You don’t have to stake tomatoes in order to get a decent crop, but it’s a good idea. Staking saves space, but more importantly it keeps fruit off the ground, where it is vulnerable to damage from insects and diseases.
Plus, it’s easier to harvest supported plants than to hunt for the tomatoes on the ground.
Tomato plants fall into two basic categories based on how they grow. Determinate plants have short- to medium-length vines, and stop growing at a certain point. Determinate plants take light pruning and adapt well to caging or staking. Indeterminate types continue to grow and produce throughout the season. They should be pruned moderately if staked or lightly if caged.
You need to decide how you will support your tomato plants before you plant them, because different methods require different spacing. If you plan to stake your plants, plant them 18 to 24 inches apart. Place a stake in the ground next to each plant or next to every other plant, about 3 or 4 inches away from the stems.
Stakes need to be three-to-four feet long for determinate plants and five-to-six feet long for indeterminate plants. They can be made from metal or one-inch diameter wood, but not chemically treated wood. Tie branches to the stakes individually using soft cord or fabric. Don’t use wire or monofilament line because it can cut into the stems.
Tie the cord to the stake before looping it loosely around the stem. Prune the plant by removing suckers, and tie the branches as they grow.
You can buy tomato cages or make them from concrete reinforcing wire with six-inch openings. A five-foot length of five-foot high wire (shorter for determinate types) makes an eighteen-inch diameter round cage.
Another type of cage is the folding tomato cage, which is square and very easy to store. Folding galvanized steel cages consist of vertical metal rods circled by bent rods. Do-it-yourselfers can make tomato cages out of scraps of wood. (For instructions see Woody’s Folding Tomato Cages.
Whether made of wood or wire, if you take your cages in during the winter they will last for years and years.
Place your tomato plants three feet apart and prune each plant to four or five fruiting branches. Slip a cage over each plant and anchor the cage into the ground. You don’t have to tie the plants to the cages, but it’s good to gently turn escaping branches back into the cages.
You can protect young plants from wind and cool temperatures by wrapping plastic around the bottom foot or so of each cage.
While plants take longer to ripen when grown in cages, harvests tend to be larger and fruits less likely to be cracked or sunburned. Besides, using cages takes much less work than staking.
For More Information on Supporting Your Tomatoes:
The Mississippi State University Extension Service has a thorough discussion of the different methods of staking and training tomatoes.
Master Gardeners in California offer this summary of staking techniques.