Taming the unruly tomato vine

Contributor June 1, 2011

We’re all rooting for the tomatoes right now, hoping for fast growth, strong stems and branches laden with fruit. How easily we can forget what happens when tomatoes run amok.

It’s probably too late to warn you not to grow too many of them and not to plant them too closely. But without dampening your enthusiasm, let’s talk about support. How much you invest in that is up to you. The easiest thing is to do nothing and let the plants flop on the ground. This works with the determinate types, which stop growing after a few feet and set all their fruits at once. But the indeterminate vining ones must be trained upward before their heavy fruit brings them to their knees in a tangled, impenetrable mess.

Barbara Damrosch is a freelance writer and the author of “The Garden Primer.” View Archive

Tomato cages, if they’re strong, work fine. I make mine out of concrete-reinforcing wire, which I buy in five-foot-wide sheets from a building supply store. This sturdy mesh has six-inch-square openings through which I can easily reach the tomatoes for picking.

I form it into cylinders 16 inches in diameter and set them over the young plants to guide their ascent, pinching out the suckers at the bottom. (A sucker is a little shoot that emerges in the angle made by the leaf branch and the main stem.) The lowest suckers emerge just above the first pair of leaves, the smooth-edged seed leaves. Left to grow, they would branch out rather than up and just get in the way. After that, there’s little to do except remove wayward branches and a few more suckers if growth is rampant.

Another technique, called “stake and weave,” involves driving a sturdy stake into the ground between every two plants in the row. Make the end stakes extra strong. As the plants grow, weave stout string behind each stake and in front of the tomatoes, down one side and then back the other. As the plants climb, tie more string — six or eight inches higher each time — and they will be bound into submission. Remove those bottom suckers, and others as well if your Great Wall of Tomato threatens to be visible from outer space.


Train tomato vines on sturdy twine hung from a frame. Plastic cups are handy, too. (Barbara Damrosch /THE WASHINGTON POST)

The most elegant solution is to train the plants vertically, supported by sturdy twine. For this you must build a simple frame out of wood or metal posts, sunk securely into the ground, and a top bar from which you hang strings for the vines to climb. Plant the tomatoes 18 inches apart at the base of each string, then just wind the string loosely around the plant’s stem as it grows.

Better yet, borrow a trick from the pros and secure the stems to the string with little plastic clips (available from www.johnnyseeds.com). When training vertically you’ll need to prune each plant to one stem by pinching off all the suckers that appear, to keep them from making the plant unmanageable. You must be vigilant about this and might develop a case of “tomato pruner’s thumb,” which dyes your thumb a brownish green, easily removed with lemon juice. Or flaunted with pride.

Damrosch is a freelance writer and the author of “The Garden Primer.”

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