Trellised Tomatoes: Up, Up and Away!

By Jay White, Publisher

Have you ever seen a tomato bush growing without some sort of support? I don’t think I have. 

There is a good reason for this. Most tomato vines get so big that they cannot support themselves. If you want to split hairs, it is not 100 percent true to say that a tomato plant cannot support itself. In reality, all tomatoes can support themselves in their own way. 

However, their way almost always involves sprawling all over the ground. This sprawl works fine for the tomato since all it really cares about is reproducing. It doesn’t care if its seeds are in fruit lying on the ground, or if the seeds are in fruit that is 6-feet up in the air. All it cares about is making seeds.

But as gardeners, we don’t really care too much about the seeds the plant produces. What we care about is the fruit. If you want to get the most and best fruit possible from your tomato plants, you are going to have to provide them with some type of support.

Why trellis?

Tomato Trellis | Vego Garden

Luckily, trellising is good for the plant and good for the gardener. Trellising allows you to plant closer together, force fruit to ripen quicker, have easier access to the fruit and reduce pest problems. Plus, trellises give you a great place to add row cover to protect your young plants from the cold and bugs.

Each year, I grow tomatoes in a couple of places on my property. I also trellis them in different ways. I support my determinate tomatoes on homemade, cedar trellises and I grow my indeterminate vines on cattle panels. 

Several years ago we experienced a late-season storm. This June storm blew in with lots of rain and extremely high winds. After the storm passed we went out to survey the damage. When I saw my little greenhouse wrapped around the barbed-wire fence, I figured it was going to be very bad news for all of my tomato plants (that were loaded with fruit).

When I checked on my determinate bushes, I was pleasantly surprised. While some of the longer branches had snapped off, the majority of the plants were in pretty good shape. When I checked the indeterminate vines, I was ecstatic. Except for a few loose fruit on the ground, the trellising on the cattle panels had completely protected them from the wind.

Big tomato bushes covered in fruit are a bit fragile. In fact, it is not uncommon for some varieties to put on so much fruit that the weight alone can break the branches. The extra support provided by the trellis can prevent this and ensure that all of the tomatoes you grow get the opportunity to ripen on the vine.

Another thing worthy of noting is the fact that I trellis determinate and indeterminate tomato varieties differently. 


Determinate tomatoes are designed to grow “bushes.” They will grow to a “determinable size” and then stop growing and start producing fruit. Their fruit will then ripen over a two to eight-week period, depending on variety. 

Since they grow to a particular size and they are more upright in their growth pattern, some people say that they don’t need to be trellised. I disagree. I think all tomatoes can benefit from the added support provided by the trellis. 

Because of their natural bushing habit, determinate tomatoes work very well in “tomato cages.” Cages add support to limbs that can become very heavy when laden with fruit. 

High wind is the enemy of large tomato plants and the trellis will provide extra protection against it. Also, trellising allows you the added support needed to open the bush up through pruning. This increased air flow through the plant allows most plants to dry quickly (thus limiting fungal infections). An open bush also makes tomato harvest easier and provides access to the inside of the bush if you need to apply pesticides. 

Some of the best determinate varieties for Texas include ‘Celebrity,’ ‘Roma’ and ‘BHN444.’


Indeterminate tomatoes are incredibly different beasts. These plants produce vines that average 6 feet, but can grow to 10 feet or more. Indeterminate tomatoes are called “indeterminate” because, if the conditions are right, their vines will grow until the first frost. 

If temperatures stay below 90 F, they will also produce fruit for as long as the vines grow. Since all tomato plants have the ability to create roots anywhere along their stem, the vines of indeterminate tomatoes will root wherever they touch the ground. (Almost all “heirloom” tomatoes are indeterminate.) 

This will create an ever wider-and-wider bush if left alone. All of that vining uses up water and nutrients that can and should be channeled into fruit production. 

Trellises allow you to prevent this sprawl. A properly trellised tomato will have one, and only one, point of contact with the soil. Ensuring that your tomato plant only has a single stalk forces the plant to create a thick, deep root mass that will funnel water directly into the three or four vines you have selected for production.

If you do not trellis your indeterminate tomatoes, you will wind up with a very big and thick mass of tomato plant. This thick mass makes harvest difficult. Not only are fruits in the middle of a 10-foot bush difficult to reach, they are also difficult to find. When missed tomatoes get overripe on the vines, they call in all manner of pests. We all know that tomato plants are bug magnets. However, if you let fruit spoil on the vine, you will quickly discover that your garden will become a rabbit, raccoon, possum and bird magnet, too.

Types of trellises

Tomato Trellis | Vego Garden

Trellises can be very simple or very elaborate. You have to decide what works best for you. 

A local greenhouse grows a hydroponic “tomato forest.” Their vines grow 10 to 12-feet in the air. They grow these massive vines by clipping them to a single nylon cord attached to the roof and the growing area. You can’t get much simpler than one string!

One of the simplest and most common methods of trellising tomatoes is the wooden stake. All you have to do is drive a stake into the ground and tie your plant to it as it grows. This method has been used successfully by gardeners for a very long time. 

