There are several options for how you grow in the garden once we move beyond simply allowing the plant to sprawl and grow wherever it wants.
You can grow your dream plants in a tomato cage. Commercially produced cages resemble a funnel with the wider section towards the top. The theory is the tomato grows up through the middle of the cage and then sprawls out the side wire openings. This works well enough in practice and it does keep the fruit off the ground.
In practice, you also have to ensure you really insert these cages into the ground as the weight of a mature tomato plant can easily tip the cage over pulling it from the ground or accomplishing the same thing by bending the wires over.
I’m not a fan of commercially available cages. They are tippy with the big heavy crops I achieve and they bend terribly. They are hard to store (they stack) and a pain to get apart in the spring. They wire welds tend to come apart after two years of use and then they’re even harder to get apart in the stack. And they rust – or are heavily galvanized so the galvanizing gets on your hands and clothes when you’re working with them. (this is particularly bad in the first year)
Slugs can be controlled by putting organic baits under the ladder and harvests are easier because you don’t have to hunt around on the ground as most of the fruit is hanging from the ladder rungs.
I use stakes for my main tomato kitchen garden crop. I rather like bamboo poles because they are organic, don’t rust, last longer than the metal cages and hold a plant securely if set up properly. There is also something aesthetically pleasing about bamboo poles in the garden when compared to metal cages.
The traditional way is to bury the pole beside the tomato plant
Bury the pole a foot into the ground) and then tie the plant up the pole (remember to cut off suckers) as it grows. Use a thick twine so you don’t cut into the tender growing stem and attach the plant at every leaf joint (those leaf joints will be approximately 8 inches apart and a heavily growing plant will require all the support you can provide) I like binder twine or old pantyhose cut into strips.
Tomato Support Systems
You can build a system of almost any configuration but do keep several basic principles in mind. The first is that tomato plants are quite heavy when mature so “overbuild” to what you think you’ll require. In the example below, you’ll see I’ve use a 2×4 board as a main support to take the weight of the plants. The second thing is that a wall of tomato plants gives the wind something to work against and if your garden is at all windy, you’ll need to ensure it’s well braced. That’s why I used the tripod system shown below to grow mine (and a wind storm turned them on their side one year anyway)
A String and Bamboo Trellis System
In the greenhouse, we grew our tomatoes up a string. We’d twist the growing tip around the string (it would hold quite securely if it was twisted round every 6-8 inches). I used to do this in the garden as well and here’s a picture of an early model of trellis lashed together out of bamboo poles and twine.
In this picture, I used more bamboo poles lashed to the top to take the weight. Four tomato plants will bend or break anything less than a 2×4 if you only use string and no other support (bamboo poles take most of the weight) Go ahead, ask me how I know this.