Tomato Growing Lessons

Are you a staker or a cager?

I’m a staker because my Dad was a staker, so I assume his brothers and sister are stakers, too, and that perhaps my grandparents were stakers, but I don’t know for sure.

We had a neighbor who was a cager, but otherwise seemed to have a pretty good garden.

I’m of course referring to the two methods of growing tomatoes. Some of us do it properly by staking the tomato plants; others just throw some kind of cage around the plant and hope for the best I suppose. Not that there is anything really wrong with caging your tomato plants, but…

I was just raised to stake tomato plants.

Some of the other lessons my Dad taught me about tomatoes:

- Plant them deep in the spring. You should remove all but the top two or three sets of leaves and bury your tomato plant nice and deep. Roots will grow along the buried stem, giving you a sturdier plant in the long run.

- Enrich the soil around them with your best compost. The tomato is the king of the garden and deserves the best soil in the garden and the best spot in the garden. The tomatoes will be the biggest plants, so plant the rest of the garden around them. When I plan out my own vegetable garden, I figure out where to plant the tomatoes first and then everything else sort of falls into place.

- Start early if you want to harvest tomatoes earlier than anyone else. You have to start your seedlings early, pot them up a few times in progressively bigger pots, and then be willing to take the tomato plants out on warm days and back in on cool days and cold nights until it is finally time to plant them out in the garden. My Dad always did this which is why I think he always seemed to harvest his first tomato in June, and I don’t harvest a tomato until mid to late July. At least I know WHAT to do to get an earlier tomato, even if I don’t do it.

- Provide really sturdy stakes for support, expecting the tomato plants to get really big. My Dad used metal fence posts, sunk nearly two feet down into the ground with cross bars between them, to support his tomato plants, and believe me, his tomatoes needed that strong of a structure. His tomato plants, in my mind, grew nearly eight feet tall. In the picture above, they are at least six feet tall.

- Remove the suckers from the tomato plants. This keeps them from getting all bushy and expending energy on side shoots instead of blooms. Suckering is simply the removal of the side shoots as they form in the axils between the leaves and the main stem. It’s fairly easy to do, and if you keep up with it, you’ll have nice tall tomato plants with lots of good tomatoes and a green thumb and finger. If you don’t keep up with it, well, you might as well have just caged them.

And there you have it, five tomato growing lessons from my Dad who, if he were still alive, would have turned 80 years old today.

Now, in honor of my Dad, please grow your tomatoes properly, by staking them.


  1. I'm a steak guy myself err rather stake. Either really. I've never used a cage. I second the planting technique you described. Plant them deep and let those roots grow forth and multiply your tomato crop!

  2. Carol...what a nice homage to your Dad! I've always been a cager but not those wimpy wire ones that are only good for eggplant, peppers or dahlias. I've made various cages and now own some heavy duty bought cages. I like them because of the design...they never tip over. But maybe in honor of your Dad I'll try one staked this year as an experiment! (even though I feel I've been chastised for my gardening practices...)

  3. I cage the determinates and stake the indeterminates. Seems to work for me...

  4. When I first started reading this post, I was reminded of the poll from "How Normal Are You?" You know...are you a wadder or a folder? LOLOLOL.

    Okay, seriously. I used a cage. Yes, that's right. For my one tomato plant - I borrowed a cage from my dad. I promise to do better this year!

    (I don't like fresh tomatoes. Shocking, isn't it?)

  5. I used to be a cager but I'm pretty sure that I'm going to be a staker now. Thanks for including the link about pruning tomatoes. I knew you were suppose to prune the suckers but never knew exactly what they were. Now I do, thanks much. :)

  6. We had a mini garden last year with calabrese, a few hot peppers, and six tomato plants, which we did stake. This year we had planned on getting cages, but now we're not thanks to your post. Glad to know we did something right!

    There's no doubt where you got your green thumb from now. :) Jen

  7. My grandpa was the tomato KING. His plants grew 12-15 feet tall. He had to build elaborate cage structures out of wood as they got taller and had to pick tomatoes from a ladder even. Of course, the Sacratomato valley is the PERFECT area for growing them. 8 feet is nothing back home lol.

    BTW, I'm a CAGER. But I might try some staked this year.

