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Espalier Tomatoes – The Only Way I’ll Ever Grow Tomatoes Again

Side by side images of an espalier tomato at the beginning of the growing season and again at the end.
How it started, how it’s going.

It appears we can thank the French for taking the headache out of growing indeterminate tomatoes. I’ve expressed my annoyance with their annual habit of taking over the garden at length.

Er, the tomatoes, not the French.

But this method has completely changed my mind. Espalier tomatoes are the only way to go in my book.

If you’re unfamiliar with the term, it’s a French word derived from the Italian word spalliera, which loosely translated means “something to rest the shoulder against.” (Not confusing at all, right?) Generally, it’s the name of the practice of training fruit trees to grow flat against a wall.

Espaliered pear tree covered in fruit growing against a brick wall.

Aside from the exquisite beauty of this type of orchard, they’re also quite practical, as it’s much easier to pick the resulting fruit. You encourage the tree to grow from side to side rather than taller. This takes quite a bit of planning and effort for an orchard, but applying it to indeterminate tomato varieties is easy, quick and brilliant.

Espalier tomato growing up a length of twine.
If you look toward the bottom, as the season progressed, I trimmed off old growth once tomatoes had been picked.
(I also set my cauliflower transplants in my tomato pot to drain.)

A note about tomato varieties

Tomatoes come in two varieties.

Determinate, which reach a set height and generally put on all their fruit at once before dying back for the season. Determinate tomatoes have a bushy growth habit and are much easier to keep under control.

Indeterminate, which grows as a vine rather than a bush, will continue to grow throughout the season. Usually, the only thing that inevitably stops it is a good, hard frost. Indeterminate tomatoes will continue to produce new fruit as long as the plant is alive. Many heirlooms are indeterminate.

The method we’re discussing today only works for the indeterminate varieties, as its vining nature is key.

Staking Tomatoes

There are dozens of ways to stake tomatoes – cages, the Florida weave, squares, etc. They all kind of stink. Inevitably indeterminate tomatoes will outgrow all of these. It requires hefty pruning and staying on top of the growth to prevent them from taking over. That is, until now.

Espaliered Tomatoes

Two large heirloom tomatoes beginning to ripen on the vine.
My last two tomatoes of the year.

Using the same principle to grow fruit trees along a wall, we can grow indeterminate tomatoes that will produce beautiful, easy-to-reach fruit on a long vine that’s easy to maintain. We’re simply going to take advantage of the vining habit of this type of tomato.

The best part is you can grow tomatoes using this method in your garden and containers. It’s incredibly versatile. I grew the one photographed throughout this piece on my balcony last year. It was still putting out tomatoes in October.

Training Your Tomatoes

Author's hand supporting the tomato vine wrapped around twine.
You can see I tied the twine to the base of the plant, but not so tight as to restrict the growth of the stem.

The most important aspect of growing tomatoes this way is how you train them. Instead of letting the plant grow in every direction, you’re going to prune it back to a single vine. Rather than letting the plant get large and unruly, we’re training them to grow long and tidy.

Info graphic showing how I attached the twine to a rivet on the beam in the roof above my balcony.
What? Doesn’t everyone have an Echo on their balcony?

You’ll train this single vine to grow up a piece of twine suspended above the tomato and secured in the soil with a landscape staple or even around the base of the tomato. Similarly, you can train it to grow sideways along a garden fence, railing or other horizontal structure.

Espalier tomato starting to climb up a length of twine.
At around 18″, I started training the tomato up the twine.

To train the plant, you simply wrap the new growth around the string starting when the plant reaches 18”. Or, if you’re growing horizontally, tie the new growth to the fence (or whatever horizontal structure you’re growing it along). An old t-shirt cut into strips is perfect for this. I would advise letting the plant reach the top of the fence first before detouring to grow horizontally.

As you train the direction of your plant, you’ll also snip off any new suckers or large stems that would cause the plant to branch off in another direction.

Photo with graphics showing where to prune an espaliered tomato vine.
You can see in the circle that’s where the flowers were growing from, and this big honker was growing below them.
I chopped it off to prevent another large stem from forming.

