Spacing, Pruning and the Building of T-Frames to Grow Tomatoes Vertically.

Growing Tomatoes Vertically Using T-Frames

Here’s how to grow tomatoes the way “the big boys” do it! Do it right and your yield will amaze you as well as your neighbors. Use one T-Frame every 10 feet maximum. Between the T-Frames use heavy-gauge wire, galvanized steel pipe (1/2″ is adequate) or even 2 X 4’s on edge. If your growing season is short and you want to build a frame strong enough to support a plastic covering in early spring and late fall, use the 2 x 4’s. Then arch PVC on top using 45 degree slip fittings, and cover the entire structure with 6 mil clear greenhouse plastic for the world’s least expensive greenhouse. This works best tying two adjacent beds together into one greenhouse.

Graphically illustrated instructions for building and installing T-Frames are also contained in the Mittleider Gardening Course – advanced section, Chapter 15. This chapter is available free on the Food For Everyone Foundation’s website at

For a 30′ Soil-Bed or Grow-Box, buy 6 – 8′ treated 4 X 4’s. Cut two of them into 6 equal-sized pieces 32″ long. Four 32″ lengths become the top of the Ts.

The other two 32″ 4 X 4 lengths then are cut into 4 equal-sized braces using 45 degree-angle cuts as follows: Measure and mark 10 5/8″ along the bottom edge, then 3 5/8″, then 10 5/8″, then 3 5/8″. On the top edge, measure and mark 3 1/2″, then 3 5/8″, then 10 5/8″,then 3 5/8″. Draw lines between these marks, then using a table saw cut on the lines. Pre-drill through the top center of the 32″ tops, then use a 6″ spike to nail into the 8′ post. Screw or nail the braces to both the top and the post.

Bury the T-Frame 15″ in the ground at 10′ (or shorter) intervals just inside the ridge on one side of your Grow-Bed, or inside the side frame of your Grow-Box. Use #8 gage wire and eye-bolts between the T-Frames, 1/2″galvanized pipe, held in place by two nails placed 1″ and 1 ½” in from the outside edges, or 2 X 4s on edge.

To extend your growing season several weeks in both spring and fall, use 2 X 4’s on edge to tie the T-Frames in two adjacent beds together, and make an arched canopy with 7’-long 3/4″ PVC and 45 degree Slip fittings every 2′, then cover in early Spring and late Fall with 6 mil clear greenhouse plastic. Some heat may be necessary to protect from hard frosts, so consider an electric heater or other heat source.

Growing Tomatoes Vertically – How Close to Plant

How close together should you grow your tomato plants? The answer depends on several factors, and ultimately it is all up to you. If you are growing vertically and using T-Frames, with tomatoes growing up baling twine string, you can plant them as close as 8″ apart.

The key to success is in how diligent, accurate, and consistent you are in pruning the sucker stems! gently guide your plants around the string at least once every week in the spring, and every 4-6 days in the summer, and take off all sucker stems also at least that often. This will give yoou a single-stalk plant with large hands of tomatoes every 5-7″ all the way up the stalk, and your fruit production will amaze you, with anywhere from 15# to 30# of fruit per plant.

On the other hand, if you neglect to take off all the suckers, your plants will become big, bushy masses of leaves and branches. The plants will compete with adjacent plants – and even with their own sucker branches – for light, and you will have a big mess on your hands, with much less fruit for your efforts.

So, if you are not diligent in pruning, even 14″ apart is too close together. I recommend planting your tomatoes every 9″, with ONE ROW ONLY in your beds, and then guiding every other plant up baling twine strings to opposite sides of T-Frames.

Growing Tomatoes Vertically – How to Prune

In order to harvest a large amount of healthy home-grown tomatoes in a small space indeterminate plants should be used and grown vertically using stakes, or more preferrably, T-Frames and baling twine strings. This requires that you allow the plant to have only one or two stems, and eliminate all others by pruning.

Let’s first discuss how to remove all the sucker stems. This is the major function of pruning tomatoes.

Where the leaf branch grows out from the main stem (in the crotch) pinch off the new growth that comes out of that area. But make sure you don’t pinch out the top growth. When in doubt stay away from the top of the plant.

Also, stay away from the blossoms that grow about an inch above the leaf node or crotch. Those become your fruit.

To maximize your tomato yield, you must manage the plant’s growth. This could be compared to the biblical pruning of the vineyard.

A single plant, taking up less than one lineal foot of space, can produce 15 to 30# of fruit – but only if you keep it to one or two main stems. Remember, we’re doing “Modified ” here, and the hydroponic and greenhouse growers know what they are doing when they prune to one main stem per plant.

Prune the sucker stems from Indeterminate varieties only! Right at the point where each leaf grows out from the stem, a new (sucker) stem will appear and begin to grow. Take it off, and the sooner the better. Don’t let the plant waste energy growing the sucker stem. But DO NOT remove the leaf – only the sucker stem growing between the leaf and the stem!!

Once your plant has several sets of leaves, it will begin producing blossoms. THESE BECOME YOUR TOMATOES. They appear about one inch ABOVE the leaf joint, or node as it’s called. NEVER take off the blossoms. Remember, that’s your fruit!

Both pruning and guiding your tomatoes up the baling-twine string should be done religiously, at least once each week for every plant.

You should prune all leaves that touch the ground, and you may also need to prune some leaves, or parts of leaves, to prevent them from overlapping with the leaves of adjacent plants and competing for essential sunlight. Minimize your problems from over-crowding of your plants by allowing adequate space for each plant to grow to maturity in full sunlight.

