How to String Trellis AKA String Train Tomatoes

In 2016 I took a cue from commercial tomato growers and started to stake my tomatoes with a string trellis. I was immediately won over by how cheap, easy and EFFECTIVE this method is for supporting a tomato plant.

Tomatoes grow up string trellis mid season.

There has to be a better way.  There’s always a better way.  I say that little mantra with pretty much everything I do including growing tomatoes.

I’ve done cages, stakes, espaliering and the Florida Weave (which works well but still results in a big MESS of tomato plants.) 

By the way, the post that talks about how to execute a Florida Weave is actually a post on how to identify and pinch off tomato suckers, so if you don’t know how to do that read the post.

My search for the perfect way to support tomatoes ended when I discovered and tried the string method. It didn’t even have a name back then. I called it string training.

Now it’s referred to as a string trellis.

QUICK GUIDE

  1. Create a support structure.
  2. Tie a string to the top of the structure.
  3. Pin the string to the ground with a garden staple.
  4. Plant tomato and wind the stem up the string.
  5. Continue to wind as the tomato gets taller.

That’s it. You can leave the structure and strings in place year after year so you only need to do this once.

I can hear you now.

WHAT ABOUT CROP ROTATION???

For the most part I *do not* rotate my crops because I don’t believe in it for a home garden. As long as you fertilize/add compost to your soil every year there will be no soil depletion. And moving your crops 20 feet to the left or right isn’t going to confuse or deter any of the pests/disease you have.

How-to Video

String training is a method that up until recently was normally only seen in commercial greenhouses or the back fields of very astute hippie homesteaders. 

A frame shaped string trellis structure.

I don’t know this guy. This guy is just stringing up his tomatoes.  Never met him.  Good photo though. 

Not only can you use this method for tomatoes, but you can use it for anything that has a stem you can wind upwards.

USE A STRING TRELLIS FOR GROWING CUCUMBERS

Here we go.

How to String Trellis Tomatoes

  1.  Hammer T-posts into the ground 8′ apart (or less). For added height, screw an 8′ 2×2 into the side of each T-post. Add support across the top.

    Screwing another 2×2 into the tops of your posts works well for a support bar, as does an old curtain rod. You just need something sturdy to hang a string from.

TIP: Before screwing your 2x2s into the T-Posts, drill a 3″ deep hole into the top of the 2x2s. Wind a coat-hanger-type wire around your rod a couple of times making sure to leave 3″ of the ends straight. Slip the looped wire off the rod and stick it into the top of the 2×2. Now you’ll be able to slip the rods through the wires to hold them in place. You can see the visual demonstration of this in the video.

Coat hanger wire looped with 2 long ends.
Wire bent into a support for pipe.

16' long string trellis for tomatoes in large vegetable garden.
  1. Tie a thick cotton string every 12″- 18″  so it hangs down towards the soil.
  2. Secure the string to the soil using a garden staple aka landscape staple.
  3. Remove the lower leaves to help prevent blight and any suckers that have formed. You can read more about how to identify suckers in this post here.
  4. Plant the tomatoes in front of the string. Plant them quite deep (up to the new first leaf on the plant).
Pinching tomato sucker between stem and leaf.
Pinching off a tomato sucker

Removing a sucker. The shoot that grows between the main stem and leafy branch of tomatoes.

  1. Twirl your plants around the string once your tomato is around 12″ high and is getting its first set of flowers. 
A bright green tomato plant twisted around a green poly string that supports it.

6. Continue to remove suckers and twirl once a week until the end of summer.

A tidy row of tomatoes grow up strings towards the sky.

This shows the very first time I tried the method. I only had polyester string so that’s what I used. It worked but disintegrated after only one season plus the thin string cut into the tomato stems. This can cause wounds for disease to enter.

3 rows of tomato plants grown without cages, using the string method instead, 18" apart in a large garden.

The first year I tried this method, I worked with what I had, which was stakes that were already planted in the ground every 18″. I just ran a string across the top of them all and hung my string down from that.

