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We learned early on that supporting tomatoes is very necessary for all but a few varieties. Without some form of support, your plant will sprawl out over the ground and likely catch diseases that will keep you from harvesting much fruit. We also learned early on that the cheap tomato cages you can buy at your local hardware store don't always do the trick (with some exceptions, which we'll discuss).
We've done a lot of experiments to decide which methods work, and here we'll share some considerations to help you make a choice that will work for your garden.
The simple fact is this: deciding whether to use a cage or a stake depends on a few factors, including the type of tomato, how much pruning you want to do, and what kinds of resources you have to spend.
This article discusses each of those considerations.
What do we mean by "Cage" vs. "Stake"?
Just so we're on the same page, let's share what we mean when we talk about a "cage" and a "stake". A tomato cage is one of a variety of support solutions that place your plant in the middle of a structure that surrounds it and provides a variety of horizontal frames for the plant to rest on at various levels. Cages can be made of metal or wood, and can be store bought or homemade.
A simple search for "tomato cages" on Amazon, for example, demonstrates some of the options:
Cages vary greatly in their structure and strength. You can buy a cheap circular cage like the ones with three horizontal circles and vertical rods that connect them and come together toward the ground, but we have learned to be wary of the construction of these cages and know that you will have to prune your tomatoes for these cages to stand up to their weight. They also probably won't last more than one or two seasons. Square metal cages, like these ones from Gardeners Supply are much sturdier and will probably last longer, and you won't have to prune your plant as much for success, but they will cost you a bit more. We own a number of these cages and have been using them for more than five years.
Homemade wooden cages are also an option. We followed this tutorial on Mother Earth News to make cages that can be folded down over the winter (on a hinge) and they have worked decently for us, though the metal cages offer more resting places for your plants so we find that they work a little bit better depending on the variety. The materials for these cages are very affordable and they are fairly easy to build with just a few tools. We've been using them for about 3 years and they seem to be holding up well.
Tomato stakes, on the other hand, are single posts, made of wood or plastic, that you place next to your plant to offer support from the center as the plant grows. They are similar to grade stakes, but you can usually find them at a home improvement or gardening store in longer lengths (i.e. grade stakes are often 36 inches, which might be fine depending on your variety of tomato, but we prefer 48 inch tomato stakes). We find that wooden stakes are stronger than plastic stakes, but take a look at what your local store offers and see what works for you. When you use stakes, you'll need some plant ties or tape to secure your tomato stems to the stake.
So which is better?
Well, like I said, it depends (don't you just love that answer?).
What type of tomatoes are you growing?
The first question to ask about the tomatoes you're growing is are they determinate or indeterminate? Determinate plants are sometimes called "bush" varieties - they grow to about 3-4 feet and tend to be more compact. When they reach a certain height and flower at that height, they stop growing taller and focus on producing fruit. The fruit usually ripens in a condensed time period, around the same time (during a 1-2 week span). Examples of some determinate varieties include these Italian Roma Bush Tomatoes from Botanical Interests or these Roma Paste Tomatoes from High Mowing Seeds. Determinate tomatoes can do well with stakes since they stop growing at a certain height. The tomatoes pictured on stakes above are a determinate variety, and much shorter than our other plants.
Indeterminate tomatoes will continue to grow and produce fruit until the conditions are no longer suitable (i.e. shortened days or a frost). They can grow anywhere from 6 - 12 feet high, depending on the variety, and can shoot branches out at all levels. Examples of indeterminate types of tomatoes include these beautiful Brandywine Tomatoes from Botanical Interest or these Bing Cherry Tomatoes from High Mowing Seeds. Indeterminate varieties, in our experience, do better with cages because they can reach such heights, but your cage needs to be up to the challenge and offer support at least six feet tall. Of course, you can also use a stake for an indeterminate variety if its tall enough, but that brings me to our next topic...
How much are you going to prune?
Pruning tomatoes can offer many benefits (as discussed in our article on reasons to prune tomatoes), but isn't always necessary depending on how you are going to support your tomatoes and can also be done to various degrees. I have read some people say that they keep their tomatoes to one central stem using a stake and get great results, but I've also had years where we didn't prune much at all and used a cage to make up for our lack of time to clean things up.
If you have a sturdy cage, you can do less pruning without the risk of having your plant fall over. You can focus on pruning stems that reach down toward the ground at the bottom of the plant and occasionally clear out up above to allow air to circulate, but you can let more branches do their thing, especially with indeterminate varieties. That said, you may want to do some pruning toward the end of the season to be sure that the fruit that has formed has time to ripen. The cage pictured to the right could use some pruning just to allow for air circulation and for the plant to focus on ripening fruit, but it is still held up well and would eventually produce fruit regardless because the metal cage is so sturdy. Cages that are not as sturdy would require you to do more pruning, similar to what you'd need to do for a stake as described below.
If you are using a stake, you'll need to prune almost all of the bottom suckers, some of the new branches that form, and a lot of the downward facing stems that don't have fruit. This way you can safely tie up your plant and be sure the stake will hold up it's weight. It can take some work, but I have found that if you keep up with it you can have a very clean-looking plant with lots of fruit that does quite well at producing. In the photo here you can see how we are pruning this Roma fairly heavily and tying it off to the stake about every 6 inches. We've left about 3-4 main stems to produce fruit but pruned the rest.
How much do you want to spend?
Sometimes, the type of support you are going to use also comes down to the amount of resources you want to spend on your solution. As discussed above, price and durability are related, and sometimes the cheapest option will do for a season but the more expensive option will last you longer and could save you some cash and frustration in the long run.
Wooden tomato stakes will cost you about $1-4 each depending on if you buy in bulk, plus the cost of a roll or two of plant tie ($4). So, you can stake each tomato plant for under $5. They'll last a few seasons, but you'll have to keep up with the pruning to make them work and they're probably best suited for determinate varieties.
Homemade wooden cages like the ones pictured above will cost you about $10 to make, plus the value of your time spent making them. They'll last a good five years or more and will provide more sturdy support for tomatoes that are heavier or grow taller. They are a good choice for the gardener who is handy with tools and isn't looking for the "perfect" support.
Store-bought metal cages can run anywhere from $10 - 30 each, depending on the brand and the materials (some are coated for a longer-lasting solution). If stored well over the winter, they can last many years, and I truly believe that they do the best job supporting tomatoes that are freely growing lots of tall off-shoots. Like most expensive solutions, they're the "set it and forget it" solution. They are not always practical for the budget, but our strategy has been to buy one or two a year when they are on sale to expand the collection that we have.
We'd love to hear your experiences with using stakes or cages! Any recommendations for our readers?