Tired of the flimsy tomatoes cages for trellising tomatoes? No time to make DIY cages or use complicated tying systems that require lots of pruning? Here is your answer - it's the EASIEST way ever to train and trellis tomato plants!
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Over the years of growing tomatoes, I've tried lots of systems to train and cage the plants as they grow.
- Square wooden cages - time consuming to make, feet disintegrate from the soil in just a few years.
- Circles of fencing with bottom row cut to make stakes for the soil - hard to cut through fencing, still tippy, and hard to prune and harvest through the fence openings.
- Tying up a string or to a stake - require a TON of pruning, especially later in the season when I have less time because I'm processing all the produce.
- "Basket weaving" the tomatoes through a series of string strung horizontally between two stakes - honestly never tried this, again due to time to set up and pruning required.
- Round thin metal cages - these are the kind you see at every store in the spring and are what I defaulted to the most. They are flimsy and we had to add stakes and strings to secure them, but the time commitment was low.
Above is a shot of the cages with stakes at the corners outside of the raised bed strung with more wire that we then tied the cages too. This helped them not to tip over when the plants were full size and loaded with fruit.
It was hard to harvest and I found I had more late blight I had to fight with lower branch pruning because air flow was constricted.
Then I visited an aunt of mine who is a master gardener and she was using something I hadn't seen in action before: metal fencing that she called "cattle panels."
This sturdy metal fencing goes by a number of names: cattle panels, hog panels, livestock panels, stockade panels, or as the person at Tractor Supply told Brian, "handy panels."
You can buy them in various widths and heights and they are simple to install and not too expensive - and they last forever, so it's a one-time investment.
The best thing about this trellising system, though was the quick and easy way to train the plants up the panels using...bungee cords! Yes - really.
I have all the information for you below, including a video on why to trellis, how to install the panels (with tips on which kinds of posts to get), and how to attach them using simple zip ties.
Seriously, this has been tomato-growing life changing for me in a number of ways - and I hope you give it a try, too!
Easiest Way To Trellis Tomatoes Video
Why Trellis Tomatoes
There are quite a few reasons to get your tomato plants up off the ground as they grow, including:
- Inhibiting disease (this is probably the biggest reason) - airflow helps fight against early and late blights that can kill a tomato plant.
- Fruit touching the ground will be misshapen and tend to rot more easily.
- Harder to harvest, bending over to find all the fruit trying to get past all the vines.
What happens if you don't stake tomatoes?
Not only diseases will bother your unstaked tomato plants, but as they grow and basically cover the ground, it creates a perfect environment for slugs, tomato hornworms, and other pests to chew on leaves and the fruit.
It will be harder to find the pests in the tangle of vines and then you might give up and lose a lot of your harvest.
So for the health of the plant and the ease of harvest, you've got to trellis
The Easiest Way To Stake And Train Tomatoes
So, yes, after many years of trying to trellis tomatoes with those flimsy tomato trellises at the store and with pruning and tying, using metal fencing panels has been the easiest way yet!
Whatever the panels are called at your store, what you're looking for is the thicker fencing (that if you could cut it, would need a hacksaw or special blade) that comes in lengths of 8 to 16 feet.
And the truly E.A.S.Y. part comes in the tying up of the plants to the panels:
While you could use twine around the plants and through the openings, I find bungee cords the simplest because they stretch and take just minutes to attach and stake a whole 12-foot section.
The cords last 3-5 years or longer, depending on if you bring them in for the winter (a-hem), but they are also pretty inexpensive to purchase.
While the panels have been used by many gardeners, I've since found, I do think the easy way to keep the tomatoes on the trellis I learned from my aunt is the nugget of gold here: bungee cords! No need to mess with ties or twine.
How To Set Up and Use Metal Panel Fencing For Tomatoes
- Cattle panel/handy panel in a length to suit your beds.
- 6-foot T-posts in 6 to 7 foot heights. (In our area, "U" posts are lighter duty and have bent in the wind with the weight of the tomatoes, so we use heavier "T" posts - you will want to get the heaviest duty posts you can.) TIP: If look at the posts from the top it will be shaped like a T on T-posts and a U on U-posts.
- Black nylon zip ties (I found them cheaper here.) - black lasts longer out in the sun.
Note: We have 12 foot long beds (which isn't one of the lengths offered, of course) so we got two 8-foot lengths that we overlapped, using zip ties to hold them together.
Bungee cords in different sizes (or you can use thick twine) - here are the bungees we've been using and show in the video:
- Small, thin bungee cords (to start tomatoes up panel) - these are super cheap.
