Tomato Cages, Stakes, or Trellises: Which is Best?

The truth is, there is no one-size-fits-all method of growing tomatoes. There are so many varieties of tomatoes and so many different garden spaces. However, after having tried many different tomato-growing methods, let us spare you from some of our own mistakes and frustrations.

Tomatoes grown in a garden will sprawl if you don’t support them. If you let them sprawl, the tomatoes themselves are more likely to sit on the ground and rot, even if you have a good layer of hay mulch for them to sit on.

So how to grow them vertically? You can (basically) use either stakes, trellises, or tomato cages. With any of these methods, your tomatoes will be up off the ground and less likely to rot.

"T" steel fence posts.

“T” steel fence posts.

Stakes

Stakes were our least-favorite method of growing tomatoes. But don’t let me influence you because they may work really well for you.

Pros:

  • It takes up less garden space AND storage space than either of the other methods.
  • Easiest to install.
  • The stakes can be removed each year, allowing for rotation of the tomato patch.
  • Because you have to prune your tomatoes when using the staking method, your tomato plants will produce tomatoes sooner, and each tomato will likely be larger. This is a result of more of the tomato’s energy going toward ripening the tomatoes, rather than in leaf growth. (But there will be fewer tomatoes overall.)
  • The tomato plants will be more open and airy, making them less susceptible to some diseases.
  • Easy to harvest the tomatoes.

tied tomatoes to stakesCons:

  • Most time-consuming to maintain. (With 8 tomatoes growing along a row, we had to prune and tie at least one tomato every day to keep up with it.)
  • If you don’t tie the tomato up consistently and in multiple places, too much pressure may be placed on one stem or branch, causing it to snap.
  • The pruning will open the plant up more, allowing more light to reach the tomatoes, which can cause sun scald.
  • Pruning also results in fewer leaves available to catch the light of the sun. This reduces the plant’s overall production ability, so the total yield will be smaller.
  • The tomato plants will be more open to sun and wind, so the plant will require more water. This shouldn’t be much of a problem, as long as you mulch heavily. (We prefer wood chip mulch.)
  • The steel fence posts are heavy, and the pounder (or driver) is even heavier.

Our experience growing with stakes wasn’t great. It was a huge hassle to prune and tie the tomatoes. The yield was pretty good, but we had many tomatoes (I’d say about 10-20%) with sun scald. If a branch snapped, the tomatoes would end up on the ground and rot before the next day (in our hot, humid weather) since there wasn’t a second tie or lots of other branches that would catch it, like there would be with a tomato cage.

Bamboo teepees for supporting tomatoes. We've never tried this particular method ourselves.

Bamboo teepees for supporting tomatoes. We’ve never tried this particular method ourselves.

You can use rebar or wooden stakes (at least 6-8′ long), or “T” steel fence posts (pictured above). We’ve even see tomatoes staked with bamboo teepees. Bamboo probably isn’t strong enough to use as a flat stake, but a teepee should be strong enough. All stakes will need to be driven at least a foot or two into the ground for stability. You’ll need a post driver or a mallet for steel or wooden stakes.

You’ll want to get the posts in the ground before transplanting your tomatoes to avoid damaging the tomato’s roots. Plant the tomatoes 3-5″ away from the stakes.

*Tip: If you drive the stakes in downwind of where the tomato plants will be, the tomatoes will lean into the stakes with heavy wind. Of course, wind directions can change, so use the prevailing wind direction to determine where to drive the stakes.

Tie the stem of the tomato plant to the stake as it grows. Prune when necessary, and remove all suckers. You can use strips of nylon stocking, yarn, zip ties, coated wires, tomato velcro, or bailing twine. Do NOT tie the tomato stem flush against the stake. It will need room for movement on windy days, and for growth.

tomatoes-tied-to-a-stake

This is too tight.
Photo credit

You don't want this happening. Photo credit

You don’t want this happening.
Photo credit

 

Flimsy tomato cage wire being bent by the weight of the tomato plants.

Flimsy tomato cage wire being bent by the weight of the tomato plants.

Tomato Cages

The right tomato cages are one of our favorite ways to grow tomatoes.

Pros:

  • They provide good all-around support.
  • Once they’re all set up for the year, no more pruning, pinching off suckers, tying, or training the vines.
  • The tomatoes are less likely to be damaged by sun scald due to large amounts of leafy cover.
  • These flimsy, store-bought tomato cages were too short and didn't support the full height of the tomatoes. The plants bent and split during a storm.

