Tomato Gardening 101: A String Trellis

A look at how we use a string trellis system in our garden to guide indeterminate tomato plants upward. Plus, what is the difference between determinate and indeterminate tomatoes, why it matters, and companion planting.

This week is planting week. The last frost date happened this week. The rain has stopped. I can see the sun. The stars are aligning, and it’s time to get these seedlings in the ground. The first to hit the dirt were lettuce seeds, which went directly in the dirt, but after that, we started looking to tomatoes. I like getting them in as early as possible so I can start benefiting from them as soon as possible.

Last year we made a few changes to our tomato-growing strategy. It had actually been a 10-month process, but we consistently had issues with the tomatoes outgrowing their cages. I bought bigger cages. The tomatoes grew beyond that. I ended up with crowded tomatoes and not a lot of fruit for how large they were.

That same season I had made a visit to the Cascadian Farm home farm in Washington state and discussed their organic tomato-growing methods. I was smitten. The tomatoes grew proud and tall in nice, neat rows. I went home and demanded that we do the same the following year. So we did.

Last year’s tomatoes on the trellis at the end of July.

Determinate vs. Indeterminate Tomatoes

Determinate: These varieties of plants will grow large like a bush with their height capping off around four feet, making them suitable for tomato cages and container gardening. They should not be pruned or suckered, as it will reduce rather than increase the crop. Their fruit will all be ready around or near the same time. They are great for canning because you get a large crop all at once. Look at the maturity days for an idea of when they’ll be ready to harvest.

Indeterminate: These tomato varieties grow like a vine. They can reach well over 5 feet tall. Our tomatoes last year were around 7 feet each. They’ll need to be staked, caged or trellised to support their weight, and the fruit will continue to bloom and produce as the plant grows until it is killed by frost. New growth can be pruned or suckered off to encourage fruit production. (Most heirloom varieties are indeterminate.)

A String Trellis for Indeterminate Tomatoes

To be clear: This is not the only way to string tomatoes, and it is not the only way to grow them on a trellis. However, this is what’s been working for us. We gave it a season’s trial, and we were rewarded with a cleaner garden, healthy plants, and plenty of tomatoes that have lasted us all year.

All we did was build a frame to hang over the tomato plants. Our frame leans back slightly, but you could also use a regular A-frame and have the strings straight up and down. A few eye bolts hold a length of garden twine taught along the bottom. Then we run strings of twine up to eye bolts at the top. Each string will have one tomato plant at the base, and we’ll use tomato clips to secure the plant to the string.

Once the trellis is in place, plant the tomatoes at the base of the string. Small hands are good for this.

This is the style of tomato clip we use. As the tomatoes grow, we snap the clip to the garden twine string where we want to secure the plant. The string is held in place, and the tomato fits into the opening. There’s no danger of damage to the plant, and I don’t have to bend and twist the plant around the string, which is a benefit to me.

What to Plant Near Your Tomatoes

Did you know that what you plant in front of your tomatoes can help or hinder the tomatoes and the other plant? Practicing a bit of companion planting can increase yields and help deter bad pests and attract good bugs (good bugs eat bad bugs). Organic farmers have been doing it forever, and you should, too. Here are a few things that you might consider planting in the shadow of your tomatoes:

  • Asparagus
  • Basil
  • Borage
  • Carrots
  • Cucumber
  • Onions and Chives
  • Spinach, Lettuce, Arugula
  • Nasturtium and Marigolds

Avoid planting these near your tomatoes:

  • Black Walnut
  • Brassicas (cauliflower, broccoli, kohlrabi)
  • Corn
  • Fennel
  • Potatoes

So, for the foreseeable future, our tomatoes will be shifted between the raised beds this way. It works for us. If I had to change, I’d probably move to a system of bamboo stakes. Have you had success with tomatoes in the past? What kind of support system did you use for indeterminate plants?


  1. And now I want a garden. *sigh*

  2. Katherine says:

    I’ve used a similar system for about 5 years and always with good results. I use electrical conduit to make my frame, which isn’t as pretty as yours, but it works.

  3. Forwarding this to Danny! And am already planning to plant basil and marigolds around the tomatoes, so woo-hoo!

    • just a little hint for everyone. We kept aquarium fish the year I had a bumper crop of tomatos. My hubby would change the water every sunday and dump the used water on the tomato plants. Worked like fish fertilizer.

  4. We went with the “Florida weave” method which held up pretty well. To secure the vines, we used nylon stockings cut into strips.

  5. Tammy Kimbler says:

    Very cool. Been wondering about this for a while. Where do you get those clips in MSP?

  6. Thanks for the much needed motivation and great ideas!

  7. Love this idea! And garden tomatoes are the best!

  8. Thanks for this post – what’s the reason not to plant corn near the tomatoes? I ask because as I type this, I am looking at our 8 tomato plants which are about 4 feet South of where the corn will be planted.

    Can’t wait for homegrown tomatoes – and I’m HOPING the last frost is finally gone by for my New England area!

    • Corn and tomatoes attract similar worms, so planting them next to each other can increase the likelihood that you attract the worms and they get at your crops. I don’t know what the recommended spacing is exactly.

      • Katerina says:

        what about beans, can I plant near tomatoes? It’s my first time and I appreciate the post and the commends!

      • Is this the same reason for avoiding the bassicas and fennel?
        I am using the square foot method for the first time and planted tomatoes in the middle squares with one outer square each of kholrabi and fennel. I do have marigolds, cucumber, and onions in nearby squares.

