Tomatoes are an amazing fruit and the tomato plant is a wonderful act of nature. I’ve previously stated how easy it is to grow tomatoes; however, awhile back, a cousin of mine had a “bone to pick with me” when she read an article of mine referring to growing tomatoes as “easy.” She said that she finds them rather difficult to grow and is yet to grow any successfully!
On reflection, I have heard people complain about how finicky growing tomatoes can be at times and I’ve even heard expert celebrity gardeners say not to bother trying to grow the larger varieties here (in the subtropics) because it’s a waste of time – that’s simply NOT true.
Large variety tomatoes can be grown in most places around the world, at the right time of year
I’m saying, don’t be too quick to write tomatoes off just because your first try was a disaster since there are likely perfectly good reasons to why your crop failed and these reasons are easy to rectify. One way to improve tomato growing success is to grow them on a nice strong trellis and I’ll elaborate on trellis building extensively throughout this article (and with a video).
Nah, I’m not spruiking and acting like my tomato plants are always 100% perfect – because they’re not. But, I still believe growing tomatoes is easy; although, I think my cousin raised a good point about how some people do find tomato growing frustrating and I would like clarify (highlight) a few points of my own about how to successfully grow tomatoes to hopefully clear that frustration, pass on my tips, and ensure others actually do find growing them as easy as I do.
Some key tomato growing tips
Rich, fertile soil
Firstly, tomatoes do best in a rich, manure infused, and well-draining soil. Tomatoes will, however, grow in just about anything and if you have grown as many tomato plants as I, you tend to find them popping up everywhere in the garden in the most unlikely spots and thinking “how does this thing survive.”
Nevertheless, get some horse and chicken manure (fresh if possible) and either dig it into the soil and leave rest for several months where the tomatoes are to be planted or let it sit and rot in a pile for a few months and then add it to the soil. Ensure any manure is dug and mixed into the soil completely otherwise straight manure will burn tomato stems and be too heavy for the root system.
Another important additive to the soil on planting or just prior, is to spread several handfuls ofgarden lime and lightly dig and water it into the soil. The calcium in the lime helps to keep the tomato plant healthy and also helps to prevent blossom end rot (a disease causing rotting of the fruit on the bottom of the tomato).
Rotate your tomato plants
Secondly, tomato plants should be rotated each season to grow in a new spot thus limiting the chances of a build-up of soil borne pest and diseases. The baddies will hang around waiting for another tomato plant to naturally germinate or to be planted in the exact same spot; therefore, deny them and starve the pests and diseases by ensuring your tomatoes are planted in a different location each year.
Give a patch of dirt a rest from tomato plants for at least one season (even two) before using that spot for tomatoes again. Remember not to plant tomato related plants in the area during the rest period like: potatoes, capsicum, egg plants (aubergine).
Right time of year
Finally, tomatoes need to be grown at the right time of year – this is crucial! If tomatoes (particularly the larger varieties) are grown outside of their optimal seasonal climatic conditions, you will have no hope in growing them. As a guide, tomatoes flourish at a temperature range of 15 – 30 C0 and anything outside of those temperatures will make your plants work harder to survive. Therefore, thinking about what time of year your location consistently has the closest to the optimal temperature range should dictate when you should be growing your tomatoes.
Simply because, if the soil is too cold the plants will not be able to access enough nutrients to grow well as the root system becomes paralysed; plus, tomato plants are susceptible to frost burn. Also, if the weather is consistently too humid and hot the plants will quickly succumb to tropical diseases including root rot, leaf spot, and viruses.
A few examples of good timing are: in cool climates tomato seedlings should be planted out in spring after the last frosts, and in subtropical climates tomatoes (although they can grow all year) are best started in the last month of winter to hopefully mature mid-spring and finish most cropping by the time the rains hit in summer and the temperature heats up consistently in the mid-thirties.
Right variety to grow
Not all tomatoes are the same to grow. In fact, there are definitely tomato plants which are easier to grow than others. As a general rule, cherry type tomatoes are hardier and grow better than the bigger varieties. I often grow cherry tomatoes for two main reasons, as a back-up in case my larger varieties have a poor season and because they taste great!