    These flimsy, store-bought tomato cages were too short and didn’t support the full height of the tomatoes. The plants bent and split during a storm.

    With the full leaf cover, the soil will stay shaded. Especially with a good layer of mulch, this means more moisture will be retained, keeping levels consistent which helps prevent cracking of the tomatoes and blossom end rot.

  • You can easily wrap the cages with greenhouse plastic (a foot or two high) in cooler weather, which may give the tomatoes a little extra warmth and protection, and help the soil around the tomato warm up more quickly in the spring.
  • You can either remove the stakes and cages at the end of each year and store them in a shed or garage, allowing for rotation in the garden. Or you can leave them out from year to year, planting tomatoes in the same spot. (See notes below.)

Cons: 

  • If you get the wrong tomato cages, or set them up wrong, tomato cages can easily tip over (due to wind or the weight of the tomatoes themselves), mangling your plants possibly landing on other nearby plants. They’re also difficult to get back into place when this happens.
  • Don't use this type of wire to support your tomatoes. It's way too thin. Photo credit

    Don’t use this type of wire to support your tomatoes. It’s way too thin.
    Photo credit

    Can be difficult to harvest some tomatoes, especially if you have to keep reaching in through the wires. But in my opinion, this is a heck of a lot less time than the pruning, tying, and training required with other methods.

  • It may take tomatoes near the middle of the plant a little longer to ripen with the amount of foliage filling the tomato cage by the end of the summer.
  • With lots of foliage, the tomato may be more susceptible to molds, mildews, and fungi diseases. You can help prevent this by watering only at ground level (and not getting any water on the leaves), and with a good layer of mulch, which will keep diseases in the soil from reaching the leaves.
  • Tomato cages take up the most space in the garden of all three methods.
  • If you pull the cages out of the garden and store them for the winter, they take up a large amount of space. (We put them around other things – pots, tools, etc. – to try to minimize the amount of ‘lost’ space.

Notes:

Since tomato cages are so varied, and since your success with tomato cages depends a lot on setting them up right in the first place, here are some things you need to know.

  • This is the kind of wire you want.Photo credit

    This is the kind of wire you want.
    Photo credit

    The store-bought cages are simply not going to cut it for most tomatoes you’ll grow in your garden. They may be suitable for some of the shorter determinate varieties. If you want to grow any indeterminate varieties, you’re probably going to have to make your own tomato cages.

  • To make your own, make sure you get good, strong wire, like concrete reinforcement wire. (I knew it as ‘hogwire’ or ‘hog panel’ when I was growing up, but you may not find it under that name any more.) Here’s a great DIY Tomato Cage Tutorial from Cottage at the Crossroads.
  • Make sure you get wire that has square openings large enough for your hand to easily fit through. Definitely not rectangle openings.
  • You will need to stake the tomato cages somehow.
    • You can use steel fence posts (the same that you would use for simply staking a tomato plant), pounding it into the ground and tying the cage to the stake. If you stake the tomato cages in a row, each tomato cage, except the two end cages, will be tied to two stakes. Even better. This is my favorite way to do it. Might as well make each stake pull double-duty.

      We like to stake the tomatoes while they're young (with small stakes or heavy-duty stakes), and then just slip a cage over them when they start to fill out.

      We like to stake the tomatoes while they’re young (with small stakes or heavy-duty stakes), and then just slip a cage over them when they start to fill out.

    • Or you can use tent stakes. It works best if your garden has clay soil, or you live in a low wind area. Tent stakes aren’t large enough to penetrate deeply, and sandy or loamy soil won’t hold them very well. This is a quicker, easier method, but they’re certainly not as sturdy as using steel fence posts.
  • If you choose to leave your stakes and cages out in the same spot for easier planting the next year, be aware that they will rust more quickly. Also, if you leave them in the garden so you can plant tomatoes in the same spot each year, your tomato plants may be more susceptible to diseases, though we have found this to be less of a problem with a good, thick layer of wood chip mulch (which protects from soil-borne diseases).

 

Tomato Trellises

Like tomato cages, trellises come in all shapes and sizes. The basic form is a row of stakes with wire or string forming horizontal supports in between the stakes.

Using hog panel and steel stakes to form the trellis is my other favorite way of staking tomatoes.

