You’ll enjoy a bigger tomato harvest if you use stakes or tomato cages to help your plants grow vertically, saving space in the garden while keeping fruits off the ground, preventing rot. Store-bought tomato cages tend to be flimsy and too small. For a sturdier option, consider building your own. We think these four plans are especially good choices for creating durable, low-cost tomato cages. Find the best fit for your garden and start building! (The cost estimates for each design are based on current prices from Lowe’s and Tractor Supply Co.)
Livestock Panel Trellis
Rigid metal livestock panels (sold at farm stores) make a strong, durable trellis. Simply stand up the panels and attach them to steel T-posts, and you’re on your way to your own wall of tomatoes (see illustration). Livestock panels typically come in 16-foot lengths, but with a pair of bolt cutters or a hacksaw, you can cut them to whatever length you want.
As the tomatoes grow, weave the plants between the openings of the panel for better support. You can use the panels for other crops, including beans, cucumbers and peas. You can even bend the panels to make a trellised archway, which you can cover with plastic for use as a cheap greenhouse or livestock shelter.
- One 16-foot livestock panel
- Steel T-posts (use one for about every 4 to 6 feet of panel)
Estimated cost: about $2 per tomato plant (assumes four T-posts, plus $20 for a 16-foot panel, with 18 tomato plants spaced 2 feet apart on both sides)
Complete instructions: See Vertical Gardening Techniques for Maximum Returns.
Folding Wooden Tomato Cages
These tall, wooden tomato cages (see illustration) add a beautiful vertical accent to your garden and are strong enough to support a bumper tomato crop. They also work well with other vining crops. To construct a cage, build two tomato “ladders,” with three rungs and a brace to stabilize the sides against strong winds. Connect the two ladders at the top with a piece of scrap wood, which you can easily remove to fold the ladders for storage at the end of the season.
- Six 1-by-3-inch wooden pieces measuring about 8 feet long
- One 8-inch 2-by-4
- Two 3-inch deck screws
- About 30 1 1⁄2-inch galvanized deck screws
Estimated cost: about $20 per cage (less if you use recycled materials , or maybe saplings)
Complete instructions: See Woody’s Folding Tomato Cages.
Wire Mesh Tomato Cages
Constructing cages from 4- or 5-foot-wide concrete reinforcing wire (see illustration) is quick and simple — and the materials are cheap, which makes these cages an especially good choice if you’re growing on a large scale. They’re also a good bet for people with little DIY experience, because the only tool you’ll need to put them together is a pair of wire cutters.
Concrete wire mesh is stiffer than most other fence wire, and its openings are large enough that you can easily reach through to pick the tomatoes. Cut sections about 5 to 6 feet long to form circular cages 19 to 23 inches in diameter. To make storage easier, vary the diameters so that two or three cages will nest together, one inside the other.
These lightweight cages will blow over easily unless you stake them, so anchor them firmly to the ground with steel T-posts. You can extend your growing season by wrapping each cage with plastic or row cover. This type of tomato cage also works well as a trellis for cucumbers, beans and other vining crops.
- Rolls of 6-by-6-inch concrete reinforcing wire mesh
- Steel T-posts
Estimated cost: about $8 per cage (based on making 30 cages from a 150-foot roll of concrete mesh, with one steel post per cage)
Complete instructions: See Using Wire Mesh in the Garden.
The Indestructible Tomato Cage
This cage earns the name “indestructible” because it’s made of sturdy plastic pipes (see illustration), which are easy to work with and won’t rot or rust. To construct these cages, drill three sets of corresponding holes in each of three equal lengths of plastic pipe. Form the cages by placing horizontal metal rods (electrical conduit) through holes in the plastic uprights. Make sure the plastic pipes have a large enough diameter to hold the metal conduit you use. The metal crossbars can be removed at the end of the season, making breakdown a breeze and requiring minimal storage space. A bonus: By pouring water into the tops of the vertical pipes, you can deliver moisture directly to your plants’ roots — where they need it most — without providing surface water to competing weeds.
To make drilling the holes in the plastic pipes easier, MOTHER EARTH NEWS contributing editor Steve Maxwell recommends using a step bit. “As the name suggests, a step bit is shaped into a series of steps and designed for use drilling thin metal,” he says. “They also happen to work really well on plastic. Because each level is incrementally larger, they go into the surfaces gently, with little chance of grabbing and splitting.”
- Three 4-foot (or longer) pieces of 3-inch diameter plastic pipe
- 15 feet of electrical conduit
Estimated cost: about $25 per cage
Complete instructions: See Our Indestructable Tomato Cage.
Jennifer Kongs is the Managing Editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine. When she’s not working at the magazine, she’s likely working in her garden, on the local running trails or in her kitchen instead. You can find Jennifer on Twitter or Google+.