Helen McKerralGrowing tomatoes on a trellis

Staking tomatoes, or “indeterminate” cultivars, are tomatoes that keep growing indefinitely – in the Adelaide Hills, that’s usually until late April or even early May in a sheltered spot, after which the cold kills the plants. However, Adelaide Plains gardeners often overwinter tomatoes. Determinate tomatoes have a bushy habit: they reach a certain size, and then stop producing additional stem growth, so they’re ideal for pots. Determinates have a shorter cropping season, whereas indeterminates produce a more steady supply. Semi-determinates are halfway between the two.

Tommy Toe tomatoes

Tommy Toe tomatoes

My grandparents primarily grew staking tomatoes and, because they had lots of space on their hobby farm, trained plants to a single leader per stake by pinching out the lateral that developed below each flower truss, and removing stems that arose from ground level. My grandmother never grew cherry tomatoes – Grosse Lisse and Apollo were her standbys. But I like the fact that cherries start bearing so early, and they look fabulous in salads, so a combination of cherry (Tommy Toe, Cherry Black Russian, Sweet Cherry Gold) and full-sized (Grosse Lisse, but will choose a more disease-resistant cultivar next year) is my preference now that I finally have enough sun and a long enough season to ripen them.

For many years when I still had a small patch of sun in the old area, I grew my staking tomatoes in a similar way to that of my grandmother, but trained plants to two leaders on opposite sides of the stake for a larger crop. Last year with more space, I trained cherry tomatoes to multiple leaders up each stake; I placed the plants further apart to maintain reasonable air circulation, but the variety I chose (Sweet Bite) wasn’t as resistant to disease as my favourite, Tommy Toe.

My first tomato crop in February 2012

My first tomato crop in February 2012

They still did reasonably well considering the soil but, as always, tying them up was time consuming, and then I also had to remove the stocking tree ties from the stakes at the end of the season. Tomato cages are convenient but, in my opinion, most of the commercially available ones are much too short, and it can be quite difficult harvesting tomatoes from the middle. Makeshift cages of wooden stakes and string or wire, in various configurations from teepees to cubes are an option, (read more) but my carpentry skills aren’t terrific and I wouldn’t trust a wooden structure I built to support the weight of a large tomato plant!

So this season, I decided to grow my tomatoes up a weldmesh trellis: no tying, just weaving the stems in and out as they lengthen.

Plenty of Tommy Toe tomatoes still to ripen

Eventually, I’ll have permanent trellising in each bed made of cypress pine and curved steel or reo mesh within a curved frame, so they look attractive even when bare, but this year’s big garden expense is the espalier fences and frames (cypress pine and galvanised wire), so the fancy trellis has to wait.

Taller Tommy Toes on the left, Grosse Lisse on the right

Taller Tommy Toes on the left, Grosse Lisse on the right

Instead, I wired 8 metres of 10×10 cm weldmesh (some salvaged, some bought) to 3 x 1.8 metre star droppers, oriented ESE to WNW so both sides receive sun (at least in summer). I popped in a few wooden stakes for extra support as well. The trellis starts about 15 centimetres above ground level and is about 2.0 metres high.

Watering is via 19 millimetre polypipe laid along the ground under the trellis, with an adjustable-flow offline dripper to each plant. Next year I’ll add Miniscape dripline for closer-spaced plants such as beans or peas. The big advantage of the adjustable flow offline drippers is that I can simply switch individual ones off when not in use, and an additional valve in the Miniscape will let me run either, or both, depending on what’s growing each season.

Sweet Cherry gold tomatoes

Sweet Cherry gold tomatoes

To extend harvests in our cool climate, many Adelaide Hills gardeners buy not only cherry plus full-size tomatoes, but also use a combination of one or two advanced pots (expensive), plus punnets, plus seed (cheapest). My Sweet Cherry Gold and Black Russian Cherry were largish plants, my Grosse Lisse and Tommy Toes in nice full punnets (more than a dozen seedlings in each). I separated the latter into individual pots on a sunny windowsill until soil temperatures increased, then planted them along the trellis, spacing them 50-70 centimetres apart; less than recommended, but it’s such an open spot and the soil is so deep that I’m not worried about airborne fungal disease or water stress. As I mentioned last week, two Grosse Lisse have fusarium wilt, but that’s soil-borne. As it turns out, the Tommy Toes caught up to and fruited before both the Gold and Russian, but I’ll plant them again next year anyway because they’re so pretty!

Two Grosse Lisse with Fusarium wilt - note yellow wilting foliage at end and centre, but will still get a decent crop

Two Grosse Lisse with Fusarium wilt – note yellow wilting foliage at end and centre, but will still get a decent crop

Because the soil isn’t yet as improved as I’d like it to be, just for this first year I tucked a Manutec tomato tablet into the ground beside each plant – very economical at about $7 for a box of 20. Not organic, but you need only one tablet per plant for the entire growing season and the results have been impressive. Next year I’ll have added lots of cow manure and rock dust, so extra inorganic fertilisers shouldn’t be necessary.

Basil & lettuce thrive on the southern side of the trellis

Basil & lettuce thrive on the southern side of the trellis

It’s been amazingly quick weaving the stems in and out of the trellis, much faster than tying. I’m allowing all lateral stems to develop except for those arising from soil level (they often carry disease), so coverage is dense, but nowhere near as dense as in a cage, and I can pick fruit from both sides with ease. The Tommy Toes reached the top of the trellis by mid January, while the Grosse Lisse are about 1.5 metres high. At the top, I’m weaving stems horizontally and letting others flop; I’ll pinch out growing tips to stop them if it becomes too bulky. In this outstanding article on tomato trellising by Jon Sarriugarte, a gardener has solved the problem by growing his tomatoes on an arched trellis so they simply continue across, with the leaves sheltering the fruit beneath, and I’d try this if I had more space, or perhaps in a different bed. His other tips are excellent too: the flood irrigation he recommends is very effective with no evaporation if you’ve mulched the furrow as well.

