Cats Cradle (String Trellis) Support for Tomato Plants

Mature Tomato plants, without support such as a trellis or cage tend to sprawl on the ground and collapse under the weight of a bounty of healthy tomatoes. On the ground they become much more susceptible to pathogens, fungal diseases, wilts and the ever present insects.

A properly supported and pruned tomato plant exposes the maximum surface area of its leaves to the sun, and will produce larger healthier tomatoes several weeks earlier than a prostrate one. Sugar produced by a properly pruned and supported tomato plant is directed to the developing fruit, not unnecessary foliage

The leaves of a properly maintained plant dry off quicker, hence bacterial and fungal pathogens have less opportunity to spread. Soil is not as likely to splash up onto straight well supported upright plants. Basically upright tomato plants have fewer problems with leaf spots and fruit rots and greater production, both in quality and quantity. [Also See: Pruning Tomato Plants and Tomato Plant Diseases]

Illustration showing how to construct supports for tomato plants.
Tomato plants being supported by the cat’s cradle method.

One of the simplest and most common methods to trellis tomatoes in the home garden is a tomato cage, which is just dandy if you only have a few plants. It becomes much more cumbersome as your garden expands, not to mention less cost effective.

One cost effective and efficient method is what is known as the Florida weave, or Cats Cradle. It works well with Tomatoes planted in a straight row and properly spaced at about 2 -3 feet apart. Drive stakes into the ground at the beginning and end of each row, in longer rows , a center stake or several additional takes is also advisable.

In gardens subjected to heavy winds, sometimes every other plant may need a stake. Jute twine is best, it is strong, eco-friendly and biodegradable. At season end it can go directly into the compost pile .

When the plants have reached about a foot in height, weave twine from the primary tomato stems to the stakes to support them and prevent them from drooping to the soil level.

The twine should be fastened to the first stake about 6 inches above the soil level. Loop the twine around subsequent stakes, be sure to keep the line taut, or you’ll be defeating the purpose as one drooping plant can drag the rest down.

Maintaining the twine tension , fasten it around each subsequent stake. Adjust the twines height as necessary. Naturally not all plants are created equal, some plants will be taller than others.

When you reach the final stake in the row, make a double loop for added strength, turn around and repeat the process in the opposite direction – back from whence you came. When you are back at the first stake again, tie off the twine with a sturdy knot and clip off the end of the twine.

As the plants mature and continue to grow, you’ll need to run more lines of twine 4 to 6 inches higher every week or so till the plants reach their maximum height near mid to late summer.

This method of staking tomatoes works best with determinate varieties of tomatoes, which generally grow to about 4 feet tall. Indeterminate tomato varieties will continue growing until killed off by frost , so another method of support may be necessary, such as a tomato ladder.

Wooden Tomato stakes are the most commonly used. Another option that is cost effective over extended periods of time ss metal rods, such as rebar, which is used in construction.

Rebar’s has a small diameter and is easy to drive into the ground, the tops won’t splinter either. Rebar can generally be purchased at building supply stores such as Home Depot in 20-foot lengths and can be cut to the desired length by the supplier.

Pruning ~ “Pinching Back”

Pinch and remove suckers that develop in the crotch joint of two branches. They won’t bear fruit and will take energy away from the rest of the plant.

But go easy on pruning the rest of the plant. You can thin leaves to allow the sun to reach the ripening fruit, but it’s the leaves that are photosynthesizing and creating the sugars that give flavor to your tomatoes. Excessive pruning can also lead to Sunscald

A diagram showing how and where to pinch off tomato branches.
Pinch and remove suckers that develop in the crotch joint of two branches.

Once the tomato plants are about 3′ tall, remove the leaves from the bottom 1′ of stem. These are usually the first leaves to develop fungus problems. They get the least amount of sun and soil born pathogens are frequently splashed onto them.