Why Tomato Plants Need Support, and How to Do it Right


New and experienced growers know that gardening is a lot of work.  Setting up support for your tomato plants is another time-consuming task that many of us would rather skip.  However, if you want to keep your plants healthy and get a good yield at harvest, you need to support your tomato plants.

So, why do tomato plants need support?  Using support for tomato plants will help to avoid disease, discourage pests, keep fruit clean, reduce competition between plants, make plant care easier, and prevent fallen or damaged plants.

There are several ways to provide support for your tomato plants, including stakes, cages, trellises, and ropes.  Let’s take a closer look at why to support your tomato plants and how you can do it.

Why Do Tomato Plants Need Support?

Tomato plants survived just fine on their own for many years, but over time, humans have bred them for a specific purpose: more and larger fruit at harvest time.

Tomato plants cannot always support these larger fruits without some type of structure that they can hold onto as they climb towards the sun.  When tomato plants without support fall over and crawl across the ground, they are more susceptible to diseases and pests.

Avoid Disease

When your tomato plants are allowed to crawl across the ground, more of the plant’s vines and leaves are in contact with the soil.  This increases the risk of the plant becoming infected with a soil-borne pathogen.

Also, more of the plant is in contact with wet soil after rain or watering.  This leads to a higher chance of rot or mildew for the leaves, vines, or fruit of the tomato plant.

This is especially true in areas with high humidity and little wind.  The lack of air circulation and high moisture content in the air means water is slow to evaporate, and the tomato plant stays wet longer, increasing the chance of infection and rot.

One common sign of some serious tomato diseases is black on the leaves, stems, or fruit. For more information, check out my article on black spots on tomato plants.

Discourage Pests

Many pests that crawl along the ground, such as slugs, will have an easier time feasting on your tomatoes when they are touching the ground.  Keeping your plants staked up will make it a bit more difficult for these pests to attack the fruit or the plant.

Installing support for your tomato plants will make it easier to fight off certain pests.  For example, you can use diatomaceous earth to form a ring around each tomato plant, which will kill any ants that try to cross over it.

fire ants
Combating ants in your garden is easier when tomatoes have support!

This, in turn, will prevent the ants from “farming” and protecting aphids, which suck the juice out of your plants, causing damage or death. For more information, check out my article on how to get rid of aphids.

Supporting your tomato plants will also make it easier to treat the whole plant with homemade anti-pest solutions, such as water and dish soap, by allowing you to apply the treatment while standing.

Keep Fruit Clean

When tomato plants have no support, much of the fruit comes in contact with the soil.  This means that your fruit ends up covered with dirt.  It also means that your tomatoes are covered with germs from anything that crawled over them, including chipmunks, woodchucks, and slugs.

grape tomatoes
You will get cleaner fruit when tomatoes are supported.

In addition, a tomato with a small hole in its skin will rot much faster on the ground than on the vine.  As many gardeners will tell you, when one tomato rots, the others around it tend to rot more quickly as well.

Reduce Competition Between Plants

When tomato plants are allowed to “sprawl” across your garden soil without support, they tend to spread out quite a bit.  This means that two adjacent plants may come into contact as the season goes on.

At this point, the plants will start to compete for light, as the leaves of one plant block sunlight from getting to leaves of the other plant.

Make Plant Care Easier

By supporting your tomato plants, you prevent the “sprawl” mentioned earlier.  This makes it easier to control weeds in your garden, water and fertilize your plants, and harvest your fruit.

For one thing, you can lay down a layer of grass clippings, leaves, or mulch between plants in order to prevent weeds from growing at all.  If any weeds do grow, you will have more space to pull them up, without having to worry about stepping on tomato vines or fruit.

Also, clearing up the ground space between plants makes it easier to access your plants to water or fertilize them throughout the season.

At the end of the season, you will have a much easier time harvesting your tomatoes.  First of all, you can pick most of them while standing up, instead of having to stoop or kneel to get tomatoes close to the ground.

In addition, you will be able to see the tomatoes more easily, meaning that you won’t miss any that are hiding underneath leaves and vines.

Prevent Fallen or Damaged Plants

Sometimes, your tomato plants can be a victim of their own success.  For one thing, if they grow too tall (especially indeterminate varieties), they may not be able to support their own weight, causing them to lose balance and fall over.  Providing support to your tomatoes makes this less likely.

In addition, a large amount of fruit can also weigh down your tomato plant and cause damage.  Fruit that is too heavy can cause branches to weaken and break off, leading to a loss of the fruit on that branch.

In some cases, the entire plant may fall over due to the combined height of the plant and weight of the tomatoes.  Using support will help to prevent this and the problems mentioned above.

How Do You Support Tomato Plants?

By now, you are probably convinced of the need to support your tomato plants.  But how exactly do you provide this support?

Stakes

Stakes are one classic, tried-and-true method of providing support for tomato plants.  The idea is simple: first, you drive a stake into the ground close to where the tomato plant will grow.

tomato stakes
Tomato stakes are a classic way to support your plants. You can use many things that you might have lying around.

Then, as the plant grows taller, you tie the top part of the plant to the stake.  This prevents the plant from falling over or snapping due to wind or its own weight.

Stakes come in all shapes and sizes, but for best results, use stakes that are 6 to 8 feet tall.  For one thing, some of the stake will need to be underground to keep the entire support from falling over.

Also, determinate tomatoes might only grow to 3 to 5 feet tall, but some indeterminate tomato varieties can grow to 6 to 7 feet or more, so having the extra height for your stake is a good idea.

