grow healthy tomatoes: staking and pruning

Tomato trial fields at High Mowing Organic Seeds, with staked and pruned plantsI HAVE ALWAYS CAGED my tomatoes, but many experts agree that staking–and regularly pruning and tying the staked plants as they grow–is the most space-efficient and also most hygienic tactic of all, helping manage the potential for disease while yielding plenty of fruit. With tomato-transplant time just ahead here, I’ve been studying up with experts like Tom Stearns (that’s his High Mowing Organic Seeds tomato trial field, above) on how to stake and prune tomatoes, and other tips for producing a healthy, bountiful crop. 

Staked plants will ripen faster crops of generally larger fruit. Stakes must be at least 1 inch thick and 6 feet high, inserted a foot into the ground.  Adding supporting twine between stakes (as in the photo above) helps add stability; some gardeners lash horizontal cross-pieces of bamboo between stakes instead. Either way, as the plant grows you continue to tie it to the support with twine or twist-ties.

Remember: Staked plants require a commitment to ongoing pruning, keeping the plant to one or two main stems of vine-like, not bush, habit. All small suckers that develop in the crotches between the leaves and the main stem must be removed.

good ‘tomato hygiene’

WHAT’S MOST APPEALING to me is that staking can help with disease prevention, which actually begins with selecting an appropriately disease-resistant variety (Cornell has a list of what variety resists what).

Certain fungal pathogens, such as septoria and early blight, reside in the soils of the Northeast, mid-Atlantic and upper Midwest in particular, Stearns explained to me. That means that no matter how much you move your tomatoes around year to year–how much you rotate your crop–you can’t completely avoid these troubles.

“Rotating where you grow your tomatoes is not really going to help—so you must manage the disease,” says Stearns. What he calls “good tomato hygiene” starts with wide spacing, pruning and staking–all aimed at good air circulation. Tom’s tips:

  • Growing tomatoes on black plastic landscape fabric increases soil heat, provides weed control and help with soil-splash control–keeping some of those soil-borne spores from getting up onto the plant by creating a barrier.
  • Strip the lower leaves from the plants to eliminate the “ladder” for spores splashing up from the soil as well.
  • Trellis and stake tomatoes, and prune them to get rid of suckers.
  • Focus on air circulation this way, too: Place tomatoes on the edge of a bed, not the middle, and never do a teepee or other too-close tangle of tomatoes.
  • With staked tomatoes, 18 inches between plants within a row is a good distance. Leave at least 4 feet between rows; more is better.
  • Overfertilized, too-fast-growing plants are a target for trouble, and more inviting to disease; don’t overfeed.

Juliet small paste tomatoes

more help with tomatoes

(Photo of High Mowing Organic Seeds tomato trial field courtesy of High Mowing.)

  1. Ashley says:

    I have not caged in years, I grow my tomatoes along the outside of my fence. I usually need to do a little tying to the fence, but I keep it light. Last year I also added the Florida Weave to my canning tomatoes, which I grow multiple plants of. It was easy, kept everything looking nice & I didn’t get any disease!

    1. margaret says:

      Thanks, Ashley, for the hands-on insights. I love my cages — easy, easy. But I am about to change my ways — or at least test!

  2. Barbara says:

    Hi Margaret, This will be my third year of using livestock fencing for my tomatoes and my spring peas. They seem to thrive on the good air circulation and with taking off the lower leaves as you suggested I have escaped late blight in Maine. Of course, I do battle with the tomato hornworm trying to keep one step ahead of them. I believe a couple of years ago Fine Gardening had an article about livestock fencing.

  3. devra says:

    thanks for the reminder. i’m transplanting my tomatoes with this to-do list in my pocket! i had a nasty late blight situation last year and can use all of the help i can get…

  4. Brian G. says:

    I’ve been doing this for a couple of years using the “florida weave”. First year worked great; no diseases and a slow but steady crop. But it was a later crop. I think pruning so aggressively makes for a later crop.

    Last year I wasn’t so attentive to pruning and left too many vines in place which resulted in more fruit but an unmanageable mess. More vines and less air circulation also resulted in late blight which wiped out my end of season fruit.

    All told, it’s a very good method if you have can commit the time and patience. It is also essentially free. No need to buy expensive cages. All you need are a few stakes and some twine.

  5. sean says:

    I wonder why there is no mention of minerals and their effects on how a plant deals with disease. Trellising is the most efficient with the earliest and most marketable fruits. But you can do just fine letting plants sprawl on the ground for a home garden as long as your soil contains a particular arrangement of elements and micro-organisms. Calcium is extremely important, defines cell capacitor characteristics, barriers at the cellular level to ward off disease. Also, if caught early enough some people use highly diluted H2O2 (hydrogen peroxide; a water molecule with an extra oxygen atom) the oxygen concentration kills bacteria and fungi. Another trick to the earliest yields is to limit the number of fruits per cluster.