Within these two types of tomatoes, there are countless varieties and all have different tolerances/susceptibility of certain fungi and diseases. Therefore, researching and choosing varieties which are known to have good disease resistance is important if your location or climate makes it challenging to grow tomatoes.
Commercial F1 varieties are hybrid tomatoes which have been bred to improve resistance to diseases and can be a saviour for gardeners who are having real problems with the "old favourites." However, the drawback is the seeds from these plants will either be sterile or not true-to-type so regrowing isn’t possible unlike the heirloom varieties (old favourites) which can be collected and are true-to-type from seed, therefore, can be grown again and again through seed saving.
Indeterminate and determinate tomato plants
Most tomato plants, if left alone, grow up like a small bush for about 1-2 feet then start to fall over and sprawl along the ground continually growing from the main leader and creeping like a vine – this type of tomato growth is called indeterminate. The other growth type are tomato plants which grow like a small shrub, stopping at about 1 metre high with a compact development and this growth habit is called determinate.
Beefsteak tomatoes are a large indeterminate variety (also a heirloom)
In a management sense, determinate tomato plants are easier to grow than indeterminate because they grow to a small height and don’t need much support (maybe just a stake); however, often determinate tomatoes are smaller and less productive than indeterminate tomatoes. Whereas indeterminate tomatoes are generally a more vigorous plant which can produce many small fruits or the larger varieties like beefsteak; however, do require a significant support structure to grow the plant successfully.
A cross between indeterminate and determinate plants are available also, although, varieties are rather limited I believe.
Why grow tomatoes on a trellis?
Tomato plants usually always grow well initially but they can be susceptible to disease and particularly fungal borne diseases like leaf spot as the plants grow out. We can reduce the likelihood of early fungal problems being introduced into our tomato crop by preventing the plants from sprawling along the ground as this increases the chances of the plant becoming infected because fungi spores are prevalent in the soil. And, the best way to keep indeterminate tomato plants off the ground is to grow them on a support like a strong trellis.
Furthermore, tomato plants grown on a trellis are easier to manage, prune, and harvest. Not to mention, the plants take less space in the garden when trained up a trellis instead of sprawling all over the vegetable garden.
Tomato cages and box systems directly around individual plants do work OK-ish or even just a stake in the centre will do a fair job at supporting the plant; however, to grow a large indeterminate tomato plant a serious trellis is really the only way to go.
A line trellis post-to-post for tomatoes (image above)
Two types of tomato trellises I recommend
Tomato trellises can be made with all types of materials and all sizes; however, I have found two types of trellises which work really well and they are: Reo mesh trellis and the old fashioned post-to-post trellis.
Reo mesh trellis
This material is the steel mesh about 5 mil thick with large square holes that concreters use to reinforce a concrete pour like a driveway. The mesh comes in long sheets up to 7 metres and about 2.4 metres wide but can be cut down to size with a hack-saw, grinder, or bolt cutters. Reo mesh can be purchased from concreters directly, and some landscape supplies, etc and can come in a standard steel or a more expensive galvanised/rust inhibited variations.
I just use the cheaper stuff and although it rusts up I don’t mind the look and as a trellis it will last decades before it needs replacing. I like using this mesh as a trellis because it is ¼ the price of purpose made commercial trellis mesh from a gardening centre and it’s just as strong. Also, the large square holes work well with tomato plants for fixing to the trellis and ensuring no squashed tomatoes between mesh holes which can happen when using small holed mesh material.
The mesh almost stands on its own and is easy to fix to garden beds or hold in place with long star pickets hammered into the ground. In the image example, I placed the reo mesh trellis on two sides and folded the top 40cm over on an almost 90 degree angle. I did this for two main reasons: A – it allowed me to make a roof so it could be easily covered with bird netting for crop protection; and B – the overhang gave me a direct overhead attachment point/s for my string which is used to train and help hold my tomatoes upright.
Of course, this reo tomato trellis can be used for other fruit and vegetable crops but it does work extremely well with tomatoes. The reasons why this method works well are the support points. Just like many commercial truss tomato growers, the plants are supported upright by training them up a single twine attached to the roof of the mesh (directly above the plant).
Secondly, the mesh sides allow the tomato plant to weave through and support extra branches and fruit for larger growth and more produce. This trellis method allows the gardener to devote the least amount of time to maintaining the tomato crop than any other as less pruning, and ties are required throughout the full season.
