Homegrown tomatoes are where it’s at. They are better than any tomato bought at a store, and in the simplest of terms, nothing tastes quite so magical as the DIY tomato. That’s why, despite sometimes being a troublesome crop to grow, just about every gardener has to make a go at cultivating tomatoes. A garden, a sandwich, a salad, and so many other things just feel incomplete without tomatoes.
To grow tomatoes, standard and well-advised protocol is to provide them with something to grow up. This invites the plant to go vertical, saving space in the garden, and ultimately, it keeps the fruit off the ground, preventing problems with rot. Often this is done with tomato stakes, simple sticks that are put next to the plant, but tomato cages are much sturdier.
While cages can be bought at the store, they are totally doable DIY-style, and will likely cost less money. Plus, there are plenty of options to explore.
The classic DIY tomato cage is made from heavy gauge wire fencing. Ideally, this is the five-foot-high variety with six-inch squares. Cut a three-foot piece of the fencing and roll it into a circle, overlapping the ends and fastening them together with twine or old bread ties. The cage is put around the tomato plant, providing it with both protection and support, and the cage itself is helped by weaving a stake through one of the vertical columns (of open squares) and fixing it into the ground.
A 50-foot roll of wire, roughly 16 tomato cages, is about $45, or three dollars a cage, whereas tomato cages can run over ten dollars a piece at the store. Even cheap ones, not nearly as durable as the wire variety here, cost more than three bucks a piece. Obviously, if upcycled wire — even chicken wire — is available, that is an even better option.
While wire cages are inexpensive and long-lasting, stick cages can be even cheaper (even free) and can be composted at the end of the growing season. Plus, they provide a more natural look for the garden and require less in the way of tools. Starting with four sturdy sticks, roughly an inch in diameter, build a four-cornered pyramid. About a foot off of the ground, attach sticks (with natural twine) to form a ring around the bottom. Then, build a grid of about one-foot squares, by stretching sticks from one side to the other. Move up a foot higher and do it again, all the way to the top.
A ball of twine is a few dollars and can make quite a few tomato cages. Sticks are free for the industrious gardener, and they are often the byproduct of cleaning up the yard after winter or free from the neighbors’ clean-up. By the time fall rolls around again, and the last of the tomatoes have been harvested, these cages can be disassembled and put at the bottom of the compost pile to keep it aerated. Very sustainable.
Another ultra-cheap, short-term method is to use four five-foot stakes, either scrap lumber or sturdy sticks. Between the stakes, tie natural string, such as jute twine, to create a kind of net that the scaling tomato plants can use as support. This twine can be tied crudely around the planting space, or it can be fashioned into a rudimentary net through the center every foot or so up the stakes. This is the least sturdy of the choices, but it’s very cheap, functional, and can be repurposed after the tomatoes are finished producing.
Again, the material list for this is a ball of twine and some sticks or scrap lumber. That’s super cheap and compostable when all is said and done. Plus, the twine — something always handy to have around a garden — can be salvaged for the rest of the growing season. This, too, is a very sustainable way of addressing tomato cage needs.
Growing Tip for the Cages
A great tip for growing tomatoes well in cages is to put a five-gallon composting bucket in the center of the cage. Drill a few holes in the sides of the bottom third of the bucket, and bury that section underneath the soil. Slowly fill it with veggie scraps, topping off each deposit with some shredded leaves, shredded paper, shredded cardboard, or wood shavings (to help with fruit flies and smell). The compost will attract worms to the garden and feed the tomatoes as it breaks down.
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