Without adequate tomato plant support, satisfying servings of bruschetta, lasagna, soups and sauces would never exist. Cages, which are usually made of wire, serve purposes similar to wooden stakes by helping to ensure the health and productivity of tomato plants. They are sunk into the ground around the plant just after planting, and as growth continues they keep the plant more contained and upright. Unlike species such as corn and peppers, which feature stems and branches that are strong enough to hold up on their own throughout their lifetimes, tomato plants will droop to the ground as they mature and become fruit laden.
All tomato plants, from those that bear tiny cherry fruit to hybridized monsters, benefit from cage support to protect the fruit. Determinate varieties, such as Rutgers and Celebrity, have short- to medium-length vines with lots of branches and flower clusters at the tips while indeterminate varieties such as Better Boy and Floradel will continue to grow until they die from disease, water deprivation or cold weather. According to the Mississippi State University Extension Service, such support for determinate and indeterminates prevents the fruit from coming into contact with the ground. Such contact can cause tomatoes to rot and create sunburn on fruit that is allowed to lay bare without benefit of foliage cover.
Diseases and Pests
Cage-supported plants give gardeners better access to monitor and treat plants for diseases and pest infestations. There are several types of diseases and pests that affect tomato plants, especially heirloom varieties that are not bred with resistance to them. Some of those include hornworms that feed on the fruit and foliage and Septoria leafspot that often occurs during excessively damp weather. Cage support makes it easier for gardeners to adequately spray and dust for insect and disease control, and allows for more air circulation, which can be critical to disease prevention.
The Mississippi State University Extension Service states that caged tomatoes may not produce ripe fruit as early as plants that are staked or trellised, but that they provide more tomatoes that are less likely to become sunburned. Install cages that are 5 feet high for indeterminate varieties and those that are shorter for determinates. Protect young plants from adverse weather by wrapping the bottom 18 inches of each cage with clear plastic. Prune the plants to four or five fruiting branches and as they grow keep pushing them back into the cages, the extension service suggests.
The pluses of caging become obvious when harvest time rolls around. Gardeners have an easy time plucking the juicy ripe fruit available on the branches that are reaching out of the top, contained within the cages and from wayward branches on the sides.
Better Than Staking
Not everyone agrees, but Mississippi State University claims that caging tomatoes is superior to staking because there is no tying involved as the plants grow and only limited pruning is required. Simply spacing the plants 3 feet apart and anchoring the "legs" of each cage by pushing them into the ground is all that is needed.