Pros:

  • The tomatoes can be grown closer together than when using tomato cages. You can plant them every 18-24″, planting them on every other side each time.
  • If you use hog panel (or cement reinforcement wire) as your trellis, it’s easy to weave the tomatoes back and forth through the large squares. However, this is a more permanent method. Though the stakes and panels can be removed each year, it’s very time consuming. It’s more likely the stakes and hogwire trellis will be left in place from year to year. To prevent tomatoes from becoming diseased, use a thick layer of mulch (we like wood chip mulch) and plenty of compost, and water properly. This trellis method also allows the tomato plant to produce plenty of foliage, which will shade the ground, providing the same benefits as caged tomatoes.
  • preparing a trellisTrellises formed from stakes and string/rope are easy to set up, and the tomato plants have a little more support than they would with just a stake. BUT, you would still have to do an awful lot of tying and training as the tomato plant grows. If the tomato plant isn’t growing  However, the stakes and strings are much easier to remove each year than stakes and hogwire panels are.
  • No matter what stake and trellis form you use, the tomatoes are easier to harvest than they are with tomato cages.
  • Tomatoes along trellises can usually grow fuller in form than staked tomatoes, which protects the soil and shades the tomatoes (more detail above, if you missed it).

Cons: 

  • Hog panel and stake trellises are labor intensive to set up, and are usually at least a permanent feature after that. They’re also more expensive initially.
  • You will have to do some weaving and tying up and training with trellises. The amount of time involved varies, depending on which type of trellis you use and your tomato plants’ growth.

Tomatoes that Don’t Need Staking

Shorter and stockier tomatoes may not need staking. Some indeterminate varieties, and dwarf or patio varieties may only need light support (eg. the tiny tomato cages you buy from garden centers). They usually produce smaller tomatoes (often cherry or grape tomatoes) but if you grow these types of tomato plants, you get the reward of juicy, vine-ripened tomatoes without the hassle of staking your tomato plants.

No matter what form of support you use to grow your garden tomatoes, it’s always worth the effort!

cages stakes or trellises which is best for growing tomatoes 02

 

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22 Responses to Tomato Cages, Stakes, or Trellises: Which is Best?

  1. linda spiker November 4, 2014 at 12:25 pm #

    Wow! I am so impressed! Your garden is amazing. I had two tomato plants this year and got two tomatoes on each. I guess I have a brown thumb:(

    • Anni November 4, 2014 at 3:43 pm #

      Linda,
      How strange! A couple of things I can think of: 1) No bees or 2) Not enough sunlight. If the plants flowered, but didn’t produce more than a couple of tomatoes, then next year, when the flowers are on, just give them a little shake every other day or so. That moves the pollen around enough that the fruit can begin forming. If they didn’t get enough sunlight, plant them in a sunnier spot, if you can.

      • Susan May 22, 2017 at 3:39 pm #

        I recommend that you start planting flowers in your garden to attract the bees. Also look into saving the bees and starting a hive somewhere near your garden. I have started mason bees for our garden. They are not aggressive and do not sting very often. As I am allergic to bees this was a good choice as I really want to do my part to save the bees. I loved this year seeing the bees in the marigolds before I even had a chance to plant them! Good luck!

  2. Jessica November 4, 2014 at 12:26 pm #

    Pinning for garden season. thanks.

  3. Emily @ Recipes to Nourish November 4, 2014 at 1:45 pm #

    Really informative post. Thank you for sharing this. I am looking forward to having a garden again so I can grow more of my own food. I will at least do my best to get some tomatoes potted so my kids can enjoy some cherry tomatoes this summer.

    • Anni November 4, 2014 at 3:41 pm #

      Thanks, Emily. Kids can never leave cherry tomatoes alone. They’re great! 🙂

      • J. Murphy May 12, 2017 at 12:48 pm #

        Our bees disappeared last summer (my neighbors have been convinced to not use pesticides) so I improvised by using an artist’s paint brush going from blossom to blossom distributing the pollen myself. Granted I only had six plants, but it was worth it.

  4. Dina-Marie @ Cultured Palate November 4, 2014 at 3:39 pm #

    Thanks for sharing – I have always used cages. The lamb is adorable!

  5. Loriel @ Naturally Loriel November 4, 2014 at 3:48 pm #

    Such helpful tips! Pinning. Thank you!