    1. margaret says:

      Thanks for the added tips, Sean, about minerals and also about “thinning.”

      Hi, Elena. Waiting for the slightly warmer nights here, too!

      Welcome, Nancy. I am using black paper this year — a special biodegradable kind — as an experiment. I just hate the plastic, but I know it works (used to use it).

      1. Jess says:

        Hey Margaret,
        What kind of black paper? Do you have a link? I know you said you haven’t used it yet, but I’d like to check it out. I don’t want to use plastic either. Thanks!

  6. Elena Bray says:

    I love High Mowing,being here in Vermont,just got 12 tomato plants from California,all very different varieties,cannot wait to plant them,if the weather kicks in warm1

  7. Evee M says:

    Growing up my dad always trained the cherry tomatoes on livestock panels (fencing that is about 50 inches tall) and I didn’t know people caged them until I was older. This has always worked well for me, and now I grow cherry tomatoes for the farmer’s market.

  8. Donna says:

    Hi Margaret,

    I agree about the air circulation – the more the better! I’ve written myself a strongly worded note in my garden journal to add 18″ to the spacing that seems appropriate at the time. It’s so easy for me to plant too close when they’re little babies. :-)

    I haven’t staked in years, partly because the heirloom tomato plants I grow are often downright huge and they can use all the support they can get. (Plus, like you said, caging has just been easier.) If a gardener decides to stick with caging after trying staking, let me recommend Texas Tomato Cages. I have no personal stake in the company, I’m just an extremely satisfied customer. http://tomatocage.com/

    Happy Gardening

  9. Thanks for the valuable information. It’s a relief to hear about how some of the fungal diseases are already in the soil and rotating doesn’t matter. We have such a small garden that space is a huge issue.
    I grow Romas or determinate types of tomatoes so I cage them. However, I think that I will definitely be stripping off lower leaves and do some pruning to help with air circulation. I also want to plant other vegetables in between some of the tomatoes to maybe help prevent any spread of disease. We also have used black mulch for years which really helps in our northeast (Ohio) climate.
    Thanks again…this was really a help!

  10. mikeinportc says:

    The removal of lower foliage, to prevent the ” ladder effect” makes sense. I’ve never understood the pruning of suckers, though. The usual rationale, to keep energy going into fruit, seems backwards.More leaves should equal more energy. I can see taking the fruit off, but not the leaves. If it works, for whatever reason, great, that’s what to do, but I don’t see it. Also, some diseases can enter through the pruning wounds. (My slow connection makes listening to the podcast exasperating, so maybe you covered it there.)

    “Overfertilized, too-fast-growing plants are a target for trouble, and more inviting to disease; don’t overfeed.” So true, and with a lot more than tomatoes. It makes people feel as if they’re accomplishing something, so it’s hard to get them to stop. The marketing people at Miracle-Gro are too good. ;)

  11. Linda says:

    I grew up with fruit and vegetables growing in my backyard. I want to get back into growing my own. I LOVE tomatoes! This is a great place to start. Thanks Margaret!

  12. maggie says:

    i just knew those were juliets in the photo. remember you writing about them before, a qucik sauce recipe maybe? anyway, when my farmers market customers who are new to gardening come looking for recommendations on what to grow I always tell them to start with juliet……..she won’t do you wrong! so forgiving of the weather and neglect. i love the heirlooms but hedge your bets with some “reliables” too, like juliet. also, for those who don’t like using black plastic, like me, try using what is sold as ground cloth, mostly for use as a floor covering in greenhouses. it’s a resuable woven plastic mesh that lasts for years. i burn holes into it with a small torch (berns-o-matic) at the appropriate spacing and size for whatever crop it will hold, lay it down with drip irrigation underneath and enjoy weed-free beds. every year i invest in more and create more beds with it.

  13. Hannah says:

    Last year, we built trellises out of electrical conduit and rebar, then stretched nylon mesh (with the 7″ holes) across them. I tried to do the single stem with pruning out the suckers–and managed to keep up with it until late summer. All of my plants were small salad tomatoes (grape- to golf-ball sized) and I was really pleased with the results. This year, I’m trying some actual full-grown varieties and will be using the trellises again (rotating to new spots in the garden)–I’m excited to see if it works as well as last year.

  14. Hannah says:

    Last year, we built trellises out of electrical conduit and rebar, then stretched nylon mesh (with the 7″ holes) across them. I tried to do the single stem with pruning out the suckers–and managed to keep up with it until late summer. All of my plants were small salad tomatoes (grape- to golf-ball sized) and I was really pleased with the results. This year, I’m trying some actual full-grown varieties and will be using the trellises again (rotating to new spots in the garden)–I’m excited to see if it works as well as last year.

