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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.