It will be a simple matter to pull the dead plants from the wire for composting at the end of the season, and to leave the trellis in situ for the next crop of climbing vegetables. So far, I’m thrilled with how my tomatoes are growing, and the cost and effectiveness of the trellis.

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Helen McKerral

About Helen McKerral

Horticultural journalist, photographer, contributor to many garden magazines, and author of 'Gardening on a Shoestring'. Adelaide Hills, South Australia

4 thoughts on “Growing tomatoes on a trellis

  1. James Beattie on said:

    Wow, Helen. Your plants look brilliantly healthy. You’re going to have more tomatoes than you know what to do with! Is making sauce on the cards?

    I was talking to my other half only yesterday about our current, and somewhat inadequate tomato trellising system. We’ve got moulded reo in the shape of a cylinder as tomato cages – 4 of them. The kind of civil engineers use to reinforce concrete columns and such. They’re my best tip shop find and were only $5 a piece! I think I need to join 2 together as their height individually is only about 1.3m, about the size of most tomato cages, which is as you state too small for indeterminate types. About this time of year my Tigerellas begin to flop around and I struggle to keep up with them.

    I have beans growing up a lighter gauge reo bent into an arch, which makes the beans so easy to pick (and it looks fabulous). Yesterday we discussed the possibility of training the tomatoes up a tall piece of reo next time, and after reading this blog it’s exactly what we’ll do next year!

  2. What a great idea and for all those lateral tomato plant stems that NEVER want to stay tied to an upright or tepee style stake. I know what I am going to do this afternoon. Such a thriving looking veg garden, Helen. You must have good rains / water there…
    Thanks for the post and inspiration. Julie

  3. helen on said:

    Hi James and Julie – James, thank you for some great ideas for me to try as well! Eventually I aim to have one permanent trellis on the southern side of each of the four beds for beans, peas, cucumbers, warrigal greens, even the smaller pumpkins. For now, the trellises will be more of the ugly stardropper and weldmesh constructions, but later they will be cypress pine posts – taller at one end, lower at the other to complement the leaf-shaped beds – with thick, mild steel curved frames top and bottom, infilled with heavy weldmesh or reo, so they look beautiful even when not planted.

    Julie, unfortunately my tomatoes are not as healthy as I’d wish, what with the fusarium wilt, which slowly makes its way up the plant (by the time you notice it at the bottom, it’s already too late unless you use powerful fungicides). In my old garden, sunlight was the limiting factor for production, and I hadn’t realised until I began growing in this new area, just how much the 25+ years of soil improvement in the old area had been maximising my crops. In the new area I have plenty of sunlight, but soil is the limiting factor! The plants in the new area are less resistant to disease because the soil is poorer, but the area is too large to improve all of it in immediately in the way that I want – it will require literally tonnes of compost, straw and manure, and there’s only so much time and $$$ available (bear in mind that I’ve already added more than thirty cubic metres of (cheap) mulch to the area, plus manure, pea straw and compost!).

    Regarding the variable soil fertility and depth, you can see in pic number 4 (“Taller Tommy Toes on the left, Grosse Lisse on the right”) that the eggplants and chillies growing on the right are progressively larger and healthier than those to the left, which is because the soil was shallower and I was running out of compost for that end. It’s no big deal, because I’ll have added more soil improvers next year; it’s simply something to be aware of, and to tackle the next season. I didn’t plant anything in any of the beds the first year because I was certain that the soil wasn’t ready then, and this year the soil is deeper, but still far from perfect. The good thing is that every year will be better than the last – what’s not to like in that, eh?

    Re watering, I use surprisingly little. The tomatoes have been watered automatically every 6 days during the hottest time of the year, no extra even during heatwaves. Now in mid-Feb I’m watering every 7 days, but the adjustable flow offline drippers are on for about 45 minutes at a relatively high flow rate: on the southern side of this bed the soil and compost are back-filled behind the huge log rounds to about 90cm ABOVE the original soil level, which was itself dug over to about 45cm to remove rocks. Hence the southern side, as for all the other beds, is very deep and open with excellent water infiltration rate and water-holding capacity, so the roots can chase the moisture down. And the surface is well-mulched, of course.

    IMO it’s incredibly important for new gardeners not to expect perfect results immediately. Even experienced gardeners make mistakes and, as I wrote in my previous blog, gardening always includes making mistakes and learning from them, which requires time measured in seasons, not days. So if your vegie garden isn’t looking great this year, don’t worry, you’ll do better next year. If you’re not sure how to improve your soil, take some photos on your mobile phone, take some soil samples and if relevant, sick plants in ziplock bags, and bring them all to your local nursery. Any good – and I emphasise GOOD! – nursery has staff who can help you identify the issues and solutions.

  4. THanks v much for all that Helen. Great information and v encouraging to remember. My veg garden will be better this year because I have smartened up with streamlining what I plant and feeding the soil beforehand….. so hopefully more of what I really want to eat and less half hearted crops of what I am not mad about. But I do want to try beans this year because I have rediscovered the joy of fresh snappy greens.

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