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Tomato stakes are stakes which are used to support tomato plants while they grow. Using stakes prevents rot, mold, and mildew in the tomatoes, and also makes it easier to manage and harvest the plants. In addition to stakes, gardeners can also use trellises and cages, depending on personal taste and tomato varietal. Some gardeners prefer to allow their tomatoes to sprawl out across the ground, a technique which can make management of the tomato plants difficult.
Typically, tomato stakes are made from wood or metal, although plastics can be used as well. The stake needs to be sturdy enough to support the weight of a tomato plant and its fruit. Stakes are placed around a week after the tomatoes are planted, with enough breathing room to allow the plant to mature around the stake. As the tomato grows, the gardener ties it to the stake, and pinches off branching growths to encourage the tomato plant to develop a vine-line growth habit as it climbs the stake.
One of the most important reasons to use a tomato stake is the prevention of rot. By lifting the plant above the ground, gardeners ensure that the fruit will be more likely to set, and they prevent the fruit from rotting while it is in contact with the ground. The increased air circulation and lack of direct ground contact also benefits the leaves and the vine, ensuring that they stay vigorous and healthy as the plant develops.
Tomato stakes also make harvesting much easier, since all of the fruit is visible and easy to reach. Tomato cages can be problematic during harvest, because fruit may be hidden inside the cage, making it hard to see and reach. Trellises are also well-suited to harvesting, and some people make a hybrid of stakes and trellises by stringing cord or string between the stakes, encouraging the tomatoes to spread out and lean on the strings for support. This method allows gardeners to produce more tomatoes than they could with stakes alone, since they can allow branching growths to flourish.
Many garden stores sell tomato stakes, but you can also use materials you have around the home, or alternatives from the hardware store. Lengths of rebar are very suitable for tomato stakes, as are dowels or squared rods cut down to size. Some people even use thick branches from seasonal pruning. Because the stakes can be reused if they are pulled out after use and stored in a dry spot, many gardeners find a favorite set of stakes and keep using it year after year.