Your stakes can be made of wood, metal, plastic, or bamboo.  However, you should avoid using anything in your garden that has been chemically treated, such as pressure-treated wood.  In a pinch, you can use old metal fence posts or spare PVC piping, for starters.

Thinner stakes are easier to work with, but it might be difficult to drive them deep into the ground, and they might bend or break more easily than thicker stakes.

Stakes are easy to install and remove every season, which is helpful if you practice crop rotation (which you should!)

Cages

Cages are another popular way to support your tomatoes.  The idea of a cage is to create a barrier all around the tomato plant, so that it cannot fall over.  Instead, the plant will lean whichever way it wants, and then naturally climb up the cage towards the sun.

plant cage
A tomato cage is often made of metal or plastic, and surrounds the plant to give it support all around.

Shorter cages (4-5 feet tall) are good for determinate varieties of tomato plants, but indeterminate varieties will outgrow them by the end of the season.

Tomato cages are usually made of metal or plastic, although you might be able to find wooden tomato cages.  If not, you can construct your own, if you are handy.  Alternatively, you can have a friend or family member make cages for you, in exchange for some of the tomato harvest!

Cages may be a little more likely to discourage larger animals from messing with your tomato plants, but they can make it a little more difficult to harvest the fruit.

Cages are also fairly easy to transplant between seasons so that you can use crop rotation. You may not even need to tie your tomato plants to your cages, saving your some time!

For more information, check out my article on why to use tomato cages.

Trellises

A trellis is another way to support your plants, although this method is often used for plants with lighter fruit.  One advantage of a trellis is that you can put up an entire “wall” all at once.  Then, you can plant tomatoes at intervals in a row and allow them all to climb up the same trellis.

trellis
Your trellis may not be as fancy as this, but as long as it provides support and gets the job done, you’re all set!

However, a disadvantage of this method is that it will be difficult to harvest the tomatoes from the opposite side of the trellis.

In addition, a trellis is a bit more difficult to move between growing seasons.  If you want to use crop rotation, you will want to put different climbing plants near the trellis in alternating years.

For more information, check out my article on how tall a trellis should be.

Ropes

Ropes are another method you can use to support tomatoes.  The idea is to put a tall (8 feet) support post at either end of your row of tomatoes.  Next, run a strong, thick rope from one post to the other.

Then, tie thinner pieces of rope (one for each tomato plant) to the thick rope at 2 or 3 foot intervals, and let them hang down.

Finally, tie the thinner pieces of rope to a short stake in the ground, or to the tomato plants themselves.  As the tomato plants grow, they can climb up the rope, or you can help them by twisting the rope around them.

One advantage of this method is that you do not need to tie any knots to attach your tomatoes to the support.

One disadvantage of this method is that it is not easy to transport between growing seasons, which is a problem if you want to use crop rotation.

A-Frames

An A-frame is another method you can use to support your tomatoes.  The idea is to build an A-frame out of wood, plastic, or metal, and then secure it by putting both ends into the ground.

One advantage of this method is that each A-frame can support two tomato plants (one plant can grow up each leg of the A-frame).

One disadvantage is that it will probably be harder to find these A-frames at traditional garden retailers.  You may have to get creative and build your own!

How to Tie Tomato Plants to Supports

Use thin twine to tie tomato plants to supports, since it is easier to work with than thick rope. For more information, check out my article on types of twine and other uses for twine.

Don’t tie the knots too tight.  Tomato vines start thin and become thicker throughout the season, so give them room to grow.

Tie a double knot so that the knots don’t come undone.  Also, make sure to re-tie every week, or when the tomatoes have grown another foot since the last tying.

twine ball
You probably won’t need this much twine – at least, not this year!

In addition, make sure to tie your tomatoes before a big storm, to prevent the tops from breaking off in the wind and rain.

If there are numerous suckers (side vines, not main vines) on the tomato plant, consider pinching them off or pruning them back, rather than tying them to the support.  It can get too crowded otherwise, and branches that hang down close to the soil can get infected with diseases when dirt splashes up in the rain.

Where Do You Get Supports for Tomato Plants?

You can find tomato plant supports online or at garden centers, or you can build your own from scratch.  If you opt for this route, there are numerous plans available online.  Check out this page from Morning Chores for more ideas for tomato plant supports.

When Do You Set Up and Take Down Supports for Tomato Plants?

Ideally, you should put up tomato plant supports in the spring before you plant.  Installing supports after you plant can damage the roots.  Keep in mind that if you try to do install supports too early, the ground will still be hard with frost.

If you must install supports after planting (you gardening rookie, you), then make sure to push in the stakes or legs far enough away from the plants that you do not disturb the roots.

You should remove your supports in the fall, after harvesting your tomatoes.  This will make less work for you in the spring, and it will be less tempting to leave them in the same place.

If you plant the tomatoes in the same place year after year, you increase the likelihood of diseases.  For this reason, be sure to practice crop rotation, where you put different plants in a given location each year, usually on 2, 3, or 4 year cycle.

Conclusion

By now, you should have a good idea of why supports for tomato plants are a good idea.  You should also know about the different types of supports and materials you can use, where to find them, and when to set them up.

I hope this article was helpful.  If you have any questions or advice of your own about supporting tomato plants, please leave a comment below.

jonathon.david.madore

Hi, I'm Jon. Let's solve your gardening problems, spend more time growing, and get the best harvest every year!

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