise the fencing will become a disease-inviting tangled mat of leaves that never dry off. Give it a try ONLY if you have lots of room. And be warned that even proponents note that the set-up is involved, elaborate and time consuming.
Back when I was the editor of ORGANIC GARDENING magazine, we ran an article that described a neat support we called 'framing'. Designed by a Michigan gardener who was a professional engineer in real life, the plants grew up through rectangular open cedar frames to which crossbars were added as needed as the plants got taller. Because the gardener controlled the distance between the frame supports (as opposed to the existing mesh of a caging material), it offered more support than stake and weave with almost as much elbow room for harvesting.
If I were going to experiment with something other than my big cages, I might try 'framing' a plant or two. Or maybe I'd install a row of plants in a long raised bed—where I could space the plants about four feet apart—and stake and weave them. You know, I haven't had a new adventure in tomato growing in a long time, so maybe this old dog WILL try a new trick or two this season...
Special thanks to Lynn Donches and Krista Pegnetter at the Rodale library for digging out the old issue of ORGANIC GARDENING with the stake and weave article!
Note: You'll find detailed design ideas in this article by a member of the wonderful organic organization Oregon Tilth.