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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

GIVING TOMATOES THE SUPPORT THEY NEED

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

When warm weather arrives in early summer, our garden tomatoes will start to grow very fast. Once a plant is a foot or so tall, it will start to branch. As rapid growth continues, the plant flops over and grows along the ground unless it is provided with support. Left to grow horizontally, the vine will develop more and more branches, eventually becoming a tangled mess.

As noted last week, sturdy tomato cages are usually adequate support for shorter determinate tomatoes, but the taller indeterminate types need more support. This can be provided by staking each plant individually or building a trellis.

Staking individual plants involves pounding a sturdy 6-8 foot stake firmly into the ground three to four inches away from the plant. To avoid injuring the roots, do this within two weeks of planting in the garden and before branching begins.

When the vine is a foot tall, tie it to the stake using a soft tying material that won=t cut into the stem, such as strips of nylon pantyhose, or use one of the commercial tying materials available at garden stores.

After this, pinch out any side shoots or Asuckers.@ These side shoots develop between the base of a leaf and the main stem. A tomato plant staked and Apruned@ in this way produces fewer tomatoes per vine, but the fruit that does develop will be larger. However, it makes the fruit more prone to blossom end rot and sunburn. You can try to avoid these problems by also leaving the first sucker that starts to grow above the first flower cluster that develops. Any other suckers or shoots are removed, leaving two main shoots.

If you are a gardener who grows more than a few tomato plants, consider building a trellis for support. The ABasket Weave@ or AFlorida Weave@ is commonly used to trellis commercially grown tomatoes. Using this system space, your plants 18 to 24 inches apart and then place 6 to 7 foot stakes between every plant or every three plants. Use strong posts, such as a metal T or a 4×4 inch wooden fence post, at the ends of the row.

When plants are a foot tall, it=s time to start Astringing@ the trellis using non-stretching twine, such as baler=s twine, or wire. Secure the twine or wire to the end post and then run it on one side of the tomatoes and fix it to the next stake. (Hint: Twine can be fixed by wrapping it around the stake.) Keeping the Astring@ taught, continue running it to the second stake on the opposite side of the tomatoes and fixing it to the next stake. Continue weaving the Astring@ in this manner until you get to the end post, fasten it to the post, then return the Astring@ to the beginning post by weaving it back on the opposite sides of the tomatoes, and finally fastening it to the post. Repeat the process every time the plants grow eight to ten inches.

So that you don=t have dense, overcrowded vines, prune your trellised tomatoes. Leave two shoots per plant if they are spaced two feet apart and three shoots if spaced three feet apart. Many gardeners often use their own variation of the ABasket Weave@ or design ingenious other trellises that work for them. The key to success is building a trellis that=s tall enough and sturdy enough to support the vines. I think I=ll try trellising my tomatoes this year.

Published: 2/14/2014 1:51 PM

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