  8. You keep talking about these tomatoes! I guess I'll have to get some seeds to be satisfied now. I'm sure I can find a space for a tomato plant or two.
    I've used both stakes and cages, I always planted deep and pinched off the suckers.

  9. IF I should get a tomato plant this year. I will stake it in honor of your Dad.

  10. Great advise Carol, I will take it into consideration next year for my winter garden. I am both I put a stake early and as the plant grows I put a cage (I know is over doing it)

  11. i can hardly bring myself to comment on this post after reading that Kylee does not like fresh tomatoes. WHAT THA HECK????

    I caged mine last year because my mom told me to. The cages sucked therefore I'll gladly use your dad's advice this year and hope for the best.

  12. I'm a really picky eater! I don't like very many fresh veggies. I like cucumbers now, but five years I like onions in things and will only eat lettuce and spinach if I have dressing on them. Yeah, that's right - no raw carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, radishes, green peppers, celery or tomatoes. I'll eat cooked broccoli, carrots, and tomatoes.
    My husband like raw tomatoes okay, but not so much that he insists we grow them. I only grow that one plant just for him, plus the cherry tomatoes. He likes those better.

    Sorry! :-)

  13. It's got to be caging for me. Before I grew my first garden my neighbor leaned over to look at her tomatoes and stuck herself right in the eye with one of her stakes. I just can't get that day out of my head.

    Oh well, I still enjoy those tomatoes :-)

  14. Keep on staking Carol! Great advice on how to grow tomatoes. I use those spiral thingies and twirl my tomato plants around them. Works a treat. When mine get to be 6 feet tall I top them, enough is enough. :-)

    A nice tribute to your dad, Carol!

  15. Boy, the soil in that garden must be really good soil. Whoever gardens in that garden today must be really lucky.

  16. I'm a staker and a cager ... and once I was an upside downer too!

  17. Yikes, a stake in the eye! We use a cage made from concrete reinforcing wire, because we had some left over from construction, that are six feet tall by two feet in diameter. Then a stake is driven to hold them in place. Guilty as charged to not suckering with the cages. I always thought we didn't need to do that pinching since our growing season is fairly long, we aren't in a hurry to get the fruit before the cold comes. Maybe need to rethink that.

    Frances at Faire Garden

  18. Alright, I admit it...I am a cager. I like the idea that once I put the cage on, I am done, other than pinching suckers. When I have tried staking, the tomatoes always get away from me and end up sprawled all over the garden!

  19. Great post - as someone who's about to grow tomatoes for the first time I found itreally useful - and the article you linked to. If I promise to stake, will you do some on-going posts on tomatoes, showing what point yours have got to and how you're treating them at each point?

  20. I've used cages but didn't like the result as well as staking.

    Yolanda, I gardened last fall at a house where they had those spiral thingies. I'd never seen them before. It looked like a good idea - easier than tying, and with finials on the top, they were pretty in the garden.

  21. My Dad was always a stalker, too, and he grew some of the best tomatoes. :) Great post!

  22. Your Dad raised a fine woman and gardener.

    We have always been stakers. A few years ago we tried to be cagers but it didn't work out. We gave them away because it's too hard to reposition a cage without damaging your plants.

    Good info, Carol!

  23. I guess we've always tended to be stakers rather than cagers, Carol, but the tall wooden stakes are connected to each other by cross timbers with the stems tied on horizontally ... guess that would be "scaffolders"?

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

  24. My dad is a cager and I use both cages and staking platforms.

  25. Dave, Wouldn't steak and fresh home grown tomatoes taste great right now?

    Leslie, Me chastising you? No, not really, but it is nice to read you are going to try one staked tomato.

    Jane in Edmonton, I do agree that if you grow a determinate tomato, caging is probably okay. I grow almost all indeterminate varieties.

    Matt and Jen, Good for you starting out with stakes. Keep up the good gardening!

    Nickie, I bet they had a longer growing season out in California!

    Robin's Nesting Place, I'm sure you can find a place for a few tomato plants, and if you don't want to start them from seed, you can always buy the plants in the spring.

    Lisa at Greenbow, That's good enough for me!

    Rusty in Miami, Yes, I think a stake and a cage are a bit much.

    Gina, I know, I couldn't believe that ANYONE would not like fresh tomatoes. Good luck with the stakes. Get tall ones!