Staking works fine if you have a few tomatoes. However, if you grow several plants, you can easily modify this method to stake an entire row. Simply plant your tomatoes about 2 feet apart. 

Drive a stake or piece of rebar deep into both ends of the row. Then add stakes between the plants. As the plants grow (about every week), simply add strings horizontally every 6 inches or so by tying them off at the ends and “weaving” them in between the various stakes. The strings give you additional places to tie your vines. This method is often called the “The Cat’s Cradle” or the “Florida Weave.”

Probably the most commonly used trellises are tapered, welded-wire rings that are sold at the big box or local garden center. While convenient, I have found that even the largest ones sold are inadequate for my needs.

If you are growing two or three plants in pots, the store-bought “cages” will probably be fine for you. However, because these cages are made out of small-gauge wire, the welding is weak and they will begin to break apart after just a few uses. 

If you are going to buy cages, I recommend buying the biggest ones available. One thing that I really do like about store-bought cages is their “stackability.” Since they are tapered, you can pull them up at the end of the season and then slip one inside the other. This feature means that they won’t eat up too much space in your garage.

In my potager, I grow determinate tomatoes on “decorative” trellises that I make by wiring together small cedar limbs. My decorative trellises have three legs that I stake to the ground. Then I use shorter and thinner cedar branches to make the horizontal supports. 

These trellises are very attractive and, because they are cedar, they last a very long time. I use cedar because I have access to it. However, I have seen versions of this trellis made out of bamboo and dried sunflower stalks. While not as functional as the cattle panels or the cages, they work well for my bushing tomatoes. 

This year, I grew ‘Roma’ in them. Since ‘Roma’ creates a nice, neat, and compact bush, it does not require as much support as an heirloom or a big indeterminate such as ‘Better Boy.’

A common homemade version of the tomato cage is made by bending a heavy gauge-wire mesh into a circular cage. The main thing I like about this type of cage is the ability to customize it to your needs. You know what kind of tomatoes you grow and you know how big your cage needs to be. Since you make it, you can ensure it is the right size for you. 

If you are going to make some of these, there will be a little cost. But since they will probably outlast you, they are worth the investment. 

Trellis tricks

There are really only a couple of drawbacks with this type of trellis. First, because they don’t have long wire “legs” like the store-bought version, you will have to find a way to stake them. Rebar and zip ties work very well for securing them to the ground. 

The other drawback is the fact that they are hard to store. They can’t be stacked inside each other (like the store-bought cages), so they can take up a lot of room in the garage.

My friend Bill Adams cuts cattle panels into three sections and then uses “hog clips” to join the panels together in a triangular shape. (Read more about these in his book The Texas Tomato Lover’s Handbook).

These cages are great. They are tall enough and strong enough to support the bushiest tomatoes out there. After assembly, he uses a “T-Post” to secure the cage in place. These “cattle panel cages” are durable enough to last a lifetime. 

Plus, they have flat sides, so they provide a perfect surface to add shade cloth. Shade cloth can do so much for your tomatoes. If you use it when you first put the plants out, you can easily add a top to the shade-covered cage to keep in heat and avoid damage from a late-season cold snap. The shade cloth will also protect your tender young plants from sun scald, wind damage and also add some insect protection. While there is some cost associated with this method, your cages will give you a lifetime of service. In addition to durability, they are also very practical. At the end of the season, you can easily disassemble them and store your panels flat against the garage wall.

Tomato Trellis | Vego Garden

In my row garden, I use cattle panels to support my indeterminate tomatoes. However, I don’t cut my panels up the way Bill does. Before I plant, I drive “T-Posts” into the ground about every 6 feet. Then I use zip ties to attach the panels to the posts. My rows are 33-feet long. 

Since cattle panels come in 16-foot lengths, I use two panels. After the trellis is secure, I plant my tomatoes about 2 feet apart. As the plants grow I prune them and tie the selected vines to the panel with jute string. 

Once the tomatoes get about 3 feet up the trellis, I add another row of cattle panels about 3 feet from the others. As the vines branch out, this additional layer of trellis helps support the heavy limbs. I can also slip bamboo lengthwise through the panels to support any branches that become heavy between the panels. 

There is one slight drawback to my method. Because the tomatoes are grown between panels, I have to do all of my harvest and pruning “through the fence.” However, since the squares on the panels are large this is only a minor inconvenience.

I have grown tomatoes for many years and I have never grown them without some sort of trellis. While there may be a reason to grow some varieties without them, I have yet to find it. 

Even the smallest bush has brittle limbs that break in the wind or under the weight of their fruit. While I have heard some people say that trellised and pruned indeterminate tomatoes produce fewer fruits and are more susceptible to sun scald, I truly believe the benefits outweigh the risks. 

Tomato Trellis | Vego Garden

If you add shade cloth to your trellises, you can plant your seedlings earlier. As they grow, you can train and prune them so that the fruit ripens earlier and is easier to access. Trellised plants are better able to take up water and nutrients, and ward off a whole slew of pests. Plus, the extra support provided by the cage or trellis will protect the brittle limbs from wind damage. 

Yes, with all of the benefits that trellises bring to the tomato patch, I truly believe there is no reason to ever try and grow tomatoes without them.

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