Updated in January, 2016, just for you:
You may be tempted to do it, but don’t even think about it.
Don’t buy those flimsy wire cages marketed in big box stores or farm stores as “tomato cages.” Well, not unless you’re planning to use them as supports for something polite and well-behaved, such a pepper plant or maybe a leggy perennial. Don’t try to use them for your tomato plants.
Learn from my mistake!
In my first garden year–lo, many, many years ago–I bought a few of these cages and blithely placed them over my little tomato plants. I stood back. I admired. Couldn’t wait.
My hopes: very high! I knew that proper tomato support and garden tidiness was finally mine!
Within weeks, the tomato plants had grown to the top of the cages. So far, so good. But quickly the vines grew out the tops and sides of the cages and were spilling to the ground. By the middle of the summer, the cages were totally lost and invisible within the monstrous tomato vines, which now were all over the place, the tomatoes lying willy-nilly on the ground, my tomato patch a cluttered, tumbled mess.
My hopes, dashed.
My tomatoes, lost and damaged amidst the wreckage. It was a heart-rending sight for somebody who takes her gardening fairly seriously, that is to say, moi.
Those delicate cages are wholly inadequate for supporting tomato plants–at least here in Nebraska. I won’t say much more, since–who knows–probably somewhere in the world they are perfectly adequate for holding up tomato vines, and--who knows?–perhaps the designer of these cages is a sweet octogenarian who might be–at this very moment!–squinting at these words. 🙁
I would hate to hurt this lovely person’s feelings. Especially for this older tomato cage designing person: I AM SURE YOU ARE VERY SWEET AND WELL-INTENTIONED!
However: my heirloom tomato vines are monsters, making lush and verdant jungles out of my tomato patch. Take a look. Below. Right now. See?
I learned my lesson after that first summer, and I searched for a better option for tomato vine support. Of course I turned to my Dad, first–the proverbial font of any knowledge that is worth knowing, and an avid gardener, himself–and he helped me make my first batch of real tomato cages. I probably started out with ten, that first summer.
I have about a hundred now. Or (cough) possibly even more (whistling).
(By the way . . . I do get a bit of ribbing about how many tomato plants I plant every year, it’s true, but nobody seems to tease me about it when I pull out a jar of salsa or make some chili out of my canned heirloom tomatoes . . . . just sayin’ . . .)
I get pretty excited about growing heirloom tomatoes, and it’s hard for me to stop at just . . . er . . . a hundred or so. There are so many different colors, and tastes, and shapes and sizes and I just want to try them all! Take a look at some of the names of the varieties I’m growing this summer:
- Black Cherry
- Cherokee Purple
- Pink Brandywine
- Yellow Pear
- Sun Sugar
- Striped Roman
- Aunt Ruby’s German Green
- Chocolate Stripes . . . the names alone are making my mouth water!
My sturdy and bright son Timothy helped me make another batch of tomato cages earlier this spring and then built the simple framework for this year’s tomato jungle. These are vigorous and productive plants, and they take some serious bolstering-up to make it through until frost in mid-October. I took pictures of the process so I could share it with you, Gentle Reader.
I’m sharing with you two important tomato-growing things here, Gentle Reader.
- One: how to make tomato cages that will last forever,
- and two: how to set them up in your garden to last all season long. (You don’t want them all blowing over during the first summer storm, of course.)
Let’s get started!
Part One: here’s what you need to make tomato cages which will last you a very long time (probably forever, I’ve had mine for 15 years now and there is no sign of deterioration):
- a roll of concrete reinforcing wire (I bought mine at Menard’s)
- some stout wire cutters
- a pair of sturdy gloves
- a strong teen-age boy, or in lieu of one:
- a few cement blocks*
- eye protection would be dandy, too!*
You certainly don’t have to have the teen-age boy, but he’ll thank you for something constructive to do (I’m sure!) and you can stand back and take pictures, and carry glasses of ice tea to him. And promise him a very nice lunch.
Whispers of homemade pie at job’s end, also, would not go amiss.
🙂 Word to the wise, Gentle Reader. Word to the wise.
Here’s what you do (or what you’ll instruct your teenage boy to do):
One tomato cage takes about a five foot length of the mesh–or 12 squares–so you simply count off that length and cut through the wire with the wire cutter.