Pruning

For a string trellis to be effective you have to keep your tomatoes to 1 or 2 leaders. This is known as the French Method.

  • A tomato grows with 1 stem – to begin with. Then as it grows the tomato will create other “leaders”. Leaders are the suckers that grow between the main stem of the tomato and a leaf.
  • If the sucker/leader is allowed to grow it creates a whole new strong stem for the tomato.
  • String trained tomatoes can have 1 leader (the main stem) or 2 leaders (the main stem, plus letting 1 sucker grow into another leader).
  • To grow 2 leaders, allow the first sucker that develops on your tomato plant to grow. It will become another stem.
  • Each stem will need their own string to climb up with a minimum of 12″ between each string.
  • Using 2 leaders instead of one will produce more tomatoes but they’ll be smaller.

An 18" high tomato plant supported by a string on a sunny day.

The French Pruning Method.

No suckers, no extra leaders. Only one stem with leaves coming off of it. (except now I see a sucker to the top right of the plant, lol) Oops.

Tomato varieties that work best

Heirloom tomatoes work best with string training because they get TALL. Those are the types of tomatoes you want to grow up a string.

Heirloom tomatoes are known as “indeterminate” which means their height is not predetermined. They will keep getting taller and taller until the end of the season when they die. Indeterminate tomatoes often get to be 10′ high.

There are also some hybrid tomatoes that are indeterminate, but for the most part hybrid varieties are “determinate” – meaning their height is predetermined and they won’t get any taller than their predetermined height – usually about 5′.

Why String Training is Better Than Staking or Caging.

  • Strings can be left up from season to season.
  • You can fit more tomato plants into a smaller space.
  • Plants can grow as high as 8′ or more.
  • Keeping plants at one leader gives much better air circulation around the plants which helps keep them disease free.
  • String training can also be applied to growing beans or cucumbers 

Wanna see how the string method worked with a single tomato plant flat against a fence?  It would work flat against a house too.  The string method on a single tomato plant makes it look similar to an apple espalier.

String Trellis - Printable Instructions

String Trellis - Printable Instructions

Prep Time: 1 hour
Total Time: 1 hour
Difficulty: Easy
Estimated Cost: $0

Whether you're new to gardening or not you're probably constantly searching for the best way to stake tomatoes. THIS is it.

Materials

  • Heavy string
  • 3, 8' stakes (2x2s work well)
  • tomato plants

Instructions

  1. Run a wire, pipe or stake between two 8′ high stakes. You can also use string in a pinch.*
  2. Tie a string every 12″- 18″  so it hangs down towards the soil. Plant your tomatoes at every string so they are also 12″-18″ apart.  
  3. Secure the string to the soil at the base of your tomato with a garden pin by winding the string around the pin and shoving it in the soil. You can also wrap the string several time around the base of the tomato plant to secure it. (I use pins now, I used to just wind it around the base of the plant)
  4. Remove any suckers that have formed. You can read more about how to identify suckers in this post here.
  5. Twirl your plants around the string once your tomato is around 12″ high and is getting its first set of flowers. 
  6. Continue to remove suckers and twirl once a week until the end of summer.

Notes

  • You can use any string but synthetic string that doesn't stretch is best. It will also last for years.
  • Biodegradable string like jute or twine can also be used as long as it's thick enough not to degrade and fall apart during the growing season. It should be replaced every year.
  • Never prune off more than 25% of foliage at one time.
  • You can allow your tomato plant to have either one or two leaders.
  • *to give extra support to your stakes hammer in a metal t post right next to each stake in the ground, then screw them together. Once your stake rots at soil level in a couple of years, it'll stay in place looking nice because of the t post.

What string should I use for trellising?

Cotton clothesline works the best and lasts for years. 1/4″, 7/32″ or 3/16″ are the best options. It will last for years. Thinner string or rope will degrade too quickly and break.

Do you have to use landscape staples?

