Eat This, Guest Rants

Don’t engineers even grow tomatoes?

tom cages 010 (338x600)Guest Rant by Rebecca Caley

The tomato plants are so thick and sturdy, nothing can bring them down.  That’s their story and they’re sticking to it.  Never trust a tomato.  Their goal is to reproduce by getting rotten tomatoes on the ground.  They will fight the trellis, the cage, gravity.  They will win.

Don’t engineers grow tomatoes?  In the hundreds of years tomatoes have been cultivated, the standard support is still an upside-down wire cone?!

Isn’t there some principle about a wide base being most stable?  I’m thinking Jabba the Hutt or the Sphinx, wide on the bottom.  You never see them fall over, right?
I found a square, fat-bottom tomato cage at a hardware store four years ago. Fat-bottom tomato cage, you make the rockin’ world go round!  It even has an open side.  We can pretend that’s for reaching in to pick the fruit more easily, but we all know it’s for cramming those plants in when you have waited too long to cage them.  It’s beautifully painted with no sharp corners.  But it’s kinda small.  There must be a step I missed between just learning to grow, and tomatoes crushing me like a Hoarder.  This well-designed little cage is for posers.  They have a back room at the hardware store where they keep the hard-core stuff.
The lack of positive reinforcement after all my tomato supporting effort just sucks my motivation like the last Red Lobster biscuit.  I feel like I’m voting for President – Are these really the only choices?

So I consulted with the world wide oracle of knowledge: the internet.  What surprises!  People building sturdy wooden trellises that look like…my kids’ toy teepees?

teepees, tom cages 014 (600x338)

Going to have to try that!

In the back of my mind, probably because I have a repressed memory attached, is the idea that a large piece of big-weave fencing can be set in an arch beside the tomato plant.  The tomato plant leans on the fencing, creating a shady tunnel with easy access to unlimited, tasty garden jewels.  In my zone this is called Black Widow Heaven.  It might work in Alaska or Wisconsin or someplace with cold winters.  In Georgia you will need to wear long sleeves, gloves and take a shower after your heat stroke.

Engineers that grow tomato plants probably stake them so efficiently and in such a timely manner that the method is of little importance.  I flunked out of engineer school.  My tomatoes have always been in the back of the class with their heads down trying not to be seen.  They never needed staking.  I probably should have paid more attention in statics.  Or dynamics.  Or physics, calculus, differential equations…anything.

This year’s perfect tomato storm is sending me flashbacks of all the tomato-tying failures in this life and past lives.  I am less inclined to try to save the tomatoes and more inclined to eat ice cream, which requires no trellis.

I’ve found multiple directions for DIY cages made from fencing that all bear an awesome resemblance to the giant Kerplunk game on This Old House website.

So far, I have pounded five pallet boards around six of my 150 tomato plants.  Then I ran twine this way and that until it looked like the booby trap my son built that took down every adult in our family.  Sorry, Granny.  You needed that hip replacement years ago.

Do you think it will stand?

Do you think it will stand?

I sank three ‘rustic’ wire tomato cages as deeply as possible around four pathetic tomato plants that couldn’t fight back.

What incredible salesmanship to convince so many people that these wire contraptions would work!  My little boy described how the whole thing is going to topple like a fallen tree in a storm.  Right after he explained why the snake in the chicken coop must be pregnant.

I’m searching for something more sophisticated than the empty potting soil bag I usually shove under the plants when they fall, but something more stable than a toy top.  I’m sure you have some suggestions.  Please leave them below.

Rebecca Caley started selling plants as a child and opened her first garden center in coastal South Carolina at age 23 – just last year! (Give or take a couple decades.)  She now lives outside of Atlanta.  She has twin boys, 3 cats, 9 chickens and an 8 foot black rat snake, but it’s just squatting.

Posted by on July 3, 2013 at 12:29 pm, in the category Eat This, Guest Rants.
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54 Responses to “Don’t engineers even grow tomatoes?”

  1. val says:

    I’ve actually had good luck with the gardeners.com stacking tomato ladders. Granted, I have to place three in a row–one is not enough. I also I keep my tomatoes pruned thin to avoid the zillion fungal spores lurking in my garden. What I find lacking in most tomato supports is height. What’s a 3 foot tall hunk of metal going to do for an 8 foot vine?

  2. JenTea says:

    I have 10 tomato plants in 5 SWCs, and yes, they all have the Cones Of Doom. HOWEVER, since they are so densely planted, I use cable zip ties to connect each wobbly cone to its neighbors (usually in two places) and they create a much more stable whole. Been working for about 5 years. :) The ones out in the garden proper usually end up falling over at some point.

    I have hear that if you feel like spending a lot of time on it, you can trellis tomatoes vines like you do beans, but I don’t have that time. ;)

    • Awesome! My ‘classic’ cages are snuggling too. Spacing is just a suggestion, right? I’ll zip tie them today! I am going to spray paint them yellow next year so I can find them before I hit them with the mower again.

