Tomato beds can be very messy, ugly and disease-ridden if proper care is not taken. To keep your tomato farm from devolving into a sorry state, you need to care and support it. You can support your tomato stems with a trellis, stake or cage, and train them to grow on it while primping and pruning their vines into a respectable form. If you do this, the plants will be healthier, more productive and more presentable.
Somewhere on the seed packet in fine print you may find the words “determinate” or “indeterminate.” “determinate” or “indeterminate.” The former means the plant will grow to a certain, genetically determined size and then stop (the packet should indicate the size). The latter will grow indefinitely, as long as extreme temperatures or other acts of nature (or humans) don’t stop it.
The type of staking you use depends on the type you planted:
Wire Tomato Cages – in the shape of a downward-tapering cylinder: is fine for small, bushy determinate varieties, but will quickly become overwhelmed by a large indeterminate plant.
Stakes – A single, stout stake is an effective support structure for a tomato plant. For small determinate varieties, use a 1-inch-by-1-inch-by-4-foot stake and pound it into the ground at least 6 or 8 inches deep near the base of the plant. For large tomato vines, use a 2-inch-by-2-inch-by-7-foot stake and pound it in at least 14 to 16 inches. Avoid pressure treated lumber, since it may leach toxic chemicals into the ground around your tomato plants.
Trellises – a simple trellis to use for a single growing season, pound in a row of stakes along the center of your tomato bed and run horizontal lengths of twine between them. For small tomato varieties, use 1-inch by 1-inch by 4-foot stakes spaced every 4 to 6 feet and run the twine across every 6 inches. For larger varieties, use 2-inch-by-2-inch-by-7-foot stakes spaced every 6 to 8 feet and run the twine across every 12 inches.
Pruning and Training
Training tomatoes is simple, you have to start when they’re young, about a month after transplanting.
Tie the stems of your tomato plants to the support structure every 6 or 8 inches as they grow. The growing stems are soft and easily damaged, so you need to tie them loosely. Use thick garden twine, plastic plant tape, strips of fabric or old pantyhose. It’s always better to tie just above a cluster of flowers rather than just below—otherwise the stems holding the flowers may get crimped by the ties as the flowers turn into heavy clusters of fruit.
If you’re using the single-stake method or the single-string trellis method, you’ll want to train the tomato plants to a single stem. For the horizontal-string trellis method or the cage method, three or four stems works best. It’s best to decide on a method before planting the tomatoes, because they can be spaced much closer together if they will be trained to a single stem, versus those with multiple stems, which need to branch out over a larger area.
As the original stem grows, it will begin to sprout side stems—often called ‘suckers’—in the crotches between the leaves and the main stem. To maintain a single stem, prune out all suckers as they appear. For multiple stems, let the first few suckers that appear grow into stems of their own and prune out subsequent suckers. To prune, simply snap off the sucker with your fingers just above the point where it joins the main stem.