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Washington State University Extension

Garden Tips

TO CAGE OR NOT TO CAGE TOMATOES

written by
Marianne C. Ophardt
WSU Extension Faculty
for the Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, WA
published 2/7/14

For the past several years I have been trying different types of tomato cages for supporting my tomatoes, but these efforts have usually ended in failure. Last year windy weather resulted in all my cages and plants blowing over. What a disaster! Since I am obviously not an expert on staking tomatoes, I have been researching where I went wrong.

Tomato plants are a vine. When not provided with some type of structure for support, they will grow along the ground. If left to sprawl like this, an indeterminate tomato variety can take up as much as 16 square feet of garden area. That=s a lot of space for just one tomato plant. Plus, many of the fruit that develop touch the ground, increasing the potential of fruit rot.

Gardeners can maximize garden space and minimize fruit rot by providing tomato vines with support and growing them upright. Before we discuss caging, staking, and trellising, let=s talk about the difference between determinate and indeterminate tomatoes.

Determinate tomatoes are varieties with bushier, more restrained growth. Vines are shorter, growing from 3 to 4 feet in length. The main vines develop numerous branches which stop growing when the plants begin to flower. With all the flowers and fruit developing at the same time, commercial tomato growers favor determinant tomatoes for processing. The varieties, Celebrity, Oregon Spring, Bush Early Girl, and Rutgers are popular determinate garden tomato varieties. Many early season tomatoes are determinate varieties.

Indeterminate tomatoes are varieties with vines that keep growing and growing until frost kills them in the fall. Their vines can grow from 6 to 12 feet in length or longer. They flower and fruit over a period of two months or more. While indeterminate varieties typically develop mature fruit later in the season, they tend to produce more tomatoes over the entire season. Many of the heirloom varieties popular with gardeners today have an indeterminate growth habit.

So where did I go wrong? I used tomato cages, the 3-4

types, commonly sold to gardeners. These cages will work fairly well for caging determinant tomatoes. As noted earlier, determinate tomatoes are more compact and most only reach a height of three or four feet.

The indeterminate tomato varieties that I have been growing are much too big for these short cages. They require taller, more substantial support in the form of a tall wire cage, sturdy trellis, or strong stake, especially when you live in a region like ours that sometimes experiences strong summer winds.

Indeterminate tomatoes can be Acaged@ by constructing a 2

diameter cylinder type cage with 5

hog wire (the type used for reinforcing concrete) or using a heavy gauge wire cattle fencing panel to make a square cage with 18″ wide sides. The cage must be anchored to the ground in some way, especially in windy areas, such placing a length of rebar inside the cage and pounding it a foot or more into the ground. Place cages three to four feet apart in the garden.

You may want to consider making your own cages like these for growing indeterminate tomatoes. Caged tomatoes are unpruned (less work) and tend to yield more fruit per vine than staked tomatoes, but the fruit is smaller. Next week I will finish up this ATomatoes@ series with information on staking and trellising tomatoes.

Published: 2/7/2014 1:56 PM

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