Jul 22, 2023

The ultimate garden goal: an easy, affordable, attractive tomato support system that works

These tomato trellises use gray PVC conduit and trellis netting and are easy to set-up, use, and take down.

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- My ongoing quest to devise the ultimate tomato plant support saw some progress this summer as I tinkered with last year’s set-up. The ultimate goal is a tomato support system that is affordable, doesn’t require a lot of tools or time to assemble, is reusable for several seasons, is reasonably attractive because it is visible from the street, is sturdy enough to withstand storms, and of course, does its job providing support to the plants throughout the Northeast Ohio growing season.

The system I used last year, which I dubbed the vertical string method, met most of these criteria. Constructed from a frame of 8-foot pieces of metal electrical conduit, its major shortcoming was that it was not short enough for me to assemble and attach the vertical strings. Because the primary use of the conduit is for fall holiday decorations (we use it for our sukkah to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Sukkot), I can’t shorten it for tomato supports. Also, using individual vertical strings meant that I had to stay on top of pruning the tomato plants and winding them up the string, which I wasn’t always able to do.

Read all of Susan Brownstein’s gardening columns here.

This spring, I returned to Mel Bartholomew’s Square Foot Gardening method for inspiration. He recommended polyester trellis netting for supporting vertical plants.

The netting has six squares that allow weaving the tomato plants in and out as they grow throughout the season. The material is light and flexible, which means cutting the right size and hanging it up is a cinch compare to the rolled fencing material I have used in the past for plant supports. When the season is over, I hope to be able to take down the polyester trellis material, store it for winter, and hang it up again next year and for several seasons afterward. It remains to be seen how many seasons it will hold up for—and whether I can store it without getting it hopelessly tangled. However, I am pleased to report that so far, the netting has combined the best features of the vertical string method, in that it is easy to work with, and of rolled fencing, in that it allows many plants to be supported without a lot of pruning and training.

Instead of using heavy metal conduit for the frame, which is difficult to cut, connect, or bend, I explored other options. Mel Bartholomew recommended white PVC plumbing pipe for raised bed trellises, which does have the benefit of being easy to cut and connect. However, it becomes brittle when exposed to the sun, and the white pipe screams “cheap and ugly” even though it costs about the same as metal pipe.

I settled on gray electrical PVC pipe, which is designed to be used outdoors and withstand UV light. Although it is a little more expensive than white PVC pipe or metal conduit, I can use my PVC cutter to get the gray PVC to the exact size I need, and connectors are readily available too. The gray color, while not exactly beautiful, is subtle enough to avoid being an eyesore, especially once the tomatoes started growing. With the help of my husband to hold pipes in place while I connected the frames, attached them to the raised bed with metal conduit clamps, and hung the trellis netting, we put together tomato supports for three raised beds in about an hour.

For added stability, I drove short lengths of rebar into the ground and installed the tomato support frame poles over the rebar. So far it has held up great to the wild storms we have had this summer. When tomato season is over in the fall, I will lift the frames off the rebar, disconnect the connectors, and store it for winter. Although the tomatoes have been slow to ripen this summer, the plants are growing vigorously on their new support system.

If you have gardening tips you’d like me to share with Northeast Ohio gardeners, email me at [email protected].

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