Thursday, May 12, 2011

Gardening Thursday – Supporting Your Plants

All plants will grow naturally without support, but providing it has several advantages. For instance, tomatoes are a vine that naturally grows on the ground, but using a support structure to force them to grow up, reduces fruit loss from ground rot and disease, uses less garden space, makes them easier to maintain, makes for a neater garden. Same for pole beans, peas, cucumbers, and a few others.

Support methods are another one of those “more than one way to skin the cat” topics. First tomatoes – the primary supports in the home garden are stakes, cages, and fences and the commercial folks also use the Florida Weave which is a combination of stakes and twine (it’s usually reserved for determinate plants that don’t get too tall). I’ve used all of these methods and prefer cages although I also use stakes when I grow more plants than I have cages – like this year.

My cages are made from concrete reinforcing wire mesh (6”x6” openings) which comes in a 5’x 50’ (or100’) roll. I make them 20” in diameter and 7’ tall by cutting in 7 foot lengths and rolling them 90 degrees from the way they are already rolled. Five foot cages can be made by just cutting the necessary length to get the diameter you want and joining the seams. I cut off the bottom rung of wire to leave tines to stick in the ground and I attach the seams with plastic wire ties.

I allow four stems to develop in each cage and let a couple of them weave outside the cage around a cross wire and back in the cage which will keep the plant from falling into the cage bottom.

When the tomatoes get tall, the wind will blow the cages over and I’ve tried several methods to prevent this such as tent stakes, individual stakes, etc., and have found my current method to work well. I drive an 8’ steel fence post at each corner, run a wire (plastic coated clothes line) around the top and tie each cage to the wire with binder twine. For single rows, I use two posts and a single wire that I run through the cages. I haven’t had any fall since using this method.

For stakes, nearly any wood can be used, but the more rot resistant, the longer they will last. I use pressure treated pine 2”x2”x8’ that has been treated with something besides arsenic. I allow only the main stem to develop as it’s easier to keep just one tied to the stake, but I’ve also done 2 on occasion. Many materials are used for tying, but I use binders twine as it is cheap and biodegradable. To tie, go around the post, cross behind the stalk then around the stem and tie (or go the other way) – leaving room for growth. The crossing double loop gets more twine on the post than just a single loop which will help keep it from sliding down the stake.

And now for beans, which come as bush and half runner which require no support (although some folks support half runners) and pole which need to be supported as they may grow 15’ or so. The common supports in the home garden are tepee, fence, bean tower, and trellis and they are all used extensively. The old timers around here used six or so cane poles tied into a tepee structure with 3-4 seeds planted at each one. This was cheap and easy, but I don’t use it because it takes up a lot of garden space and has the beans hanging on the inside, which makes picking harder. Fences work okay, but the beans get so long they need a pretty tall fence. Bean towers are a more modern version of the tepee, but they take up much less space.

I’ve been using a trellis for several years and it is my preferred method. While it takes about 30 minutes per row to erect, I only have two 8’ steel fence posts and a 20’ long piece of wire to store over winter. I drive the post at each end of the row, put the wire tightly between them on top and a piece of binder twine across the bottom about a foot above the ground. I then run the twine up and down on a 6”-8” spacing and lay a couple of posts on the bottom string to hold it down until the beans grab it.

The wind will blow the vertical pieces around some and must be repositioned until the beans start up them. A knot on the wire minimizes this movement and is important as they can be difficult to untangle.  At seasons end, I just cut the twine ends, pull up the plants, slide out the top wire and toss everything on the compost pile.

With the long growing season, my peppers plants are generally 4-5’ tall by seasons end and since they have brittle branches that easy break when fruit laden, I always support mine and have found the shorter, wire mesh (same as tomatoes) cages work well for them. I treat them just like the tomatoes, including supporting the cages to prevent falling.

I will also use the inverted tepee type cages (the ones you see for sale everywhere) for plants that generally don’t grow as large – I’ve found the hard way that these things are useless for my tomatoes, but since I have some laying around, I occasionally use them for other plants. I treat my eggplant just like the peppers.

I’ve grown cukes on a fence and it keeps them cleaner, makes them easier to find and harvest and takes up less garden space, but it takes more effort to get them to grow on the fence as the tendrils must come in contact with the fence and wrap around it. Mine are on the ground this year.

I have a 3’ chicken wire fence around my garden and I grow my snow peas on it, but in general pole peas and beans are treated the same.

Sorry this post is so long, but I wanted to do a pretty thorough job.  Next week will be disease and pest control.

All photos can be enlarged by clicking on them.

Have a great day and thanks for stopping by Almost Heaven South.

One year ago:  Grilled Greek Salad



  1. All that support is amazing. It looks to be a full time job. Do you can your bounty at harvest time. I found that to be the hardest thing of having a garden, when it all comes in and having to put it all up before it went bad. And it ususally did that while I was on vacation!

  2. I'd say that's pretty darn thorough. If I've said it once, I've said it a hundred times...I'm surprised I can even grow a weed.

  3. Yea! I don't have time to read all of this, but I'm bookmarking it for when I have some plants. We were just discussing it. Thanks!

  4. It is very windy here most of the time and it is important to stake. Looks like you are in the garden from morning until night, your garden looks great. I found you while searching for gardening blogs and although your zone is much different from ours I like your style. I'll be by again for a peek.

  5. My parents always use support for their tomato plants! Definitely a great tip!

  6. My little veggie garden is on a much much smaller scale, but I am loving this series Larry. Don't worry about the length of the post either - I'm just grateful for you to share your knowledge!!

  7. Thanks so much, Larry, for such good information. We don't 'garden' at this time ---other than flower gardening, but I am happy to learn more about the process in case we ever do grow our own tomatoes...

  8. Great tips on staking Larry. We grow Cherokee Purple tomatoes and they get very heavy and grow over the tomato cages. I'll pass this along to the gardener.

  9. I grew tomatoes, cucumbers and zucchini on cages last year. It's better than letting them eat all the ground around them. Since the garden's only 6 feet from a car, I was afraid the squash would eat the Chevette!

  10. I haven't done this for my tomato plants yet this year. Hopefully it's not too late.

  11. Larry, learned a lot...will try some of the things with my tomatoes this year...looking a square foot gardener and his thoughts of soil. Soil seems to be one of my problems....looking forward to being with y'all and all of the good food and friendship.



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