The Complete Guide to Growing Tomatoes on an Arch Trellis

For me, one of the most picturesque scenes in a kitchen garden is an arch trellis adorned with lush tomato vines. Each summer, I meticulously prune and nurture my tomato plants, eagerly anticipating the moment when the vines from either side of my arch trellis gracefully unite at the pinnacle.

Beyond their visual appeal, vining tomatoes thrive when provided with the entire expanse of an arch trellis to ascend. In regions with an extended growing season, it’s even feasible to reverse the vines to encourage them to grow back down the trellis. Moreover, tending to them is more manageable because the plants develop on the exterior of the supporting structure, allowing for easy vine training. This approach keeps the fruits conveniently held in place, making harvesting a breeze.

Follow these steps to cultivate your own tomatoes on an arch trellis and maximize your yield in a limited space within your raised bed. (If you prefer visual guidance, there’s a video series available, starting with the video below.)

What You Need to Grow Tomatoes on an Arch Trellis:

To embark on growing tomatoes on an arch trellis as I do, you’ll require several key components. Here’s your essential checklist:

  • An arch trellis
  • A raised bed or sizable container
  • A high-quality soil blend
  • A minimum of two indeterminate tomato plants per trellis

Let’s delve deeper into each of these elements.

An Arch Trellis to Support Your Tomato Plants:

Certainly, an arch trellis is a fundamental element when it comes to nurturing tomatoes on an arch trellis. You can acquire an arch trellis in three primary ways: by constructing it from cattle panels, purchasing a trellis kit, or having a custom trellis fabricated.

Cattle Panel Arch Trellis:

This DIY option is the most cost-effective but can be demanding in terms of time and effort, based on my experiences. It entails obtaining a lengthy cattle panel sheet, which can typically be found at stores like Tractor Supply or local farm supply shops. Opt for the sturdiest panel available to prevent collapse, as I learned the hard way when using cattle fencing from stores like Home Depot or Lowe’s. You’ll trim the panel to size, bend it into an arch configuration, and then affix it to each side of your raised bed.

Arch Trellis Kit:

Numerous arch trellis kits are available, some of which are offered in our Gardenary shop. These kits can be shipped across the continental United States and arrive in a convenient package. Assembling and installing these kits requires minimal tools. We frequently employ these kits for clients in my Rooted Garden business. You can also explore the option of sourcing a kit locally.

Custom-Made Trellis:

Custom trellises are singular, solid metal structures, which also happen to be the most expensive choice (costs will depend on the metalworker). However, if you seek to elevate your kitchen garden’s aesthetics, especially for a more formal design, having a custom trellis fashioned is an excellent option.

A Raised Garden Bed or Large Container:

Tomatoes are deep-rooted plants that thrive in the additional depth provided by a raised structure. I highly advocate growing tomatoes in raised beds, and I offer comprehensive setup guidance in my book, “Kitchen Garden Revival,” or through our online garden installation course, “Kitchen Garden Academy.” If you don’t have raised beds, some members of our Gardenary community have reported success with growing tomatoes in large pots. It’s recommended to opt for containers at least 2 feet deep and 2 feet wide to ensure ample space for tomato growth. While growing tomatoes in the ground is feasible, it can be less successful due to their specific nutritional and space requirements.

A High-Quality Soil Blend for Your Tomatoes:

Fill your raised bed or large container with a nutrient-rich soil blend. I highly recommend my 103 mix, and you can find the precise formula in my book, “Kitchen Garden Revival,” or through our online garden installation course, “Kitchen Garden Academy.” When using an alternative soil blend, ensure it is of exceptional organic quality and refrain from using synthetic products like Miracle-Gro. Growing tomatoes naturally is entirely feasible and highly rewarding.

Indeterminate Tomato Plants for Climbing on Your Arch Trellis:

Indubitably, you’ll need tomato plants (obviously!), but it’s essential to understand that there are two primary types: determinate and indeterminate varieties.

  • Determinate Varieties: These are the bush or patio tomato plants, growing to approximately 4 to 6 feet in height, bearing all their fruit at once before ceasing growth. These are not suitable for trellis cultivation.
  • Indeterminate Varieties: These are the vining tomato plants, ideal for training to ascend an arch trellis. Indeterminate tomatoes continue to grow and produce fruit until environmental conditions are no longer favorable, whether due to excessive heat or cold. While larger varieties are an option, I’ve found that smaller types, such as grape and cherry tomatoes, yield the best results in terms of fruit production and fruit quality. Some favorites include Black Cherry, Sungolds, and Juliets. Instead of sowing seeds directly in your garden, plant tomato starter plants that you’ve either grown indoors or purchased from a local nursery.

