Tomato trellises needed as support system for your tomatoes

(Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times)

Whether a tomato seedling was raised from seed or bought from a nursery, it’s as cute as the Obama family’s new puppy. If the plants stayed as darling until their fruit ripens in June and July, everyone would grow them.

But tomatoes are vines. The capability of a 4-inch-high seedling to reach 6 to 20 feet in a single season -- and to sprawl, tangle, flop and break as it grows -- is why Pamela Geisel, statewide coordinator of the University of California Master Gardener Program, warns: “Have a trellis. Think about it first. Do it first.”

Which support system you choose depends on what type of tomato you’re growing. A fashionable free-the-fruit movement contends that tomatoes should be allowed to grow every bit as untrussed as their wild progenitors did in Peru. This is fine if you are a Central Valley farmer using tomatoes bred for combine harvesting. But most home garden hybrids will fruit all summer, during which time their ever-running vines will need support.

For a distillation of staking and trellising systems, Geisel commends a study by the Master Gardeners of Santa Clara County, (search for “tomato staking techniques evaluation”). It draws a tasteful veil over the 1970s vogue for trussing up tomatoes with old panty hose. Rather, it prefers various post-and-string and metal cage systems. Another good resource on staking and trellising systems comes from editors at the National Gardening Assn., (search for “trellising tomato plants”).

Both studies carry useful pro and con remarks, but aesthetes will note that missing is the question of appearance.

For a pretty structure, Sylvia Wright, information officer for UC Davis, likes the twine-bound, A-frame constructions made like tub-mounted laundry drying racks. These may be constructed with low-cost lodge poles or, in her case, salvaged bamboo from a neighbor’s garden. Ideal pieces will be 4 to 6 feet long (6 is ideal). They should be sunk in the earth to at least 6 inches deep to anchor the rig. This is important. Once the vines cover the trellis, its leaves will catch and hold wind like a sail.

If you’ve saved old wood after the tree trimmers have come through, more rustic design options open up. One pictured here is a canoe-type structure, with twine run for interim support. When the season is over, the wood and twine can be cut up and tossed into the compost.

Trellising tomatoes means pruning them. Conventional advice recommends pruning the vines to two or three main stems and then consistently pinching off lateral suckers. The main stems should then be trained with ties, making best use of the surface space rather than allowing them to shoot straight to the top of the structure. Once the vine subsumes the frame, Geisel advises cutting the main stems. This will cost you some fruit, but the main point of trellising tomatoes isn’t maximum yield; it’s the ability to see, harvest and enjoy what fruit a well-trained vine produces.