Growing Great Tomatoes: Supports

Tomatoes need support to grow their best. Even determinate tomatoes do better with support.

Supporting tomatoes with a structure helps tomatoes produce well. More air flows through the supported tomato vine which helps reduce plant diseases and discourages pests. Tomato fruits are off the ground and less likely to rot. A supported tomato vine is easier to tend and easier to harvest.

So which kind of support is best? 

Many many tomato support designs exist - just ask the Internet! Each has its benefits and drawbacks. 

Strength and Durability is the Priority

If you're planning to grow tomatoes many years in the future, get the strongest tomato supports you can afford. When covered with tomatoes, a mature tomato vine gets heavy and it's extremely difficult to add support to a failing structure. Your tomato support will be exposed to the elements all season and it needs to be strong enough to survive the conditions. 

You set up the support before the tomato grows very large and the tomato grows up within the support. Tomato vines do not naturally attach to structures like peas and pole beans do. You can drape the vines over the support, but this only goes so far. You will often need to attach the vines to the support using ties of some kind.

Any effective tie will work, but again, you want a material that is strong and durable. It's also helpful if the tie has some flexibility to accommodate the growth of the vine. As the plant grows, vines become thicker and you don't want your tie to dig into the tomato vine.

Popular Tomato Supports

Tomato Cages

Almost everyone has seen tomato cages, and you see them for sale at most home and garden centers. They can be strong and sturdy, or flimsy and weak. You get what you pay for with tomato cages - the cheaper the price, the weaker the tomato cage.

The most common tomato cages are wider at the top than the bottom. Over the last several years, I've started using tomato cages that are narrower at the top and wider at the bottom, and I've come to prefer them. The wider base provides more stability, and the narrower top helps to corral the sometimes-unruly vines. However, these are trickier to find and they can be more expensive. 

Look for heavy gauge wire construction. Get the tallest cages you can find, particularly if you are growing indeterminate tomatoes. The cages should have more smaller openings. This helps distribute the load of the tomato vine and makes it more likely there will be a wire near where your tomato vine needs one. 

Poles (or Stakes)

A traditional type of support is a simple pole made of metal, wood, bamboo, or a composite. A strong, tall pole that you can sink deep into the ground for maximum stability is best. With a pole for support, the gardener usually cuts back (prunes) the plant to grow from a single central vine that is tied to the pole.



Believe it or not, you can use string to support your tomatoes - this technique relies on a strong and sturdy frame or poles from which the string is suspended. There are many ways to configure the string within the frame to support tomatoes successfully. 

With string, you don't need to tie the vine to the support very much. As it grows, the vine is guided and gently twisted around the string, and the plant seems to grab on to the string. String with some roughness to it, like a twine or jute, works better because the vines cling to the texture of the twine. 

String trellises can also be used, as shown in the photo above. The frame on which the trellis is suspended provides the structure. 

Cattle Panels

Cattle panels (or livestock panels) are pieces of sturdy, manufactured metal welded in a grid configuration. They are sold in set dimensions, like 16 feet long and 50 inches high. As the name suggests, they are intended to be used to contain cattle or other livestock outdoors - basically fencing. This makes a great support for tomatoes or other plants because it is strong, sturdy, and designed to withstand outdoor conditions. 

The grid is small enough to provide good support for the tomato vines without a lot of tying. Simply weave the vines within the grid as the plant grows. 

If you use them for supporting tomatoes, you'll need a way to support them upright - usually heavy poles (e.g. T-posts) provide this support. 

They are strong and sturdy and come in pre-set panel sizes. If you want or need to customize the size, it may be difficult to cut the panel to size. 

Homemade Tomato Towers and Trellises

You can make your own tomato supports from all kinds of materials. A popular homemade support is to bend a 6.5 foot section of concrete reinforcing mesh into a cylinder. These will need to be anchored to the ground with sturdy posts like T-posts.

People have come up with all kinds of homemade tomato support structures. Check out this article from Epic Gardening - you can use all kinds of materials to make a tomato support!

Foldable Tomato Towers

Some manufacturers have designed foldable square tomato cages. These have the advantage of taking up a lot less space in the off-season - you can fold them flat when not in use. 

Supports for Tomatoes Grown in Containers

If you are growing tomatoes in containers, you will still need supports, but you have limited space in which to construct a support. Tomato cages and upright poles are good choices. Sometimes you can find support structures that are made for containers, such as the trellis shown in the above photo.

Other Considerations

Off-season storage is a big concern. Pre-constructed structures such as tomato cages occupy a lot of space in the shed, garage, or back yard, when not in use. Some structures are collapsible, which is a great advantage for storage. Some structures are built at the beginning of the season then deconstructed to store off-season. It is a trade off between convenience, cost, and effort or work. 

Till and Trowel's Tomato Support Method

Over the years, I've accumulated orphaned tomato cages from my community garden. I only keep the strongest tomato cages and recycle the rest. I have purchased a few over the years, as well.

This is how I acquired the cages that are narrow at the top. I thought they looked unusual, but the price was good (free!) and I gave them a try the next year. The shape made it easier to contain my sprawling indeterminate tomato plants and I was convinced.

I had not seen that shape for sale until last year at an independent hardware store in Kansas City. The diameter of these new ones is not as large as the freebies, yet again, the shape really helped my plants stand tall and not splay out. 

I reinforce my tomato support with a pole inside the tomato cage. There just isn't enough support from a cage and I usually push in a lightweight pole along the main stem to give it extra support. The cage mainly holds up the branches. 

I tie the main stem to the pole and usually end up tying larger drooping branches to the tomato cage as well. My goal is to make sure the vines do not get overly weighted down by the tomato fruits and break. I observe the tomato plant as it's growing and tie up wherever I think it's needed. 

As you know, I care about the appearance of my garden and that includes my tomato supports. I prefer them to be low-key - you know they're there, but the garden is not about displaying fancy supports. I would like them all to be identical, but from a practical standpoint, I don't have all the same kinds and I'm not willing to buy more simply for looks. 

I make sure they are in good repair, stand straight, and do their job - hold up my tomatoes sturdily! 


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