How to Trellis Tomatoes Fast with a Florida Weave
Tying tomatoes to their stakes, like so many unruly prisoners, can be one of the most time-consuming tasks for a gardener. Especially if you’re growing lots of paste tomatoes for a year’s supply of homemade sauce like we do. But we make it easy on ourselves by borrowing a technique that I learned while working with tomato farmers down where I grew up: Lowcountry South Carolina.
There, and all along the southeast coast, farmers start planting tomatoes in January and February. They use a trellising technique commonly called Florida Weave to keep the fruit off the ground so they’ll be safe from fungus, bugs, and critters. But calling it a “weave” overstates the case a bit. Each weave is really just one long loop. Here’s what I mean.
For this technique, tomato transplants (at the seedling stage) are set about two feet apart in single rows in raised beds. Drive a stake (we’ll get into what kind of stake in a minute) into the ground at each end of the row and between each plant in the row. (If you drive the stakes deep enough, creating more stability, you may be able to get away with two plants between stakes. It really depends on your type of soil and how far you can drive down.)
When the transplants are roughly about a foot high, tie twine (again, we’ll get into types below) to the first stake at about 9 inches high and loop it around the second stake at the same height. You’ll know you’re at the right height if the twine keeps the tomato from flopping over on that side. Keep tension on the twine and continue looping it around the third and fourth stake in a similar manner until you get to the end. Make a double loop around the last stake for strength, and loop your way down the opposite side of the bed, keeping tension on the line all the way down. When you get back to the first stake, tie off, and cut the twine. You’ve created a long, skinny loop that holds the plants upright and off the ground.
We have about 15 plants in a row and one person can run a line of twine for them in about five minutes. Tying up 15 plants’ branches to individual stakes would easily take 10 times as long.
Depending on how fast the plants grow and how heavy they get, you’ll need to run another line of twine about 6 to 8 inches higher every five to seven days to keep the plants from flopping over. Some plants may grow faster than others, so adjust the height of the twine as you go down the row to accommodate them. We run about six rows of twine in the course of a season. We figure the Florida Weave technique saves us about that many hours compared to tying each plant to one stake. And we convert those time-savings into cocktail hours and hammock time.
Choose Your Twine
We use jute or sisal twines, which are available at most hardware stores. Since they are made from natural materials, we can cut them at the end of the season and let them decompose in the beds. Other twines made of nylon or polypropylene, which are types of plastic, are made from fossil fuels. They won’t decompose in the ground, and will get tangled up in garden forks and tillers.
Choose Your Stakes
Most garden stakes are made of wood, but we prefer to use metal stakes used in the construction industry called rebar instead. The tops of wooden stakes can shatter when you hammer them into the ground. Also, they rot if stored outdoors and without gloves on you might get splinters when pulling them out of the ground. Rebar on the other hand, won’t shatter, give you splinters, or rot away if stored outdoors. And with a smaller diameter (3/8″) it’s easier to hammer them into the ground. In fact, when our soil is moist enough, I can push them 12 to 18 inches into the ground by hand. Lumberyards and big-box home improvement stores sell rebar in various lengths: 2 feet, 4 feet, and 10 feet are the common options. Ideally find a place with 20-foot lengths and an ability to cut them for you into three equal lengths of 80 inches (same as 6 feet 8 inches). These will be the perfect height for a Florida Weave stake: drive 12 inches into the ground you’ll have one plant between each stake; opt for 18 inches in the ground if there are two plants between each stake. Keep a little over 5 feet above ground.
Choose Your Tomatoes
The Florida Weave works best with determinate tomatoes. These are varieties that only grow about 4 to 5 feet tall. Most paste tomatoes fall into this category, such as Roma, San Marzano, and Amish Paste. There are also determinate slicing tomatoes like Mountain Pride and Celebrity that are popular with commercial growers that are compatible with Florida Weave. You’ll need a different trellis system, like concrete wire cages, if you’re growing indeterminate slicers like Better Boy or Cherokee Purple as they keep getting taller and taller until they are killed by frost.
Last year, we grew Big Mama paste tomatoes and were really happy with their production and flavor. To preserve them through the winter, my wife, Chris rinses them, slices them in half and in a bowl slathers them with olive oil. Flat side down on a cookie sheet so they aren’t touching, she roasts them at 175 degrees for five to six hours or until the skins pull off easily and they’ve lost some moisture (and our chickens love the crinkly skins as much as we love potato chips). Toss the tomatoes in a dated Ziploc bag, lay them flat in the freezer, and we have plenty of sauce for pasta and pizza all winter.