The Fool Proof Way
Every gardener who grows tomatoes has been through that one season of absolute tomato jungle. Trying to keep up with voracious vines, pinching off growing tips to try to slow it down, or struggling to find large enough trellis setups. This trellis system is so easy it made me feel a bit silly that I hadn’t thought of something like it before. It was shown to me by a gardener friend who runs a CSA business (Indian Creek Orchard Gardens), he uses it in his green houses and out in his row fields. And it’s been wonderful in my raised beds.
All you need are a few simple items to put it together and it will work all season long, no matter how long the tomato vines grow.
Determinant vs Indeterminate Tomatoes
So lets back up slightly. Not all tomatoes need a trellis system like this. It comes down to what variety you are growing. The two different types of tomato growth patterns are Determinant and Indeterminate.
Determinant varieties don’t vine out as long, and can support themselves. For those varieties, I use a large metal tomato cage. The cage isn’t so much to trellis a vine as it grows, but more to help support the branches as they bear more and more fruit. Determinant varieties won’t get as tall, and can easily be pruned at the growing tip and will just bush out and fill up with fruit.
Why do you even need to have a system like this? Indeterminate tomatoes are vines, and would happily just grow along the ground like pumpkins if you let them. I have actually seen some people do that with some success. There are some problems though. Firstly, I don’t have the space to have more long vines creeping around the garden. Especially vines with delicate squishy tomatoes hiding under the leaves rather than tough squash and pumpkins. So growing indeterminates vertically on a trellis is better for space. Secondly, if the vines are left to grow along the ground, the fruit will most likely rot or be eaten by buggies. Not so nice when you’ve raised you little plant from a seedling.
Like I said, this system works equally well in rows as it does in raised beds. Since I use raised beds, that’s how I’ll explain it. If you grow your tomatoes in rows, the only real difference is that you’ll need to dig your posts into the ground.
This system works best if you leave about 2’ of empty garden space at one end of the bed. If you don’t it’s okay, your bed just might become a bit messy. Some of the photos here are from last year, where I did not leave the space.
What you will need:
2x pressure treated pieces of lumber for every row of tomatoes you have — I usually use whatever I have in my garage. You want them to be at least 7’ tall and not too flimsy 2×4 or 2x2s work fine.
3” decking screws — Using decking screws means the screws will last longer in the weather.
Electric screw driver
Strong and water proof rope, the length of your garden bed plus about 2’ extra. This will be the support rope. — Rope used for hanging camping tarps is good for this.
Drill bit that’s thicker than the rope you’ve chosen.
Very thin water proof rope. Get a whole spool of this, as you will need about 7’ per plant.
These handy Tomato clips.
Install the posts and Support rope
Decide which end of the lumber will be the top. Using the drill, drill a hole about 2-4” from the top of each board through the wide side (if using a 2×4). String one end of the support rope through one of the boards and tie a very tight knot on the other side to prevent the rope from coming back through the hole.
Stand the bottom of the first board (with the rope knotted through it) up against the outside of you garden bed in line with where your tomatoes are planted. Screw it in place.
String the other end of the rope loosely through the next board, and screw it into the opposite end of your tomato box. Pull the rope as tight as you can and knot it. This is the structure of the trellis.
Tie on the individual Trellis Ropes
Cut as many 7’ lengths of the thinner rope as you have tomato plants in each row. One at a time, tie one end of each length above each plant, you want to tie it in a loop, tight enough with it wont undo but with enough space that the rope can be slid along the support rope. Each plant gets their own rope length. The other end of the rope just hangs free.
Attach the Tomato Plants with Clips
Using your Tomato Clips, clip onto the rope right down near the bottom of the plant, and close the loop around the stem of the plant. Always make sure you’re snapping the loop closed just under a branch so that the vine has the needed support.
As the tomatoes grow, keep adding clips every 8-10”. Trellis the plant all the way to the top of the line. Now this is where it gets cool.
Slide tomato plants down and along as they grow
When the plants have reached the top of the rope, but are still growing vigorously, you need to make more space on the line. Trim off the bottom 1’ of leaves and branches from each plant. One by one, undo the clips and slide the plant down its rope, and redo the clips. You now have extra room at the top of the trellis.
To deal with the excess vine at the bottom, simply slide your ropes along the support rope into the excess garden space at the end of the bed. The extra vine that you trimmed the leaves from, should be lying on the ground now. The bare vine with send out roots and anchor itself into the garden.
Back and forth!
When the vine reaches the top of the trellis again repeat the process and slide the vines back in the other direction. You can add a little soil onto the excess vines if you want but it isn’t vital.
If you don’t have the extra space to move the vines back and forth, don’t worry. This system still works great, you’ll just have a bit of a vine mound forming at the bottom of each plant. In that case it is actually a good idea to add a bit of soil now and then.
And hopefully this helps you keep your tomato jungles a little more organized! I have found that as a bonus, this method makes picking off suckers a lot easier too.
If you’re still designing your raised bed garden, check out this post about how we built ours here.