Growing tomatoes teaches even a beginning gardener how to grow opinions. Gardeners generally agree that many tomato plants need the support of stakes to do their best. However, there appears to be little argument about whether wood or metal stakes grow the best tomatoes. Trying both kinds of stakes in your garden will help you to form an opinion.
Tomato plants come in two basic types. Determinate plants tend to grow less than 3 feet tall, having a strong central stem and short branches. A determinate plant can often stand on its own. The best known determinate is probably the "patio" tomato, which can be grown either in the ground or in a container without staking. Indeterminate plants, however, can grow up to 6 feet tall, may have more than one central stem and are known for long trailing branches. Popular for old-fashioned flavor and high fruit production, indeterminates benefit from being caged or staked, protecting fruit from rot or animal damage and making it easier to pick.
Inexpensive and usually readily available, wood tomato stakes usually range from 4 to 6 feet in height. Any kind of scrap wood can be used, with the exception of outdoor treated wood, which contains chemicals. Some lumber yards will bundle or pile scrap that can be bought by the pound. Allowing for a foot of stake planted in the ground, wooden stakes support plants from 3 to 5 feet high. Wooden stakes are prone to warping in wet weather and will rot if soil is frequently soaked for long periods. Taller and more water-resistant wooden stakes are made of bamboo. Expect 2 to 3 years of use from most wooden stakes. The exception is areas where soil is prone to termites, where wooden stakes are not recommended.
Metal stakes can usually be obtained in heights up to 8 feet. Those 1/2 inch or more in diameter are better suited to tomato support than thinner metal stakes. Lengths of rebar can be cut to make metal stakes. Stakes prone to rusting should be handled with gloves to prevent abrasions to your hands. To retard rust and make tying tomatoes easier, most commercial metal tomato stakes are coated with plastic. Stakes can be expected to last 3 years or longer. Areas that have been bent during use are most vulnerable to rust and breakage.
Making Stakes Work
Some criticisms of either wood or metal stakes have less to do with their materials that with how they are used. All stakes need to be well-seated in the soil to support tomato vine weight. Buy long enough stakes that you can sink 6 inches or more into the ground. Clear very rocky soil before seating stakes to prevent splintering or bending. Add a second stake to support a very large heavily loaded plant. Use soft ties, such as plant tape, fabric scraps, cut-up nylon hose, to restrain plant branches; wire-based ties can cut or choke them. These strategies help both wood and metal stakes perform well.
Those who find both wood and metal stakes unsatisfactory or inadequate can create a variety of other supports for tomato plants. Cages keep plants under control, although winter storage for large numbers of cages can present problems. Let tomato vines clamber over a loosely wound roll of chicken wire. Train a double row of plants down a hay-filled aisle between the rows, keeping fruit off the dirt. Use an existing fence as a growing frame, draped with nylon or plastic trellis cloth or as is. All these old-fashioned techniques have been used by tomato growers, many of whom return to staking as the most space-saving way they know.
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