Nope. Garden staples do work the best but you can also just pull the string tight to the ground and wind the tomato stem around it.

By the end of the summer you’ll have straight, tall tomatoes which get a lot of air circulation and a lot of sun. They’ll be bald at the bottom and producing healthy tomatoes at the top.

Hypothetically of course.

Because this is gardening and all hell could break loose at any moment. A wild band of twirling goats or screaming aphids could come barreling through your garden destroying everything in its wake.  

You just don’t know.

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How to String Trellis AKA String Train Tomatoes

138 Comments

  1. Kathy says:

    Hey Karen,
    Great post! I am going to do your string training method next year! (But perhaps you could send over the ‘just a guy in a photo’ to help me out, lol!)

    I DO rotate my tomatoes every 3 years. I am super fortunate to have 3 gardens; so several hundred yards between growing areas. Haven’t lost any tomato’s to late blight since I have been rotating them. I am definitely going to prune them more diligently this year! Thanks for the great post about that too!! Don’t know we would do without you!!

    Happy garden season! 🌱🌿🪴
    Kathy

    • Karen says:

      Thanks Kathy! Good luck with your garden and tomatoes! (my tomatoes are doing fine but something ate my broccoli, leeks and half of my onions.) So I’ll be replanting some of those.😆 ~ karen!

  2. Sheila says:

    This is so timely it’s gotta be tomato/cucumber karma. I usually use the Florida weave but I’m very interested in the string training method. You mention the clothes line cotton string but also the synthetic string. I’m guessing you’ve used both. I’m on my way to buy string…which is your current preferred string ? Every year I get so dang excited about my garden and this year is no exception. I can hardly wait to taste that first tomato! Delish!
    Thanks for all the great tips and happy gardening!
    Sheila

    • Karen says:

      Hi Sheila. Sorry! I didn’t see this message until today. I prefer the thick cotton clothesline. It’s lasted for a couple of years now with no signs of breaking or disintegrating. ~ karen!

  3. Mary W says:

    I walk my garden every morning with coffee. It is my squishing time and I hand destroy (with glee) whatever happens to be eating my plants at the time. HOW am I going to squish the hornworms when they get here on my trellised tomatoes? I have a step stool but I also fall easily. My granddaughter is too squeemish and my grandson too short. Wish I had thought of that before putting the hog panal up to 8 feet! One of the reasons gardening gets better every year is when I’m persistent and learn from my mistakes – oh well. GREAT post!!!!

  4. Sue Hunter says:

    Karen, I also use the string method and I can repurpose string off hay bales. I get the string as waste from a local horse owner. In the UK it is very heavy polypropylene which lasts for some years.
    Also I tie a knot at one end, put that in the planting hole then the root ball on top to secure it. I then tie it to the top bar. This works very well.

  5. Randy P says:

    Kudos, not only for sharing this process and explaining it in simple terms, but also for being able to broadcast it on the various social media platforms where your works abide. You are indeed a dedicated gardener and blogger with the refined specialized skills that allow you to excel at both. Thanks.

  6. Alan says:

    When I picked tomatoes in a commercial greenhouse, they used the string method. But there was spare string at the top, and once the tomatoes reached the wire at the top, the string was moved along the wire at the top gradually being more and more diagonal, with the plant (and hence string) getting longer and longer.

  7. Kat - the other 1 says:

    This is my time trying to grow eggplant.
    Do you find string training is good for them also?
    Or do you prefer another method of support for them?

    The tag only says “white eggplant” so I don’t even know what type I’ve got.

    I hope I like eggplant…
    lol

    • Kat - the other 1 says:

      *first time

    • Karen says:

      Hi Kat! I don’t really like eggplant. I grow it the odd time but it just isn’t worth the garden space it takes up for moi. Having said that, eggplant doesn’t really take up too much space and you shouldn’t need to stake it. :) ~ karen!

    • Ann Roberts says:

      Eggplant is a much bushier plant. And the stems are stiffer and the leaves quite close together. String training is most likely not the way to go.