Choosing What to Plant

Q. It is time for the annual sale of this year’s seeds in the US. Could you give some ideas on what would be good to buy for planting next year?  I would like high nutritional value if possible.  What would you suggest?  My goal is to be as self-sufficient as possible. 
A. The first rule is to buy and plant what you enjoy eating!  The second consideration should be what makes sense economically, and third, consider varieties that do well in your climate and at certain times of year.  The Garden Master CD, available at, has a wonderful database of vegetables, with lots of information you’ll want to know to make a wise decision for your family.
My family eats almost no broccoli or cauliflower, so I won’t grow them for the home garden.  We all love tomatoes – both large (Big Beef is the favorite this year) and small (grape tomatoes have really captured our hearts!)  And spinach is great in salads as well as cooked, grows fast, and can be grown early and late in space not yet able to be used for warm weather crops, or after other crops are harvested.  Peppers and eggplant are also favorites, and we eat them at least once per week.  You get the idea. 
Some crops that produce the most “bang for the buck” include tomatoes, cucumbers, pole beans, peppers, eggplant, zucchini and yellow crookneck, and perhaps cantaloupe or other climbing squash or small melons.  The key is that these are everbearing, and most can be grown vertically, so they take relatively small space in your garden.  Single crop varieties like cabbage and carrots can also be good, but most of them should be harvested in a short time, before they become over-ripe and/or infested with pests and diseases, and this causes waste unless you have a good cool storage place, such as a root cellar.   If you enjoy red beets, I recommend Cylindra as one that holds in the garden for a long time without getting tough and woody.
I would avoid growing corn in the small family garden, because it takes so much space and produces very little.  For example, a single corn stalk takes basically the same space as a tomato plant, but only produces one or two “fruits”, while an indeterminate tomato plant may produce as much as 15 to 20 pounds of fruit.  And in many places in the western USA potatoes are about 1/10th as expensive as tomatoes, so if space is limited, that may not be a high priority.  However, potatoes (along with winter squash, cabbage, carrots, etc.) will store for many months if done properly.
The third criterion is finding things that grow well in your climate, and choose the right time of year.  For those in the cooler climates with shorter growing seasons, it is wishful thinking to try and grow sweet potatoes and peanuts.  And there are a few other crops that require long growing seasons and/or hot weather.  Look on the seed packet, or a catalog, or in several of the Mittleider gardening books or CD’s.  The large watermelons come to mind as examples.  And particularly for those of you in the hot climates, grow spinach and brassica’s at the beginning and end of your growing season.
The Mittleider Gardening books and Manuals teach all you need to know about this subject, and can be purchased in the Store section, or as digital downloads.

A digital copy costs 30-40% less, and is available instantly!  I HIGHLY recommend you look here for the best gardening books available anywhere!  Get one NOW and be gardening TODAY

Best Spacing For Growing Tomatoes Vertically

Q.  The planting configuration and spacing in Let’s Grow Tomatoes is much different than what is recommended in other places, such as The Mittleider Gardening Course and The Garden Master. Why are they so different, and which is “right” or better?

A.  There are several reasons for the different tomato plant spacings recommended in the Mittleider materials. His 9 books were written over 25 years, and were based on his experiences in different situations and locations around the world. The changes reflect his increased experience – with plants, Soil-Beds, Grow-Boxes, greenhouse v.s. garden and field production, and people. 

Let’s Grow Tomatoes teaches how to grow tomatoes in Grow-Boxes that are 5 feet wide, with the plants 6 or 7 inches apart in rows 28 inches apart going across the width of the beds. A few years of experimentation showed Dr. M. what he now considers an easier and/or better way to grow them.

The 5-foot width made it difficult for people to reach all the way into the middle to prune, feed, water, and pick, and so he now recommends boxes no more than 4 feet wide. In that format, planting rows lengthwise has advantages, including easier pruning, feeding and picking, and the ability to automate the watering process.

Another factor that influenced the changes is that the close planting recommended in Let’s Grow Tomatoes requires regular and accurate pruning in order to allow adequate light into all the plants. Dr. M. found that this was not being done consistently or properly, and the yield suffered.

He now recommends planting from 8 to 12 inches apart (depending on the grower’s experience and commitment to pruning), and he only plants two rows of plants in a 4 foot wide Grow-Box.  Light to the plants is assured by guiding alternating plants in each row up strings to 2 rows of wire or pipe that are strung the length of the beds on the top of T-frames.

Yields are generally better using the new methods, the T-frames cost less than stakes or A-frames and are permanent, and the time and effort are reduced.

I highly recommend following the methods described in The Garden Master software CD and The Mittleider Gardening Course book, both available at

Germinating Tomatoes In The Greenhouse

Q.  I have had trouble getting my tomatoes to germinate in the greenhouse.  Is there a variety that you would suggest? I live at 41 degrees North latitude and 5,000 feet elevation. Any additional advice would be appreciated.

A.  Tomatoes need a constant sustained temperature in the 70’s for good germination. Get a good thermometer, then insulate your greenhouse as much as possible, without losing light. Heating the entire greenhouse is too expensive, enclose the table where your plants are growing in clear plastic and heat only that space, thus creating a greenhouse within a greenhouse.  We use heaters this time of year, either propane, kerosene, or electric in order to sustain good growing temperatures for tomatoes and other warm-weather plants.