      I have a post about a 90-yr-old friend. She said if you spend enough time in your garden to properly trellis, you are “old.” You and I are safe! We aren’t slackers; fallen tomatoes keep us young!

    • Marcy says:

      Zip ties are a great idea! I have SFGs, so mine are close as well. I normally run bamboo poles through them horizontally at different angles to stabilize them together. I tried a new kind this time (for a few plants–they are expensive). I think it was called something like, “World’s Best Tomato Cage”. It’s a 3 pole system with counter-braces that are movable. What I really like about it is that you can change the position of the braces as the tomatoes grow.

  3. John says:

    I’ve built many of my own tomato cages with concrete remesh and they’re indestructible. There’s a decent time and energy investment making them, but the results are well worth it.

    I have more info on building them on my blog.

    • What I hate about remesh is: 1) rusty! 2) sharp parts! 3) difficult to work with.

      I use a heavy galvanized fencing instead. Not quite as sturdy as remesh but easier to work with. Make a nice big circular cage with it and it’s super sturdy. You can cut some of the fencing to make holes for picking if needed. Add a couple of metal electrical conduit poles for extra strength too.

      I think the problem with ready-made big, strong tomato “cages” would be the price tag. Who’s going to pay $20 for a cage?

      • Love the off-list uses of hardware! Do you have a lot of them? Have you heard of the “classic cage supported by galvanized pipes?

        • John says:

          Rebecca – I have about a dozen of them. A 50 foot roll gave me about 14 cages, I gave a couple to the in-laws for a present (they were quite happy). They’re also strong enough that I cage every other tomato plant and one cage is sturdy enough to hold two or three plants leaning on it.

      • John says:

        Alan – I totally agree with all your complaints. You have to REALLY be on your toes when you’re working with it or you’re gonna get stuck in the leg. It was a good cool weather project for me, when it was too cold in the winter to work outside, I spent time in the shop working on the cages.

    • My good friend’s husband, Thor, made those too. Very impressive. She grew cucumbers, beans and peas on hers too. I’m holding a little grudge because now that she has them she has quit coming over for gossip and weeding.

    • Maire says:

      We are also using concrete mesh tubes. The cages will support 7 foot tall tomatoes – but they must be staked or they will fall over.

      Making the cages is difficult since the steel is very difficult to cut. My skinny daughter was able to make the cages without any help from anyone. She even showed me how to make the cages. Once made – they can be used again and again year after year. Just ignore the rust! The cages are plenty strong.

      I got this tip from Love Apple Farms – an amazing organic farm in the Santa Cruz Mountains in California. http://www.growbetterveggies.com/

  4. Miriam says:

    Hey Rebecca! I saw something called “stake a cage” on Hometalk. One guy’s innovative DIY solution to supporting his tomatoes: http://www.hometalk.com/853437/how-to-build-the-ultimate-tomato-cage-for-under-2-the-stake-a-cage

  5. Dave says:

    I’m a fan of concrete remesh cages like John. The gardeners.com ones work well for me for determinate tomato types. As for Alan’s disdain for the rust, by this time of year the cages are full of vines and I can’t see the rust anymore!

    • I don’t like rust, but it is iron! The plants need it! I am definitely going to try to make one of those but I will need a bunch. Maybe add a couple every year…

  6. Stella B says:

    I have Texas Tomato Cages. I’ve had them for years, but the cost would be prohibitive for that many tomatoes. I’d like to find something that is more cosmetically appealing since my tomatoes are out on display.

  7. Emily says:

    I don’t see anything wrong with a place called Black Widow Heaven, really, sounds nice ;)

  8. One year, while waiting for my tomato plants to grow a bit, I lazily set the cone-shaped cages upside down over them, with good intentions to right the cages when the time came. Well, I never righted them and discovered that with the wider base, they didn’t even need to be staked down, as the weight of the fruit-laden plants held them in place.

    • Did you cover the prongs with something? I’m pretty sure I could put an eye out! I’m probably not be a agile as you!

    • I have said many times: procrastination is underrated! SO MANY things work out if you just ignore them! Certainly this is one of the easiest tomato approaches! I have MS, so I like easy!

  9. michele says:

    Well, I thought I had plenty of sources for grins, chuckles & good garden info already (Mike, Ursula, etc) but I seem to have been very wrong. I am happy to add Rebecca to my list of highly anticipated & gleefully consumed garden writers. Thanks for the fun & interesting article; can’t wait for more!

  10. Mary says:

    Very well written and funny

    Rebecca’s Mom

  11. Susan says:

    The Texas Tomato Cages (http://tomatocage.com/) are absolutely the best. I have had mine for a number of years. They are exceptionally strong and tall (two pieces: top fits onto bottom) and they fold for winter storage. I stake each one with a tall t-post so tomatoes won’t pull them over. Unfortunately you have to order 6 at a time and they are pricey, but they are worth every penny. I don’t own the company really!

    • What is a tall t-post? You are one mystery after another!

    • Stella B says:

      I don’t stake them, I just tie them all together.