  6. Sarah @ Sensibly Sustainable November 4, 2014 at 6:22 pm #

    Great info, very thorough, thanks! My husband and I were thinking about trying a “florida weave” trellis, but haven’t tried it yet… have you ever tried anything like that?

    • Anni November 4, 2014 at 6:50 pm #

      Yes, we’ve heard of it, but we’ve never done it. I think it would be easier than staking and tying, but less easy than trellising. You’ll have to let us know how it goes!

  7. Renee Kohley November 4, 2014 at 7:09 pm #

    Ok I am staking next year for sure – great resourse – thank you!

  8. Megan Stevens November 5, 2014 at 9:47 am #

    Thanks for the great tips!! Not pain-stake-ingly conveyed, as it’s obvious you guys love the life you live. 🙂 Couldn’t resist the bad pun, sorry, lol. Great photos too.

    • Anni November 5, 2014 at 5:20 pm #

      🙂 Love it!

  9. Debi @ Life Currents November 5, 2014 at 11:03 am #

    Thanks for all this info. This is great! and your garden is beautiful! I think my tomatoes are done for the year. Though there’s one little bush out there that I hope will make it through the winter.

  10. Jennifer Margulis November 5, 2014 at 11:42 am #

    The deer came and ate my tomatoes down to the bone this year. I think we need better fencing. It was because someone left the gate open though. I love growing tomatoes (we use both cages and stakes) but boy was gardening this year discouraging.

    • Anni November 5, 2014 at 5:20 pm #

      Aw man, that’s so sad! Deer can do some serious damage in a garden.

  11. Alyssa August 20, 2015 at 12:22 pm #

    This is my first year growing tomatoes, and I was given a plant by a friend. I planted the tomato plant in the ground with a store bought trellis. Everything seemed to be going fine, my plant was getting rather large and I have at least 30 tomatoes starting to bloom. I recently discovered the plant I was given was a big boy tomato plant, and after researching, learned that they can grow quite big! With recent storms and wind, my plant has started tilting and the trellis around it is bending and warped. I’m worried I will lose all my tomatoes before I get to harvest any. Any suggestions on what to do at this point to get it upright again??

    • Anni August 27, 2015 at 10:58 am #

      Not seeing exactly what it’s looking like, this is what I would (presumably) do. Pound in 4 or 5 stakes (big, tall, thick wood ones; or even some solid T steel stakes) around the plant, right about at the edge of the plant. Then get some durable hog wire panel/fencing, and encircle the tomato plant with it, on the INSIDE of the poles (not the around the outside). Carefully pull your tomato plant to an upright position as you do so, and helping weave some of the branches through the squares in the fencing. Cut the fencing to the right length, and bend the loose wires around the other end of the fencing to complete the circle. Tie the fencing to the poles.
      Good luck!

  12. Chris September 8, 2016 at 2:57 am #

    Thanks for the tips 🙂 I have used the trellises before with good success but yes set up and pull down us tedious. Tried stakes last year and wasn’t happy. Will go back to trellis again this year because. I want to use as much of the space as possible.

    Thank you 🙂

  13. Charles Whitt May 1, 2017 at 10:35 am #

    The worst thing about cages is that they make weeding and cultivating very, very, difficult. Also it is harder to harvest through the wire. I tried store cages and found them woefully inadequate in just about every way. My experience with store cages told me that cages, no matter how good would still have the same drawbacks for weeding, and cultivating.

    I use mostly wooden stakes about 6 1/2 feet long. I sucker and tie the plants, but never prune them. Here is a tip that may help tomato growers. I have a stand of bamboo growing on my place. I sometimes use them for tomato stakes. They cannot be driven into the ground, so I use a battery drill and a 1 1/2in. auger I got at the flea market. No pounding, etc. I grow between 40 and 60 tomato plants every year and stake them all. I can sucker and tie them all in about 45 minutes. No big deal for me. Using the cordless drill really saves time and energy.

    • Anni May 31, 2017 at 8:50 pm #

      I don’t use the small cages. I find or order the large, 8-foot tall ones. They have a narrow base (about 1 1/2 feet wide) and it’s quite easy to weed around them and the tomato plants.
      That said, I actually agree with you, after more years of experience, that I have come to prefer trellising. I have grown tomatoes as cordons a couple of times, and I like that method, even though it’s a bit more work, because of how much better they’ve grown and how much I’ve harvested.

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