Can I grow tomatoes without cages or stakes?

This year I decided to grow three tomato plants without tomato cages, stakes, or any support.

And I have been harvesting healthy tomatoes. So yes, you can. But if you ask me, it is not a good idea.

And in this article, I will give the 5 main reasons why you should use tomato cages or stakes to support your tomato plants.

Quick summary: Growing tomatoes without tomato cages or stakes will give you dense and low-growing plants that are more difficult to prune, water and harvest. Further, natural light only reaches the outer layers of the plant resulting in smaller fruits, fewer fruits to harvest, and generally slower ripening fruits.
Tomatoes on inner branches grow smaller
Tomatoes grow small on inner branches

5 reasons to support tomato plants with cages or stakes 

It is now late July, and our cherry tomato plants produce an excellent harvest daily. Here are the 5 main problems I have experienced growing tomatoes without cages or stakes for support.

1. Difficult to water plants

You should water your tomato plants at the base and take great care to avoid getting the leaves wet. And this holds true for both determinate and indeterminate tomatoes.

Wet leaves can cause leaf damage and sunscald and invite all kinds of pests and fungal diseases.

And it is hard to avoid wet leaves when plants grow on the ground without support. Also, watering all of a sudden takes more time as you need to lift the plants before you water.

Drip irrigation is of course an alternative but you still risk leaves being in contact with water and getting wet.

2. More work to harvest the tomatoes 

When the tomato vines grow across the ground, it is more challenging to see ripening fruits. And this is especially true for determinate plants growing bushy and more compact than indeterminate tomatoes.

And if the foliage is dense, you may even miss the ripe bright red tomatoes. 

I find that I have to lift the plant to inspect for ripe fruits to harvest. Handling the plant is not ideal as it disturbs the plant, and you risk breaking a stem or losing tomatoes falling off in the process.

3. Hard to prune the plants

I prune all my tomato plants at some point or another. Pruning suckers on indeterminate tomato varieties like striped stuffer beefsteak tomatoes is a given. 

But I also prune determinate varieties like cherry tomatoes when they start producing fruits. 

Pruning helps airflow and light to reach all areas of the plants. But pruning becomes unnecessarily complicated when plants are dense and grow across the ground.

4. Light does not reach the whole tomato plant.

Plants without cages and stakes grow low and dense. And as a consequence, sunlight can only reach the outer parts of the plant. 

And this is a bad thing as light is the driving force behind photosynthesis that helps the plant to convert the sun’s light energy into chemical energy needed to produce a harvest.

My determinate tomatoes produce fruit on inner branches, but the fruits are much smaller.

Staking the plant helps lift the stems to allow light to reach all parts of the plant.

5. Reduced air circulation and airflow

Dense growing plants make it harder for air to circulate and flow freely around leaves and branches. 

And poor air circulation risks inviting fungal diseases and pests that thrive in humid and moist growing conditions.

I find that upright, properly supported tomato plants benefit from better air circulation and flow.

How I started the tomato plants

I started the tomato plants from seed in February. I planted the seeds in plastic seed starter trays and used artificial grow lights to develop healthy and compact seedlings.

Staring seeds early is always a good idea as long as you can provide sufficient light as the seeds sprout their first leaves. You will end up with spindly, leggy seedings if you do not give your seedlings a minimum of 8-12 hours of artificial light as they grow and develop.

I transplanted seedlings into larger pots, and the goal was to grow cherry tomatoes in pots and beefsteak tomatoes in large homemade DIY grow bags

But three cherry tomato plants were earmarked for one of our raised garden beds.

Transplanting the cherry tomato plants 

I chose three plants of an early cherry tomato plant variety called Solanum Lycopersicum “Supersweet 100”.

Supersweet 100 is a quite bushy determinate tomato variety that grows to about 40 cm / 16 inches tall and produces lots of fruits.

When I transplanted the tomato seedlings outdoors, I buried the stems deeper than they grew in the pots.

Tomato plants will grow new roots if the stem comes in contact with soil. And this is a good thing as it helps the plant to develop a robust root system. 

Mulching the garden bed to prevent diseases

To create a protective layer between plants and the ground, I decided to mulch the garden bed. I chose between using straw or grass trimmings and decided to use straw as it gives a great contrast from day one.

I did not want the plant to be in contact with the ground as it would invite soil-borne diseases and pathogens. And while I find tomato plants resilient, I see no reason to invite pests or diseases like leaf miners, aphids, snails, slugs, or spider mites.

Growing tomatoes on a mulched raised garden bed
Tomatoes on a mulched raised garden bed

As an added benefit mulching the garden bed will also help retain soil moisture. And this is useful as the weather gets hot in the summer, and tomatoes do want a lot of water.

Wrapup: growing tomatoes without cages or support is a bad idea

Supporting tomato plants with stakes or tomato cages does take time, effort, planning, and supplies that cost money to buy.

Still, supporting tomatoes is important if you grow tomatoes to maximize your harvest.

Growing tomatoes without cages, support, or stakes, plants grow low and dense. And I have found everything from watering and pruning to harvesting and the general care of the plant to be more complex and time-consuming.

And I miss being able to inspect my plants quickly. Manual inspection is my first line of defense against pests and diseases. And if I can see the whole plant, it is a quick process.

So while a fun experiment, I will support all my tomato plants next year.

Meet the author: Mattias is an experienced gardener spending most of his free time on his knees among herbs, plants, and garden vegetables. For the past two years, he has been sharing gardening projects and how-to tutorials on the NordicLavender website and YouTube channel.