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.

Compare Mittleider Method With Commercial Produce Growers

Q.  The commercial produce growers in my area use black plastic with drip lines. They mix fertilizer in their irrigation water and pump it to the plants. What makes the Mittleider method more productive and efficient?
A.  Large commercial growers of things like lettuce, cabbage, etc., who water and feed accurately, especially those who feed regularly right in the water supply, and who eliminate weeds completely, are at least as good and productive as the Mittleider Method.  They also have very large investments in materials and equipment.
The Mittleider Method is sometimes called “the poor man’s hydroponic method” because it borrows principles and procedures from the large hydroponic, greenhouse, and field growers, and adapts and sizes them to the small family farmer and family-size garden.  And we produce great yields without the large capital investment large growers must face.
Most family gardeners don’t understand the importance of a constant water supply, just to the root zone of the plants.  They don’t appreciate the value of regular feeding with a complete, balanced nutrient, and they don’t realize how much weeds rob their garden of nutrients that are essential to the well-being of their vegetable plants.
Beyond those three principles, the Mittleider Method teaches vertical growing, with the attendant pollinating, pruning, and protection issues the hydroponic growers handle so well.
These are the primary elements that set the Mittleider Method apart from typical or traditional FAMILY GARDENING and make it SIMILAR to (not better than) hydroponic and large commercial growers.

Growing Vertically – What Varieties – What books –

Q.  I am planning on trying a vertical garden (most of the veggies) next Spring.  I have heard about “vertical” growing methods, but I am not quite sure what all the details are.   Also, when and how do you prune tomato plants?   Do all tomato plants need to be pruned? 

A.  Several of the Mittleider gardening books give good illustrations and instructions for vertical growing.  I recommend the Mittleider Gardening Course, Gardening by the Foot, Let’s Grow Tomatoes, and Grow-Bed Gardening.  The best place to obtain all of them is by getting the Mittleider Gardening Library CD.  All are available at in the Store section under Books and Software.

Vegetable varieties that can be grown vertically include indeterminate tomatoes, cucumbers (not the bush type), pole beans, smaller varieties of vining squash, small melons, greenhouse varieties of peppers, and eggplant.

Beans don’t need to be pruned, but all others should be pruned regularly, by removing all sucker stems as soon as they begin to grow.  Several articles on the website in the FAQ section are devoted to pruning.  I recommend you look there for a comprehensive discussion on how to prune – however, the books will be the best, as they include pictures and illustrations.

Growing Peppers Vertically – “Poor Man’s Hydroponics vs Large Commercial Hydroponics

Q.  Can I grow peppers vertically – like I do my tomatoes?  How do you do it?
A.  Some information from the University of Florida Extension division at is fascinating – if you are interested in doing “The Poor Man’s Hydroponic Method” of growing peppers vertically.  Pictures of the two common commercial growing methods – the Dutch V and Spanish methods are posted at  Key paragraphs from the article are duplicated at the bottom of this article.
The Dutch V method prunes the plant to two main branches, and then guides those up strings in a V shape.  Little pruning is done in the Spanish system of growing.  Pruning to two or four main branches is common practice, and thereafter no pruning is done.  Vertical support is provided by poles and strings, or by large tomato cages. 
When a pepper plant is carrying the maximum weight of peppers the plant can support, it will stop flowering and fruiting even though there may be weeks or even months left in the growing season.  Removing green fruits as soon as they mature signals the plant to continue flowering and setting fruit, and the result is fruit being set throughout the growing season, and obviously more fruit per plant.

“Greenhouse pepper cultivars generally have an indeterminate pattern of growth. Because the plants can grow up to 6-ft tall during a growing season of 250 days, they need to be supported vertically. Pepper plants can be trellised to the Dutch “V” system or to the “Spanish” system ( Fig. 8 ).

“Trellising plants with the “V” system consists of forming a plant with two main stems by removing one of the two shoots developed on each node and leaving one or more adjacent leaves per node. The pairs of stems are kept vertically by the use of hanging twines that are wound around the stems as they grow. The “V” trellis system is used by Dutch and Canadian growers.

“Some of the commonly used cultivars are Parker, Triple 4, Cubico, and Lorca for red; Kelvin, for yellow; and Neibla, and Emily, for orange fruits. New pepper cultivars for greenhouse production are introduced every year by seed companies

“When comparing cultivars for those with the highest yield and fruit quality characteristics with low amounts of culls or other disorders, the best red cultivars were Lorca, Torkal, Triple 4, and Zambra; yellow cultivars were Pekin, Kelvin, Neibla, Bossanova, and Taranto; and orange cultivars were Paramo, Lion, and Boogie
“Greenhouse pepper crops in Florida are grown in soil-less culture. Thus methyl bromide is not needed, yet problems with soil borne diseases, and insect and nematode pests are avoided. The plants are grown in containers filled with soil-less media such as perlite, pine bark, or peat mixes. The media can be reused for several crops (two to three) if disease contamination does not occur
“Pepper plants in soil-less culture are fertigated (watered and fed) frequently with a complete nutrient solution. Nutrient solution concentrations are similar to those used for tomatoes grown in soil-less culture. In plants at full production, the nutrient concentration levels can reach N: 160, P: 50, K: 200, Ca: 190, Mg: 48, and S: 65 ppm, respectively. The irrigation solution also provides the plants with micronutrients.
“The pH of the irrigation solution is maintained at values between 5.5 and 6.5, and the EC, depending on the nutrients concentration levels, will have values between 1.5 and 2.5 mS per cm.”