      At my previous house the tomatoes were under a pergola. By the time they were out of the TTCs, they climbed into the pergola and generally made it to 14′ or so. By the time they made it up there, I don’t think they set fruit because of heat, but if they did I’m afraid that there were some well-fed roof rats. I have no idea how those little cone thingies could possibly work to support a tomato plant.

      At my current house my tomatoes are now out in full, wonderful sun and the tomato bounty is going to be a mighty tide this year. I got my first two today. Oregon Spring produced the first two in Southern California summer.

  12. So true and so well-written! I only grow two tomatoes each season and have the best luck by planting one next to a fence with the “upscale” chicken wire draped and nailed to it. (You know, the green coated stuff?) I can train the vines horizontally. Last year I had one sharing space with a clematis, but it worked. I also only grow grafted tomatoes because they produce more fruit.

  13. Chris Baswell says:

    The Texas Tomato Cages really are great, and the bottom half works nicely for a lot of shorter things: peppers, dahlias, etc. Mine are a decade old and going strong. Divide the (high) initial cost against that, and it’s not so bad.

    This year though I’ve using 5′ x 10′ concrete remesh panels wired to those green metal stakes. An ugly look until the bean & cucumber & tomato vines get up on them. But now, super-easy to pic beans and prune tomatoes.

  14. skr says:

    I’m guessing engineers go straight toserious structure with guy lines and everything to support their tomatoes. I found the Florida weave system to work very well. Then of course there is always the single string hydroponic type support system. I’m giving that a shot this year and so far so good.

  15. James says:

    I’m glad you posted this. I have tried various cages (and no cages) in the past. I’m hoping these will work. PVC is cheap but it doesn’t look that great. Check them out and let me know what you think. http://jamesgarden.wordpress.com/

    I made two rows this year.

    James

  16. Jane Scorer says:

    I do it ‘old school’ … just a cane, some twine, nothing more. Yes, it is precarious, yes, my tomato plants do occasionally lean at gravity-defying angles, but I am still proud of the ‘Prowess of the cane’ !

  17. Chris says:

    I saw this a few years back:

    http://www.veggiegardeningtips.com/providing-better-support-for-tall-tomato-vines/

    And I’ve been using it ever since. For anyone too lazy to check the link, it’s basically a T- or U-post with wire strung between it. String the wire above your plants at whatever heights you want. Use re-usable plastic trellis clips (or wire twists) to attach the plants to the wires as they grow. Attach to the posts using eye-bolts and nuts, so you can tighten the nut to provide more tension or loosen it as desired.

    I like it because it’s super easy, doesn’t smush the plant into a confined space, and easy to set up both beforehand and even after your plants start to get large.

    The downside is if your plants aren’t in rows it doesn’t work very well.

    Bonus: I use raised beds, so I put my u-posts on the outside of the bed and they brace against it, meaning I can attach a LOT of plant to those wires without worrying about the posts tilting inward, which would be a bit of a problem without the bed to brace against.

    • Chris says:

      Sorry, above it should say “A PAIR of T- or U-Posts with wire strung between them” instead of what it does say.

  18. Laura Bell says:

    PVC pipe, cut into half-, one-foot, and18-inch lengths. Add elbows & t’s & x’s to go with & you’ve got a set of gardener’s Tinker Toys with which you can assemble a square cage (tall as you want) to support those unruly beasts. I use strips of old cotton t-shirts to tie limbs to pipe if needed. Good points of this system – completely collapsible so it can be stored more compactly than those cone cages, resistant to bending/breaking/welds un-welding themselves, can be re-configured for other uses in other seasons (mine have also served as supports for fruit trees/bushes that were over-laden, and are often arranged in the winter garden as a zig-zag support for the sugar pea trellis). ANd if part does break or get lost, the whole cage is not useless – you just go grab another part.

    I don’t have any good photos but if you Google “PVC tomato cage” you should come up with something.

  19. Hoosier Girl says:

    I grow 20 to 25 heirloom indeterminate tomatoes each year, and use either a) a small, chintzy, fairly rusted cage supported by two sturdy wooden stakes or b) one of the very sturdy 4 or 5-foot tall, very thick wire cages from Menards, really no staking needed.

    If you are having trouble with the “cone” concept, on either type, you can just splay the legs a bit as you press them into the ground, and they provide a lot more support. But the super-cheap little cages definitley need stakes, regardless. You can stake them at the beginning, when they start falling over, or even after they have fallen over. Stakes are great.

    As my super-cheap cages disintegrate, I replace them with the $5 tall, sturdy cages. If you want to be fancy, you can spray paint the cages and stakes green so they blend in with the foliage. I used to spend a lot of time with green spray paint, but have since come to appreciate the simple beauty of weathered practicality.

  20. john says:

    Starting your own garden and growing a variety of colorful, amazing vegetables and flowers is simply the best way to start enjoying your outdoor space. Very few people experience it and it’s time to change that. Here’s how we’re going to do it: http://www.earthstarter.com

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