Remember, we’re growing a single tomato stem.

If you’re going vertical, and the tomato grows to the top of your string, stop training it upward. Once it reaches this point, let the vine waterfall down and continue to prune as before. The only difference is you are no longer training it around the string but rather letting it grow free back down to the ground.

Benefits of Growing Tomatoes This Way

Author's hand holding a tomato stem with two blossoms on it.
Using this method, I got a tomato from every single flower.
  • Everything about this method is so much easier than wrestling your unwieldy tomato plants into a cage of some sort.
  • Since you’re limiting growth to one stem, the plant can direct more energy into fruit production.
  • You’ll be able to see every flower, so you can hand-pollinate each one to ensure you get every tomato possible.
  • Because you’re growing up or sideways, the tomatoes don’t take up as much space in your garden.
  • Harvesting tomatoes is super easy; they’re easy to spot, no more digging through cavernous tomato plants.
  • The excellent airflow makes it nearly impossible for disease to take hold.
  • Any pest problems are much easier to spot and treat, meaning you find them before they become a problem.  
  • Tomatoes are exposed to more warm air and sun, which allows them to ripen quicker.
  • There’s no hacking back a massive tomato plant creeping into every part of your garden come midsummer.
  • At the end of the season, cut the twine and plant at the base. Compost the whole thing. So easy.

A Handful of Tips

  • If you’re growing in a container, plant the tomato closer to the side rather than the middle; that way, you can get the plant as close as possible to the structure it will be climbing.
  • Use good sturdy garden twine and double it up. The last thing you want is your twine snapping when your plant is loaded with tomatoes in August.
  • I found I only needed to check on the tomato once a week to remove suckers and wrap new growth around the string.
  • If you aren’t sure about what a bit of new growth is doing, whether it will produce a flower or more leaves, let it go until you can be sure, and then come back and trim it if need be.
  • Because they take up so much less space on the ground, you can grow more tomato plants in the same space. Bring on all the heirlooms!
  • By the way, this is how most commercially grown tomatoes are grown.
View of a commercial greenhouse with row after row of espaliered tomatoes.

And that’s that, my friends. This is hands down the only way I will grow indeterminate tomatoes for the rest of my life.

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Tracey Besemer

Hey there, my name is Tracey. I’m the editor-in-chief here at Rural Sprout.

Many of our readers already know me from our popular Sunday newsletters. (You are signed up for our newsletters, right?) Each Sunday, I send a friendly missive from my neck of the woods in Pennsylvania. It’s a bit like sitting on the front porch with a friend, discussing our gardens over a cup of tea.

Originally from upstate NY, I’m now an honorary Pennsylvanian, having lived here for the past 18 years.

I grew up spending weekends on my dad’s off-the-grid homestead, where I spent much of my childhood roaming the woods and getting my hands dirty.

I learned how to do things most little kids haven’t done in over a century.

Whether it was pressing apples in the fall for homemade cider, trudging through the early spring snows of upstate NY to tap trees for maple syrup, or canning everything that grew in the garden in the summer - there were always new adventures with each season.

As an adult, I continue to draw on the skills I learned as a kid. I love my Wi-Fi and knowing pizza is only a phone call away. And I’m okay with never revisiting the adventure that is using an outhouse in the middle of January.

These days, I tend to be almost a homesteader.

I take an eclectic approach to homesteading, utilizing modern convenience where I want and choosing the rustic ways of my childhood as they suit me.

I’m a firm believer in self-sufficiency, no matter where you live, and the power and pride that comes from doing something for yourself.

I’ve always had a garden, even when the only space available was the roof of my apartment building. I’ve been knitting since age seven, and I spin and dye my own wool as well. If you can ferment it, it’s probably in my pantry or on my kitchen counter. And I can’t go more than a few days without a trip into the woods looking for mushrooms, edible plants, or the sound of the wind in the trees.

You can follow my personal (crazy) homesteading adventures on Almost a Homesteader and Instagram as @aahomesteader.

Peace, love, and dirt under your nails,