- Bungee variety pack
- OR camouflage bungee pack from Harbor Freight - this is my preference because they blend in to the greenery.
- Set your T posts about 6 feet apart. I wouldn't go more than 6 feet apart, but you can go less, depending on the length of your bed and the panels.
- Attach the metal panels to the posts with zip ties: hold the panels to the posts, using the ties to lash them together in 3-4 places on the post (we've found two people are needed to do this easily).
PRO TIP: Bring the panels to the top of the posts - it may create up to a foot of open area on the bottom, but it's easy to stake the small tomato seedlings when planting and you want the most height you can get for the big indeterminate tomatoes.
- Plant the tomatoes (here are my tomato planting tips so they thrive all season) and then use the small, thin bungee cords to wrap around the plant, anchoring to the panel the plant.
- Using the bigger bungee cord sizes as the plant grows up. The cords don't have to be tight, just enough to keep them on the panel.
As the plant grows up and you see that it needs trellising, you simply put another bungee on at a higher spot to hold the vines to the panel, using bigger cords as the plant grows bigger.
If a branch comes out of a bungeed area, you can simply pull the bungee cord away, place the branch back and put the bungee back on.
Really - I've found this to be the easiest way to keep tomatoes trellised ever. I don't have to worry about pruning, or staking, or the things falling over.
So bungee cords and cattle panels, that's the "secret."
(Interested in how to build raised beds like ours? Here is the tutorial for building and filling raised beds for vegetables and flowers.)
Big Pro Tip
I've found that one of the things that makes the cattle panel idea work even better are building long narrow beds instead of wide beds.
Previously, we built 4'x8' or 10' beds with two rows of tomatoes (shown above). But harvesting was difficult trying to reach the center of the tomatoes. And air circulation was less than ideal to combat the tomato blights.
By building four long narrow beds (ours are 12 feet long by 2 feet wide), each bed holds one set of panels that can grow a row of tomatoes (or beans or cucumbers) that you can reach from either side easily.
The reason for the four long beds is to be able to alternate the crops so we aren't growing tomatoes every year in the same spot, which is best for combating soil born diseases. It would be best to alternate cropping on a 3-4 year basis, but this is what we had room for, so we work with it.
In the previous year, the beds with tomatoes you see above grew pole beans, peas, and cucumbers.
If you can grow tomatoes in longer beds, I highly recommend it, along with the metal panels and bungee cords.
Trellising Tomatoes FAQs
There are pros and cons to both ways.
Staking involves constant tying and pruning of the plant, especially if it's an indeterminate variety. But you can fit more plants in an area, potentially getting a good harvest in a small space.
Caging is easier since you don't have to tie or prune, but the cage needs to be really sturdy for the late-season size plants or they will bend over. It's also sometimes harder to harvest the fruit.
The answer for me is metal fence panels, the best of both worlds!
Yes, all tomatoes should be caged or staked. There are two types of tomatoes, determinate which grow smaller and set fruit mainly at one time, and indeterminate which continue to grow all season creating large vining plants.
You may think the smaller varieties of tomatoes wouldn't need caging, but the weight of the fruit of any of the tomatoes can cause it to topple at the height of its growth, so caging and/or staking should be a part of any tomato patch.
The flimsy metal cages are probably the cheapest, though they don't last more than a couple seasons. And while the metal fencing panel method might not be the cheapest in the beginning, it definitely pays off in the long run, as you will never have to purchase the panels again, and probably not the fence posts.
You will have to rebuild anything made of wood, and continue to buy the cheap round metal cages as they bend and break.
Need Some Recipes For All Those Tomatoes You Will Harvest?
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(NOTE: We talked about this first in our former podcast - if you'd like to read the transcript from the show, you can CLICK HERE to open in a new window and read.)
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I love this idea and I am going to try it this year. Are there certain varieties of tomato plants that are better for a trellis? Or, can you trellis all tomato plants?
So glad you'll be trying this, Lacey! So far I've trellised all the types I have always grown and they've done well - Brandywine, Cherokee Purple, Black Cherry, Roma, Early Girl, etc.
I think they'd all do fine!
Susan Lambert says
my husband watched the video and he has a ? How do you PLOW/TIll the soil the way the tomatoes are planted at the end of the season
I never till, so it's one less task to do! There are lots of great reasons to not disturb the soil which I go over in this article: https://anoregoncottage.com/planting-garden-bed-no-till-way/