Tomato Cage or Stake: Your Guide to Choosing the Best for Your Garden

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Tomato Cage or Stake: Your Guide to Choosing the Best for Your Garden

Is It Better to Stake or Cage Your Tomato Plants?

Before you decide on whether a tomato cage or a stake is best for your garden, here is a checklist of things to consider when choosing: 

  • Types of tomatoes you are growing
  • Are the tomatoes determinate or indeterminate?
  • Tomato cages pros and cons 
  • Tomato stakes pros and cons 
  • Using a trellis or fence for tomatoes 
  • Other support options for tomatoes
  • Storing your tomato plant supports

Now let’s review each to help you make your choice for best tomato growing support for your needs. 

tomato cage or stake graphictomato cage or stake graphic

Types of Tomatoes for Tomato Plant Supports 

Tomato plants are the favorite of most home gardeners. When we think about the coming garden season, the thought of tomatoes still warm from the sun comes to mind first.  If you grow cherry tomatoes to pop in your mouth while outdoors or to add to your salads, there is nothing better than fresh tomatoes. But there are so many other uses for tomatoes! 

Think salsa or tomato sauce using the Roma tomato or the Italian heirloom sauce tomato Costoluto Genovese, along with other ingredients from your garden. Add a couple of heirloom tomatoes like the dark-colored tomatoes that include Paul Robeson, Cherokee Purple or Black Krim and enjoy their smoky rich flavor on your next sandwich. Try a great yellow tomato like Dr. Wyche or the orange tomato Kellogg’s Breakfast for a lighter taste experience. There are so many types of tomatoes to enjoy and ways to enjoy them. But first, you have to grow them — and to do that, most tomatoes need a bit of help.

Once you have decided what tomatoes you want to grow, and how many of each, it is time to decide on what type of plant support you will use to keep your tomatoes off the ground. Tomatoes can be left to grow on the ground. They will vine out much like pumpkins over the ground. The problem is you will lose a lot of tomatoes to disease and pests. Add to that the difficulty harvesting the tomatoes from the ground as they ripen without stepping on the vines or the remaining tomatoes. There is a good reason to cage or stake your tomatoes.

tomato cagestomato cages

Are Your Tomatoes Determinate or Indeterminate?

Tomatoes are either determinate or indeterminate. A determinate tomato will grow to a certain height, usually three to four feet, and be finished growing. The blossoms that are on the tomato at that point are the last that will develop and the last possibility of fruit. Indeterminate tomatoes will continue to grow and blossom until the conditions change. Indeterminate tomatoes can reach from six to 12 feet in length. In the tropics where tomatoes are native plants, they can actually grow to 25 feet long. 

The two things that affect indeterminate tomatoes are the length of the day and temperature. As the season progresses into fall, the days become shorter and the plants have fewer hours of sunlight. That is a signal to the tomato plant to stop blossoming and to put its energy into developing the fruit that is currently growing. The other factor is temperature. Tomatoes are very sensitive to cold and will die with exposure to frost. If there is going to be an early frost, you may be able to protect your plants by covering them with a frost blanket or other protection. Once you are in the usual frost time of the year, whatever fruit that still remains on the vine will need to be picked and allowed to ripen indoors. 

Obviously, the type of tomato you plan to grow will help to determine the type of support you will want to grow them on. You may be growing both types of tomatoes and decide to use both cages and stakes. The number of tomatoes you plan to grow may also influence the type of support. 

Tomato Cages Pros and Cons 

Tomato cages are the most common support and work especially well for the shorter determinate tomatoes. The cage can be made from metal or wood and basically surround the plant as it grows within the cage. The metal variety will range in quality and price. The better the quality, the more expensive the cage. This is a time where you get what you pay for. Your cages should last a number of years and maybe your gardening lifetime if you take care of them. The cheaper varieties may only last one or two seasons.  

The wire cages consist of vertical wires surrounded by several wire hoops that are attached at intervals from the bottom to the top of the vertical wires.  The overall strength of the wire will vary. The other vulnerable spot is where the wire is joined to form the hoop and the places the hoops are attached to the vertical elements. These connections often fail in the lower quality cages. If the wire itself is less sturdy or thinner, the weight of the plant with full-grown tomatoes can actually bend the cage. Another type of cage for your tomatoes is a wood cage. If you have some construction or carpentry skills, these wood cages could be a winter DIY project. They also can be purchased. Rather than hooped cages, these will be more box-like in shape, though they can be tapered. Another advantage of making your own cages is you can add more horizontal pieces to give the maximum plant support to your tomatoes. If you have scrap wood, the cost may be negligible. 

