Tomatoes: To cage or stake?

KENNEWICK -- Should you cage or stake your tomatoes?

The reason tomato vines are typically supported by caging or staking is to conserve space and to keep the fruit off the ground, avoiding problems with disease and blemishes.

I like caging because it's less labor intensive and shades the fruit, protecting them from sunburn and tomato end rot.

Staking is a valid method of support, especially in humid, wet climates where foliar and fruit diseases are a common concern.

It's important to note that there are different types of tomato vine growth. Some varieties are determinate, or "self-topping." These plants have numerous branches with vines only reaching moderate lengths. A flower cluster is produced at the end of each branch. Generally, most of the fruit mature about the same time. Because of their growth habit, they should not be pruned.

Other tomato varieties have indeterminate type growth. They keep growing and growing, producing more leaves and flowers until frost stops them.

Caging indeterminate varieties and pruning them lightly or not at all is a common practice. Indeterminate varieties also may be staked and pruned more heavily. Research has shown that yields typically are higher for unpruned, caged tomatoes over pruned and staked tomatoes. However, gardeners who properly prune and stake their tomatoes are apt to get larger and earlier fruit than from caged plants.

When you cage indeterminate tomatoes, it's best to use heavy duty cages that are well anchored in the soil. This is important in our wind-prone area. I've noticed that some garden centers are selling colorful tomato cages made of powder-coated welded steel. These cages are pricier than the old-fashioned ones made of less sturdy wire, but I suspect they will last a lifetime. Just think -- you can have pink, yellow, blue, green or red tomato cages forever! While tempting, the price of $25 per cage would make my homegrown tomatoes extremely expensive.

If you have lots of tomatoes and want to save money on caging them all, you can make your own cages using concrete reinforcing wire or heavy wire fencing materials. Just make sure the openings are at least 6 inches wide to allow for picking fruit.

A 6-foot length will make a 21-inch-diameter cage. Cages should be 3 to 4 feet tall for determinant tomatoes and 5 feet tall for indeterminate tomatoes.

Once established, you don't have to do much to caged tomatoes except wait for the fruit to develop.

When indeterminate tomatoes are staked, it's best to use a stake that will be about 6 feet tall. Sturdy stakes can be made from 2-inch by 2-inch wood or from rebar.

The plants are loosely tied to the stake with soft tying material at 8- to 10-inch intervals. Staked plants typically are pruned or suckered. This involves pinching out the small shoots that develop along the main stem at the base of each leaf.

WSU Extension Master Gardener Tomato Teams are demonstrating caging and staking in the Vegetable Garden in the Master Gardener Demonstration Garden at 1620 S. Union St. in Kennewick. Stop by later in the season and see how they're growing.

* Marianne C. Ophardt is a horticulturist for the Washington State University Benton County Extension Office.