Plants need all the help they can get to beat the odds: insects, droughts, too much rain, critters, lack of nutrients. Some of these are universal and can be applied to most plants.
* Every now and then Extension Service sources reach a consensus! In this case, no support, or, sprawling on the ground, invites fruit rot and insect attacks.
* Tomatoes can be planted 18"-36" apart. Plant 36" apart to increase the circulation around the plant. This reduces risk of nutrient loss, more bugs, and blight.
* Cages allow plant to grow freely and somewhat more prolifically. If the plant is a determinate (not a vine, fruit matures at same time), do not pinch suckers unless specified on seed packet. Even then, be judicious. The Cook's Garden uses 4" x 4" wire mesh, but lays the edges on their sides to form a quonset hut. The vines grow through the mesh and rest on the top. Johnny's Seeds recommends using heavy wood or steel posts, 8-12 feet apart, with 9 guage wire at the top and bottom and baling twine between plants. Two local growers use regular tomato stakes spaced about 4'-5' apart, with several layers of twine interlaced between stakes. (This comes from a quick stroll through their growing fields, so some imagination is required to get the right configuration.)
The latter is Planter's choice for garden 2004, since cages and quonset huts do
not do a good job of keeping fruit off the ground, shading fruit from sunscald, and
protecting leaves from excessive moisture.
* Indeterminate plant suckers can be pinched, although the yield is supposed to be higher if you let most of them grow. Cages are naturally better for this approach. For removing suckers in cages or on stakes: wait till the first flower cluster appears. Remove all suckers except the first one below the cluster. Be conservative here too. The leaves provide food and shading for fruit. When the stems get too tall (around 5'), begin clipping the tips back.
* First tie on the tomato should be 10"-12" above the ground. Use soft material so the stalks are not bruised. Electric or cable wiring works great if you have some left over. This is a critical tie; if the plants are too tall and untied, a couple windy days and it could be history. Use a figure 8 to tie the stem to the stake or cage. Roma tomatoes are determinate plants, but would benefit from some staking and tying to keep them off the ground.
* Tying depends on how compulsive you are, how many cages and stakes you have, the prevailing winds . . . BTW, The Cook's Garden carries untreated, biodegradable twine. At the end of the season, it can be composted. Local growers who are not organic use regular plastic twine.