        • I believe the reason for the brassicas is that both the tomatoes and the brassicas need a good amount of room for root growth and require a good deal of nutrients from the soil. Having them together means they are fighting for both of those.

      • Thanks, Shaina! Hopefully there is enough space between them. fingers crossed!

        • Small update: we are planting all of the onions amongst the tomatoes and corn, instead of around the perimeter of the garden.

          Fingers crossed because I can’t WAIT to make lunch out of a big tomato and some serious mayonnaise. YUMMY!

      • the rule of thumb is 20 feet but i know many people with gardens too small to adhere to that rule (myself included). we haven’t had a problem yet, but gardens do like to change things up on a person.

        i build my own contraptions each year and this year i have built basically a giant tomato cage completely encasing a row with 12 tomato plants. it’s built with roll fencing around the outside and plastic-coated wire criss-crossing between plants.

  9. I’ve already planted my container garden and we’ll be working on our raised beds now. I love your idea for trellis gardening. Will will trying this!

  10. oh I want home grown tomatoes!!! they are the BEST!!!

  11. Fresh tomatoes are the BEST THING IN THE WORLD! This is AWESOME, Shaina!

  12. wow i really am clueless about this! Great post and photos!

  13. Bookmarking this idea (and pinning) for next year. I always fight with the ‘cages’ that we use and leave it to my husband to get them situated. This looks like a wonderful alternative I need to try!

    Aren’t tomatoes from the garden the best thing ever?

  14. Shaina, I need SO MUCH HELP in gardening. Love this post!!

  15. Lovely Shaina! Over the years we’ve tried several caging, stringing methods, but I’m liking the looks of this the best! Too late for this year as ours have been in for a few weeks, but I’ll be planning ahead for next year for sure!

  16. I am so envious of you girls that can garden. I’ve killed mint – several times. Can’t wait to read more of your garden posts!

  17. Great post, Shaina. You never cease to give me something more to think about. Which is a very good thing. Happy Mother’s Day to you – have a great weekend!

  18. laura m says:

    lots of great info. i think ive been planting the wrong kinds of tomatoes!

  19. Hi there! You have a beautiful garden. It’s great to plant some veges in a backyard. We have our own gardening too! We also have tomatoes, eggplant and okra.

  20. Your tomato garden looks great, Shaina. Thank you for sharing your tips and tricks. No wonder it looks to be producing such gorgeous results!

  21. Love this post, Shaina. I am a terrible with gardening. I can’t wait for us to move and put this post to use!

  22. I haven’t done a lot of growing of my own food, but it’s something I think I need to start doing. Thanks for sharing what’s working for you!

  23. Heidi19 says:

    Hi Shaina! you have a nice garden and providing us this kind of information on how to plant tomatoes is really a big help. I love your idea and that is why i’m so excited to have a small garden beside our house. Thanks for sharing and i’m looking forward to read more from you!

  24. I can’t wait to share this post with my hubby! He is obsessed with growing tomatoes and is just moving from growing them in pots to a raised garden bed, so I think this will be super useful. thank you for sharing it!

  25. I could not have found this at a better time! I am planting my very first vegetable garden this weekend and want to have lots and lots of ripe juicy tomatoes!!

    Thanks for sharing πŸ˜€

  26. Love these gardening ideas. We also have to put a chicken-wire pen around our garden otherwise those crazy squirrels will eat all our tomatoes before they’re even ripe. Darn squirrels!!!

    • My fences are down for planting, but we have a similar pen solution for ours, too. Rabbits and squirrels here. Though I think squirrels are worse because they take one bite and leave the rest.

      I want to redo our frames and put up something a bit stronger than what we have…but considering I had Ole build a patio, pergola, and dining set last weekend, it may be wise to wait on that request.

  27. I found a book at my library called Soil Mates and it talks all about companion planting (in a cheesy but cute “soul mate” way). We have some tomatoes in containers and in the ground, along with basil, mint, a few radishes, and some pumpkins. Wow, when I add it all up, it sounds like a lot! Can’t wait to see everything grow, grow, grow!

  28. Such a great idea… This year I have indeterminate tomatoes and they are already taller than me! They’ve over grown their stakes 5 times already. Do you know when you can prune them?

    • I start pruning when they get buds. I prune below the buds, and I prune off the extra shoots that appear just about the main “branches” of the plant. So, one branch only coming off the main stem.

  29. I found somewhere online that a sprayer of a couple cap fulls of Murphey Oil SOap, a squirt of Dawn and then fill a sprayer the rest of the way with water….deters stink bugs.

    I don’t have room for marigolds…so this was the next best thing…
    I’ve been using it for over a month with great success. I just spray down my plants once a week or so…concentrating on the fruit…and very few bugs have come to stay. I had SCADS of them! ick!
    And my plants look healthy and fine.

  30. I have been growing tomatos in 8 foot tall cages for years. They grow out the top and back down about 4 feet. they get so thick I can’t see to prune suckers or find some of the fruit……. Next spring i,ts string. My garden is 60 feet long and 6 feet wide on the south side of my house,great for tomatos. Attaching a thin rod to the tips of the roof rafters and dropping a string down for each plant [3 feet apart]should work. The string will have a spool at the top [that I can reach ] with extra string. By the time the plant grows to the top, the ripe tomatosat the bottom is being picked. I lower the plant and move the spool sideways along the rod .If you can bury the now bare stem to grow more roots to feed the plant.

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  35. I have had limited success with bamboo stakes due too the weight of the tomato plants once fruiting begins. I’m liking what you’ve done and am looking forward to the string method.

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