    Kylee, Don't apologize, that just leaves more veggies for the rest of us!

    Melanie, Nice story, not. Those stakes were too short. My stakes are at least six feet tall, so no way could I stick myself in the eye with them.

    Yolanda Elizabet, I have several of the spiral stakes, too, but I end up tying the tomatoes to them. Thanks for the kind words.

    Sherry at the Zoo, Yes, they must be very lucky and they must take very good care of it!

    Crafty Gardener, I've never tried the upside down method, though it looks interesting.

    Frances, Yes, read that article I linked to and maybe you can experiment with suckering some tomatoes to see if it makes a difference for you.

    Vonlafin, Admitting it is the first step, but at least you are still suckering the tomatoes.

    Sue Swift, Yes, I'll post more about tomatoes as I sow the seeds, pot them up, harden them off, plant them in the garden, sucker them and then harvest that first tomato.

    Lintys, So you would agree that staking IS better!

    Nancy J. Bond, Thanks, Stakers, unite!

    Mary, Thanks for the kinds words and glad to read you are a staker, too.

    Annie in Austin, That seems a bit unusual, but I guess it is the same principle as staking. My Dad had cross bars to stabilize the stakes.

    Thanks all for the kind words and comments!
    Carol, May Dreams Gardens

  26. Curtis, looks like we were posting comments at the same time. What's a staking platform?

  27. Carol: I already follow all your great advice! Wish I had it 4 years ago when I first grew tomatoes. I haven't put in the tomato stakes as yet though the plants are 2 feet now, as PottRott currently spends his nights pulling trellises and stakes out-often with the plant-so my tomatoes might be "sprawlers" this year.

  28. Once again I will try to comment. We too stake our tomatoes, never found cages strong enought to support the plants. Tying up the plants is sort of tricky and hard to find fabric that does not injur the stems. What do you use? Your grandpa did not stake his tomatoes, just let them grow naturally, but he had much more space in his garden.
    Thinking of your dad and hard to imagine he would be 80.

  29. Anonymous: pantyhose is by far the recommended tie for staking tomatoes.

  30. Carol, I've staked and caged. Like Jane in Edmonton, I pretty much cage the determinants and stake the others. It works. I also plant them very deep and use the best compost. I also pinch out the suckers. Guess we grow them mostly the same, although I use big sturdy cages quite a bit. I then end up tying the tomatoes to them too.~~Dee

  31. I'm late to the party but I'd like to add my two cents worth-I'm a trelliser. Due to lack of space in my tiny urban garden, I nailed trellises to the fence then tied the tomatoes to it. Does this qualify as a staker?

    I've never liked those cages, besides they rust after awhile. We grew lots of tomatoes on the farm when I was young and we always made teepee stakes out of sticks.

  32. These are great tips. Thanks!

  33. My dad's a staker - but I'm a cager. Guess that makes me a rebel - but really it's just that I'm a lazy gardener! Maybe when I grow up, I'll be a staker, too!

  34. Nicole, I hope you can get your stakes in soon. I set up my stakes before I even plant the tomatoes.

    Anonymous (Susie), I use green plastic tape, but I would think pantyhose would work too, as Nicole pointed out.

    Dee/reddirtrambling, Yes it does sound like we grow our tomatoes in much the same way, except no cages for me!

    Bill Stanley, Your welcome!

    Mary Beth, A rebel indeed. Try the stakes, make your Dad proud!

    Thanks all for the comments!
    Carol, May Dreams Gardens

  35. As usual, I'm late to the party.

    I'm a cager. I had no parent or friend to teach me the way. So when I saw tomato cages in the store, I thought that was the way to go. It took me just a single year to realize those flimsy tomato cages were for some miniature fairy tomatoes. My tomatoes needed REAL cages. Texas Tomato Cages. Even those get overwhelmed by my tomatoes!

    Robin at Bumblebee

  36. Many thanks for sharing your dad's tomato growing tips.

  37. Having a Golden Retriever that is still very much a puppy, cages are my only option, to keep him out of the plants. Smaller pests are much easier to deal with.

  38. Tending a garden is a favorite hobby for many people, not only for the relaxation, but for the tasty harvest in due season. Tomatoes are a versatile plant with many varieties to sample and are one of the easiest garden treats to grow.

    how to grow tomatoes


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