If you are growing indeterminate tomatoes, you can use a cage. The tomato will grow the height of the cage and then start to drape over the sides of the cage to the ground. This is a lot of weight on the cage. You will have to be sure the tomato vine is equally distributed around the cage to prevent it from tipping to one side or the other. This method will also block the sun and air from the interior of the cage, which could limit the production and make the plant more susceptible to disease and things like powdery mildew. 

bean ring supportbean ring support

Tomato Stakes Pros and Cons

A better choice is to stake your tomatoes. There are stakes available as long as 10 feet. They come in different materials like wood, bamboo, plastic and metal. Consider repurposing some leftover wood from a completed project, or the snow fence poles that won’t be needed again until winter. Most gardeners will prune their tomato to one or two stems when using stakes. The stem will need to be attached to the stake to hold it in place. Tomatoes do not have any tendrils or other means to help hold them to the stake. Plant ties or plant tape are available at your favorite online nursery in the garden supplies section and should be used to hold them without cutting into the stem. 

There is also a plastic device called a bean ring. This garden tool has openings to insert the tops of bamboo poles while the bottoms insert into the ground forming a pyramid. While this is designed for pole beans to cover and form a child’s hiding place, it can be functional as a way to support tomatoes. Attach several tomatoes around the pyramid to keep the weight balanced.

Using a Trellis or Fence for Tomatoes 

If you are going to raise a lot of tomatoes, you may want to consider staking them to a fence or trellis rather than individual stakes. You want the type of fence that is very open to allow the plant to weave in and out of the fencing. Good choices are cattle or hog fencing. There is also a trellis netting available that is easy to attach, lightweight and very strong. Set posts in the ground on either end of your garden bed and stretch the wire fence or netting between the posts.  

You can plant multiple tomatoes along the fence and just weave the plants in and out as they grow. When the tomato plant reaches the top of the fence, train it to grow along the top edge. This will require some pruning as you would if each tomato was growing individually.  Your tomatoes will have the plant support they need, they are easy to care for and even easier to see and pick the ripe tomato. If possible, rotate your tomatoes each year with other vertical gardening plants. Plant pole beans or peas, cucumbers or melons on the same type of structure and rotate the plants each year rather than planting the same plant in the same soil each year. This will minimize the chances of depleting the soil nutrients and spreading disease and pests. If you do need to plant the same vegetable in the same spot every year, be sure to amend the soil well each year. Remove any diseased plant material immediately.

garden supplies graphicgarden supplies graphic

Other Support Options for Tomatoes

There are other methods of supporting your tomatoes. Some gardeners have used PVC piping to construct a plant support for their tomatoes. Old ladders have been used successfully. The A-frame shape of the ladder is good for supporting the weight of a large tomato plant as long as you can anchor it securely into the ground. The weakness of this method is the vulnerability of the structure to wind. If your ladder tips in the wind, you lose tomatoes and maybe the entire plant. Securely anchor the ladder to withstand the wind. Another way to construct an A-frame structure is to use old pallets. Just butt two pallets together and secure them in the A-frame shape. Remove excess boards to allow air and light to reach your plants and to make picking the tomatoes easier. Secure the vines to the structure with plant tape or plant ties.

Storing Your Tomato Plant Supports

The final consideration when choosing plant supports is storage. The round metal cages do not collapse. You can stack them together, but they do take up space and the metal legs will stick out and snag clothes and other items. There are square cages which can be collapsed, and the flattened cages are a little easier to stack and store. If you want to use wood cages, look for cages with hinges so they can be collapsed when in storage. Keep storage in mind if you are going to DIY your wood cages. If you have to leave the cages in the garden during the winter season, the longevity of your cages will be significantly decreased. The individual stakes can be bundled together as they came from the garden supplies center. This will keep them together and take the minimum storage space. If you are growing lots of tomatoes and have decided to use the stock fence for support, the fence will remain where it is all year. 

placing tomato supports graphicplacing tomato supports graphic

There are so many options available to gardeners who are looking to experiment with all different types and styles of tomatoes. From stakes to tomato cages and other plant supports, you can try different styles and determine which one works best for you and your garden. Here’s a quick tip though: Remember to put your cages or stakes in place immediately when you plant the tomatoes. This will cause the least amount of damage to the root system of the plants. It will also make it a lot easier when your tomatoes get big, so you don’t have to try to tuck their many vines in and out of a stake in order to tame and support your tomato.