      I grow both determinate and indeterminate. And can never keep up with pruning out suckers. I do fine for about the first month and then as they grow, I get busy with all the other garden tasks and just don’t get it done. I really do wish that some one would invent a better tomato support system for those of us like me…right now my biggest cherry tomato plant is growing in a really expensive rose obelisk and it works out quite well. But my other 2 cherry tomato plants have a few sticks of bamboo stuck in and I just hope they will be enough, LOL

  8. Lesli Musicar says:

    Karen, thanks for getting back to me about the length of your tomato stakes. That helps.

    I just noticed a comment above asking about replanting in the same spot every year and I was wondering the same thing. I’ve heard that you shouldn’t, but it seems that you do. What are your thoughts/experiences on crop rotation?

    Haven’t read through all the comments and responses, so I apologize if you’ve already answered this! Thanks, Lesli

    • Karen says:

      Hi Lesli! The concept of crop rotation is really meant for farming large acreages, not backyard gardens or even large plots like mine. But somehow it’s become synonymous with gardening in general. As long as you feed your soil every fall to put the nutrients back that your crop took away this year your soil should be fine. And as far as disease and pests, even if you move your garlic 20′ away from where you planted it last year, that isn’t far enough away to make any difference. :) The best thing to do is put compost on all your beds in the fall and clean up all diseased leaves or plants and removing them from the garden. ~ karen!

      • Lesli Musicar says:

        Actually, I did move my garlic about 20 feet from where I had it last year and I still got leek moth larvae! I will try using row covers in the spring as you suggested. It was a relief to know that mine was not the only garlic with this affliction!

        Really enjoying your gardening tips. Now, I hope it isn’t too late to trim and replant my leeks.

        Lesli

  9. Lesli Musicar says:

    I just discovered your website today. I love the string staking idea for tomatoes!

    This may be a stupid question, but you suggest 8′ stakes–does that mean they are 8′ after being hammered into the ground or are they actually longer than that to allow for anchoring in the ground?

    • Karen says:

      Hi Lesli! I think those stakes were 8′ to begin with. Taller is better but 8′ will work giving you enough length to pound them into the ground and still have 6.5′ feet or so for hanging string. I have a row right now and the stakes are much higher and another patch where the takes are much lower. Use what you have if you can and it’ll be fine. :) ~ karen!

  10. Gail Purcell says:

    We are trying the string method for the first time this year. The tomato plants are doing well, but we have developed a problem. As the tomato plants have gotten bigger, the string at the bottom has tightened up and is digging into the plants. Is this a problem, and if it is, what can we do about it?

    • tony tomato says:

      gotta use a bowline knot so it doesn’t cinch closed.

      gotta have a big loop so there’s plenty of room to grow.

      it’s not the loop that holds it up, its the long slow winding of the string.

  11. Valarie Irons says:

    Thank you for the information! I read another string stake tip where they looped the string under the root ball when planting…. I’m a bit late getting my plants in but think I’m gonna try it along with your awesome pruning tips!
    Cheers!

  12. Rachel O'Donnell says:

    Are beefsteak tomatoes too large for this method and how do they hold up in storms? Thanks for this helpful article!

    • Karen says:

      Hi Rachel. You can absolutely use this method for beefsteak tomatoes! I use it for allllll tomato varieties, and I grow about 20 different varieties. Good luck! ~ karen

  13. Shelley J says:

    Thank you for posting this!! Ive Tried everything like so many, I’ve just set this system up and my tomatoes are doing well!!!

  14. Mary Lou says:

    Hi! Loved this article … quick question … I’m a new, second season vegetable gardener. Last year, my ‘determinate’ Celebrity tomatoes grew to almost 6 ft … can I stick follow the French directions for Celebrity and San Marzano tomato varieties? Or would you recommend anything different?

    Thank you! A still-newbie vegetable Gardner on Cape Ann in Massachusetts.

    Best, Mary Lou

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