Because the mesh has been stored in a tight roll, it is helpful to have a second person to help. You don’t want it to whip up and perforate or slice your leg, or some other body part. ( This is also why I recommend using eye protection, and wearing long sleeves!)
We don’t, after all, have time for a trip to the ER today, right? Or–-ever.
After you’ve cut through the wire, bend it to make a circle (it will do this quite naturally), and then bend the cut ends to connect the circle, all along the length, to make your cage. It sounds amazingly simple, because–it is amazingly simple.
However, the mesh is stout and hard to cut, and that’s where the teenage boy with the strong hands comes in so handy. If the teenage boy is prudent, he’ll also wear protective gloves and eye protection. (Note my teenage son throws caution to the winds, and will laugh if I even suggest his wearing shoes . . . )
Don’t worry, by the way, if your wire is rusty. This is normal, especially if the wire is stored outside. The rust will wash off, and it won’t hurt your plants.
Once you have your cage formed, you can cut the bottom ring off, and just stab that bottom 6 inches of the cage into the ground, or–if you live in a windy area and have had tomato cages end up in a humiliating heap in your garden in years past after a storm–you may want to stake them up. That’s what I do.
Part Two: I grow such an
absurd admirable number of tomato vines, that we’ve had to devise a way to stake the cages together so they will stay put all season, no matter how heavy and burdened with tomatoes they get. The following method is the only way we’ve discovered which will keep the cages intact during a summer storm.
We’ve tried quite a few different ways to stake our cages, and this is the one we’ve stuck with for many years now: because it’s easy to do, and it works.
As the wind at our place can get overpowering at times, we’ve learned to take the staking up of these vines quite seriously.
Here’s what we do: (all credit goes to my son Timothy for figuring out this design): we drive a stout t-post at the end of the row or bed. Then as I plant each tomato seedling, I place a cage over it. Meanwhile, Timothy is busy weaving a sturdy piece of PVC (you could use a 2×2, also, though somebody gave us this PVC and it works really well for this purpose–it’s light and strong, and you can drill holes in the ends and then thread wire through them) through the cages. I try to keep ahead of him, and he tries not to hit me on the head with the PVC.
He does, after all, really want the pie that was hinted at, to happen.
Then he wires the PVC to the t-post, and when he gets to the end of the PVC, he drives in another t-post. Using the piece of PVC means that we don’t have to drive a t-post for each and every tomato cage, which is handy since we don’t own 100+ t-posts.
I weave soaker hose through and around all these plants (using dripline would be even better, of course) and Amalia helps by pulling weeds and mulching around the plants with old straw.
And occasionally pointing out that it’s probably time for a break, already. 🙂
Little Mack does his part by bringing his favorite chicken, Babes, into the garden and looking for grubs for her. He makes it look very important, hoping that I won’t ask him to help any further. Babes is an important part of our team.
After all, when one gets tired and needs a break, one can gaze at the chicken for a few moments. It’s something.
If only I could teach the chickens how to pull weeds. *sigh*
All those weeds in the photo will be pulled, by the way, and the ground covered with a thick (6 to 8 inches, if I can scrounge up that much mulch) blanket of mulch, which will keep the plants very happy indeed. Even if it gets very dry. Which it probably will.
Here is a line of cages, all in place. 🙂 Humble. But secure. Ready for the load of tomatoes that will come shortly.
There now–was that so hard? No, not really. And just imagine it–in just a few short months, you’ll have this to look forward to:
Keeping your tomato vines off the ground will result in fewer diseases and better looking tomatoes, in my experience.
Now it’s your turn, my Gentle Reader, to make a few cages to keep your tomato vines happy!
*I want to add a safety note to this post: while my strong and determined son Timothy had no trouble making these cages by himself, usually a helper is needed. This cement mesh stuff is very stiff, and wants to stay tightly wound. You might say it resists change. A reader of mine recounted how she still bears a scar above her eyebrow, from an incident where she was helping her dad make tomato cages, and the mesh whipped up and struck her in the face, cutting her badly. She suggested that cement blocks be the best “helpers,” as they don’t have eyebrows and will hold the mesh firmly on the ground while the cage maker works with the mesh. I think this is a prudent suggestion!
I have lots more posts about growing tomatoes, so be sure to check them out! And do sign up for my email list, so you don’t miss a thing.
Thanks for reading, as always, and if you want to share this with your friends and relations, I’ll be forever grateful. 🙂 <——me, beaming with gratitude
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