Here are two examples of trellises side-by-side, which are good for tomato growing (image above)
Old fashioned post-to-post trellis
Depending on the size of the garden and number of plants to be supported, a post-to-post trellis can be as simple as two star pickets (one on each end) hammered into the ground or permanent 2m posts cemented in 40cm deep holes. Between these posts the trellis can be made from a range of different materials, such as, fencing wire, clothes line wire, plastic trellis netting, reo mesh, other meshes, and even string.
I recently made a permanent post-to-post trellis using 2.4m pine posts cemented into the ground leaving 2m above, which is a perfect height for indeterminate tomato plants as they are best kept to around 6 feet (2m).
Galvanised clothes line wire with an outer plastic skin is my preferred trellis material and I string it between the posts using stainless or galvanised fixtures and tensioners. The reason I like to use galvanised clothes line wire with an outer plastic skin is because it lasts, was easy to source and cart from my local hardware, cost effective, easy to clean up after the season, and works.
The wire should be strung with the first run about 2 feet off the ground and then spaced at about 12 inch intervals to the top of the posts. If the trellis distance between the two posts is long (say over 5m) then it may be practical to place in some temporary support posts along the trellis length just so the wire can remain sufficiently taught without having to over tension it.
As the tomato plants grow, they can be fixed to the wire on the up and also to the sides kind of like an espalier only a little more roughly done.
Training tomato plants up and along a trellis
When it comes to training a tomato plant on a trellis, one thing I have learnt over the years is people can make the process way too complicated. Some gardeners swear by training the tomato plant straight up on one leader (stem) and pruning any secondary leaders off and pinching out any side shoots leaving a bare plant with sparse foliage and trusses of large fruit. With this method, the plant is supposed to cope with disease better and although each plant doesn’t produce as much fruit apparently the fruits are bigger. Commercial farmers in big greenhouses with thousands of plants use this method very successfully.
Other gardeners believe in letting the plant grow natural and loosely managing it up the trellis in whatever way it grows. The reasoning behind this method is apparently less work, more fruit, and the plant grows how nature intended.
Personally, I’m a bit of a mix between the two above and I like to grow my tomato plants on my trellis keeping two or three strong leaders. I don’t let the plant grow wild but I don’t prune it obsessively either because I reckon good foliage cover helps to hide the developing fruit from pests or animals, protects the tomatoes from sunburn, and I don’t want to spend all my gardening time hovering over tomato plants.
I do like to keep the bottom of my tomato plants well pruned though, because I think it does help to ward-off developing fungus and disease. Removing inward growing offshoots from the centre of the plants helps also by giving some extra air flow.
I attach the plant to the trellis by natural twine or the much easier, purpose-made, stretch nylon type twine, which when tied allows the stem of the plant to expand and it’s also easier to tie in a non-slip knot. Whereas, string needs to be tied in a reef – right over left/left over right knot, or it will slip overtime and restrict the stem of the plant.
Weaving the plant between the trellises runs where possible saves on twine and can be just as effective for holding the plant in place. However, as long as the plant and fruit are supported it doesn’t really matter what materials are used to tie the plant to the runs.
The video below (by yours truly) shows how to build a post-to-post tomato trellis with plastic coated clothes line wire as the material between the posts. I "yabber-on" a bit at the start but the second half of the video shows how a good strong trellis can be built without too much drama.
If you watched the video above, I hope you enjoyed it… I try my best. When it comes to growing tomatoes, just because you have a few failed attemps please don't give up on trying to grow this wonderful fruit because one day you will succeed and discover the "knack" for growing them.
And, if you have the space then build a long trellis and grow a whole heap of tomatoes spreading the risk of failure by diversifying through growing several different varieties. That way, you'll be sure to get something and if they all grow well then you'll have heaps of fruit to preserve through sauces and dehydration – semi-dried home-grown tomatoes… oh my God, that's awesome.
Some good places to buy tomatoes and equipment online are here on:
Self Sufficient Me is a blog about self-sustainment by growing our own produce (plant/animal), and self-fulfilment by looking after our health (physical/mental) through exercise and slowing life down a little.