Steps to cultivate tomatoes on your arch trellis

Now that you have the necessary ingredients, here are the steps to cultivate tomatoes on your arch trellis:

Step One: Plant Your Tomatoes Alongside the Arch Trellis

After the danger of frost has passed, it’s time to transplant your young tomato plants into the garden. I recommend planting two tomato plants on each side of the arch trellis, resulting in four tomato plants in total per trellis. The typical width of most arches at the sides ranges from 12 to 15 inches, providing ample space for one tomato plant at each corner. This unconventional planting method allows for intensive growth since we will be training the vines vertically, eliminating the need for excessive lateral space. If you’re uncertain about intensive planting, you can opt for a single tomato plant at the center of each side of your trellis, resulting in two plants per trellis.

For the adventurous gardener, there’s even the possibility of planting four tomato plants on each side by placing two on the outer side of the base and two more on the inner side, positioned approximately a foot apart from one another. As the plants grow, you’ll gently guide them toward the arch and secure them in place with twine. Be aware that maintaining this configuration can become challenging as the plants start to vine and produce fruit, requiring meticulous weekly pruning and untangling. It’s essential to bear in mind that we are cultivating these plants in containers with premium soil, meaning their growth will be vigorous in the coming weeks. Committing to routine pruning and preventing the vines from intertwining too densely is vital for managing this setup.

Furthermore, consider planting similar types of tomatoes on each side to ensure comparable growth rates and symmetry.

Step Two: Prune the Tomato Plant to One Main Stem

During the initial stages of your tomato plant’s growth, the primary objective is to prune it to a single dominant main stem. While an exception can be made for secondary stems that already bear small flower buds, the focus should be on nurturing one robust main stem. Prune away any additional secondary stems until the plant develops its first set of flowers. Each time you use your pruners, ensure they are clean and free from contaminants to prevent the transmission of diseases to your tomato plants.

Step Three: Support Your Tomato Plants as They Grow

In addition to securing the vines of your tomato plants to the trellis, you can offer support through nutritional means. Tomato plants are highly demanding of nutrients to sustain fruit production. On a weekly basis, provide deep watering and supply additional nutrients. You can achieve this by incorporating additional compost around the base of the plants or by using composted chicken manure or earthworm castings. Establish this as part of your routine to foster plant health and fruit production.

Step Four: Prune Damaged Leaves and Unproductive Foliage

Each week when you attend to your tomato plants, be sure to carry clean pruning shears for two essential pruning tasks: the removal of damaged or unhealthy leaves and the elimination of superfluous foliage that is not engaged in fruit production.

  • Removing Damaged or Unhealthy Leaves: Beginning after the first set of flowers emerges, practice weekly pruning. Start from the plant’s base and progress upwards, excising any leaves that exhibit signs of ill health, such as yellowing, spotting, or damage. Trim the leaves at their base. Always adhere to the golden rule of pruning: avoid removing more than one-third of the plant in a single week. If you find yourself needing to prune beyond this limit, it likely signifies a diseased plant or significant pest infestation, and it’s prudent to remove the affected tomato plant from your garden.
  • Eliminating Unproductive Leaves: A common mistake I made when I first ventured into tomato cultivation was failing to prune adequately. The goal of pruning is to reduce the number of leaves on the plant while promoting flower and fruit production. Excessive leaves sap the plant’s resources. In the past, I used to prune the suckers on the vines. Suckers are small offshoots that emerge between the primary stem and a leaf (resembling an elbow). Many gardeners remove these suckers with the aim of attaining larger tomatoes for harvesting. However, I’ve discovered that retaining these suckers leads to more abundant fruit production, which is why I prefer to call them “saviors” instead of “suckers.”

Instead of eliminating suckers, I recommend pruning part of the “L” where the sucker originates. Concentrate your pruning efforts on the lower region of the plant and allow the top to branch out more and ascend. Pruning the topmost growth of a tomato plant can inhibit its progress. Moreover, the uppermost leaves are vital for forming a canopy that efficiently captures sunlight and engages in photosynthesis on behalf of the plant.

When in doubt, focus on portions of the plant that are already forming flowers. Retain these sections and prune away leaves that are not contributing to fruit production. Always adhere to the golden pruning rule to prevent excessive removal.

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