Gardening 101: Tomato Support Group

It ain’t heavy; it’s my tomato plant. And it needs help now, in the form of a cage, a stake, or even a bamboo teepee.
tomato support group

Tomatoes know no discipline—they’re the wild ones of the garden, their vines rambling outward and upward, weighted heavily with new fruit. So around this time of the season, Stephen and I have to have a discussion I’d rather avoid: Do we stake them or cage them? Either way, into my mind pops the vision of Ida Lupino as the sadistic matron in Women’s Prison (the same sort of role she revisited in the ’70s, in Women in Chains, which has nothing to do with tomatoes but everything to do with strange career paths). Ingrid Bergman as Joan of Arc becomes a thought bubble, too, tied to a stake as the flames curl around the hem of her robe. Maybe I’ve seen way too many noir films, but cage and stake have fairly unpleasant connotations. I just want my tomatoes to live unchained. But letting them sprawl in the soil, although that makes a pretty garden picture, means they’ll probably rot or get smashed or come in contact with any number of diseases in the dirt.

A few weeks ago I passed on the solid advice of nurserywoman Josephine Alessi, of Greystoke Gardens, who recommends cages. It’s easy to build a cage yourself, and if you do it with good strong materials (instead of the flimsy metal that composes many pre-made cages), it’s a fairly worry-free arrangement. Yet I resist. It’s a personal choice, and an aesthetic one as well. I just don’t like the look of cages; to me, the less hardware in the garden the better. (Take that, Ida Lupino.) To decide which support is best for you, the Master Gardeners of Santa Clara, California have a helpful guide to the pros and cons of each method.

We opt for stakes, plain wooden ones that are about six feet tall and two inches in diameter, sunk about a foot into the soil and four inches away from each plant. Last year we tied our plants to the stakes with reusable Velcro garden tape, which is one of those modern miracles that Stephen is crazy about. The system goes like this: When the plant is six to eight inches tall, tie its base to the stake; as it grows, place additional ties at eight- to ten-inch intervals. You can tie in a circle or in a figure-8 for greater stability. The important thing is that you use a material that won’t damage the tender vines. Therefore, don’t use fishing line (which is strong but will cut into the stem) or kitchen string (it’s too weak).

As Stephen and I were discussing what to use for ties, he mentioned that his grandmother used to use cotton rags, which, although they hold more moisture than, say, the Velcro, are pretty effective (not to mention soft). Or, he says, you can cut up a bunch of old pantyhose into six-inch strips, about an inch wide, and use those. Pantyhose?! Obviously, I say, he hasn’t been paying much attention to women’s legs in the borough of Manhattan—there might as well be a sign posted above the George Washington Bridge depicting a pair of hose with a big red X through them. Pantyhose are so ’80s.

In a look at the Web to see what other women have to say about the Pantyhose Solution, I come across a blog by Alabama gardener Nancy Mann Jackson, who says, “As the woman of the house, it seemed I was expected to come forth with plenty of pairs of worn-out nylons—but since I haven’t worn pantyhose in at least ten years, that was a stretch. After some digging, I came up with a few pairs I’d been required to buy with bridesmaid dresses over the years in colors like Pearl, Hazelnut and Barely There.”

People get creative when it comes to staking. Gourmet Associate Art Director Kevin Demaria, who once upon a time daydreamed of being the next Wayne Gretsky, had an ingenious dad who recycled his kids’ hockey sticks as tomato stakes. One of our community garden neighbors uses an old curvy metal headboard; another has psychedelic multicolored “Rainbow” spiral supports. Yet another uses bamboo stakes, which I’ve come to think are perhaps the simplest and most beautiful support for tomatoes. Far from the Joan of Arc flashback, bamboo brings to mind fabulous Asian martial arts films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, in which Chow Yun-Fat and Zhang Ziyi drift through a bamboo forest, carrying on swordplay while they leap from cane to cane, the wood bending gracefully but never breaking. That’s the kind of stake you want to introduce your tomatoes to. Maybe they’ll learn a lesson.

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