  15. linda says:

    Oh Well…. my six texas tomato cages just arrived 5 min ago. I came inside an read this article that staking and pruning are better?… Space is always and issue in my small raised beds in a suburban back yard. Wish I had read this article 2 wks ago.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Linda. You will LOVE them. I am going to try some staked tomatoes and cage the rest — the cages are easy, ample, and fold flat etc., so very sturdy and convenient. The things about staking: You MUST keep up with pruning and tying, or it is a mess. With the cages, you know you’ve got the plant supported from Day 1.

  16. Betty Frost says:

    I am growing tomatoes in pots and not a garden. Can I stake them as well? I am doing one plant per pot.

  17. Sharon says:

    My fiance and I are growing Ramapo tomatoes in zone 6. We’re trying out a layer of 6 mil black plastic to keep down weeds and increase soil temperature this year. We had blossom-end rot last year (the Rot Stop product worked well to stop that), so we’ve amended quite a bit with eggshells and garden lime. I’ve read quite a bit about the Florida weave, I may try that this year, but right now the plants are just a bit bigger than when I bought the seedlings at the end of April and don’t need any support.

  18. linda says:

    You are right Margaret! As soon as we had them out of the boxes we were impressed with the construction and sturdiness. So easy to put in the ground! And after reading that the staking takes time and dedication….I am sure these new cages will be way better solution for us. Thanks.

  19. paula says:

    I agree with staking and the black plastic to curb weeds and to keep tomatoes warm for better growth. YES to suckering!

    I have used T-pees for years with terrific results. I use 3- 8′ stakes perT-pee and my brandywines are 6″ across and delicious.

    Another tip is to cut both ends out of a can or cup and insert into the ground next to the plant. Water the roots and not the leaves.

    Love your website and great advice…………many thanks


  20. Linda says:

    It is now August and my texas tomato cages are as great as you describe. When they arrived and went into the ground with the tiny tomato plants I couldn’t understand why people would want the additional extensions…. now in August I can see why and will def order the extensions for next year! Thanks for the great tip Margaret.

  21. Linda Kampel says:

    Hi Margaret,
    I bought texas tomato cages this year and I’m never going back. They were so easy to use and despite the very wet summer we had in NC, I had one of the best tomato growing seasons of my twenty plus years of growing tomatoes. I was wondering how you made out with the staking test. I Think our summer’s are too hot here to keep the staking method going well, but you never know.

  22. Lynn E Thompson says:

    I have caged my tomatoe plants since 1993 – raised bed front veggie garden – had others but that is yore ago LOL

    I plant my tomatoes cage to cage and cut back many times during the growing season … Some say I grow to close but I get my crop – my soil is fertile and I can only produce the small or medium variety –

    My raised bed is in front yard and is 12 x 8 square feet – but my outside perimeter is an additional two feet which houses a lot of perennials as in hellebores and annuals as in dahlias (which I photo and redesign to make pastel art) …… Thank you Margaret for introducing me to these –


  23. Terry says:

    Those are Juliets in the photo, right? My absolute favorite! I have tried just about all methods of caging, staking-etc. No matter what method you use, you need to pay attention to keeping them well-groomed. Suckers and bottom branches off. Coaxing them into cooperating with you. Examining for bugs and such. It’s a daily delight to go out and see how they’re doing.

  24. Kathleen Coffey says:

    I want to use some wooden pallets that I obtained from my garden center. I was told to put landscaping fabric on the back by stapling it and then put chicken wire on top of that,The wrong or back side of the pallets could support thornless blackberries and i could put dirt and potting soil in the front and grow herbs and vegetables this way.Would the front side be good to use for tomatoes,beans and herbs and still help the blackberrries on the back side of the pallets grow well?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Kathleen. I have no first-hand expertise in this, but will say that it’s important to remember several key things when creating any kind of container garden (meaning: a garden NOT in the ground, but above-ground in some pot or other holder). Those are:

      Is there enough volume of soil for the roots to grow happily (remembering how big a root system would like to get in the ground to support the optimal version of each plant).

      How do you thoroughly water the container (thoroughly being the operative word–as in deeply watered throughout the entire potting medium regularly)…without dislodging the soil?

      What happens in winter to the perennial crops (you mention blackberries…which by the way have giant aggressive root systems so probably don’t make a very nice roommate for other things)? I ask about winter because a container is above ground — not enjoying the insulation factor of being in the ground — so it’s as if it’s a Zone or two colder than the same plant growing in the earth.

      These gardens always look great right after planting, but upkeep can be a challenge as things start growing big…instead of small and tidy.

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