One of the joys of summer is picking a ripe tomato from the vine, and eating it right there in the yard.
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I am an organic farmer who subscribes to the utilitarian in
building design-especially when it comes to gardening. The
simple, inexpensive project below not only provides food
and income, but also the comfort and energy savings from
the vast shading it offers. Believe me, living in a small
home with little insulation on a somewhat spartan income
has been a most powerful motivation. My only regret is not
building this ecosystem 10 years ago, when this old house
had no air conditioning. The whole project will cost you
$75, and by selling your delicious home-growns, you'll more
than make up for the cost.
Building the Frame
Materials: -roll of plastic
-50' x 5' roll of 2" x 4" wire fencing
-small roll of bailing wire
-12 large washers and screws
-screwdriver (cordless drill)
Start by spreading out a cheap roll of plastic around the
base of your house for protection (it will be in direct
contact with the tomato bed). By placing plastic between
the ground and the bed, you will also keep the tomato roots
from reaching non-organic residues such as lead-based
paints. You may want to attach the house-side fencing edge
to furring strips that are securely fastened to your house
frame. Make sure that your gutter system is in good working
order; the rain run off from your roof may be too much for
your plants. This could cause tomato-cracking and soil
nutrient wash-out. A couple of 55-gallon drums
strategically placed to catch this run-off will ensure an
ample supply of relatively pure water for your tomatoes.
(If any of you have roofs that are coated with lead,
consider the possibilities of toxins running off with rain
water.) Each plant requires approximately two gallons
Next, choose a wall facing south, or even better-west.
Contrary to popular opinion, tomatoes do better with some
shade; they live longer and the fruit is tastier. Clear an
area several yards away, along the length of this wall.
Unroll the fencing along the length of it, placing a few
bricks as you roll to keep the wire from recoiling. Next,
pull up the fencing's edge (nearest your house) and attach
it to the wall at a 24" height using screws, large washers,
and your screwdriver. Space screws every four to five feet
along the entire length of the wall. Then pull up the
outside edge, securing the opposing edges together with
baling wire and leaving a 12"-wide opening. Of course, you
may vary these dimensions according to your needs and the
particular layout of your home.
The basket-type bed you've just created will conform
dimensionally to the weight of the growing medium, becoming
wider and more cylindrical at the base. The ends of the bed
are enclosed by cutting off the last vertical strand of the
outer edge and then bending and securing the edges together
with the exposed horizontal strands. Remember, the ground
is to support the weight of the soil medium, not the house
Filling the Basket (with organic growing
-6 to 10 bales of wheat straw (note: wood chips, hay, or
plastic may be used for the basket liner). The straw may be
expensive, but the others do not keep pests away or allow
air circulation of the roots and/or water drainage that is
for intensive gardening.
-50 to 100 cubic feet of partially composted cow manure
(equivalent to about two to four pickup-truck loads). I
bought my two
loads at a local dairy farm for $10 each. This price even
included loading with a front-end loader.
-10 to 20 cubic feet of coarse sand (I purchased my load at
a local quarry for $10).
-5 to 10 pounds of bone-meal (provides the needed phosporus
that cow manure lacks).
-1 to 2 gallons of hard-wood ashes (provides potash).
Be sure to mix these ingredients well. The soil-medium
recipe is about as organic as you're going to get for a
price. My soil mixture resulted in a pH of 6.3, which is
near perfect for tomatoes (or just about any vegetable, for
Of course, this recipe can be tailored to your particular
circumstances. A mixture of sand, topsoil, and compost
Using the straw, line the basket, starting at the basket's
floor, and interweave handfuls as you go, much as a lazy
bird would do. Build up the sides to a height of 5" or 6",
with a fluffy 3" to 4" inches in thickness, and fill to
height with the soil-medium. (Hopefully, you're able to
drive a pick-up alongside the bed, so you can shovel
directly into the back.) Repeat this process till you reach
the desired depth. (Mine is only 12" deep). Remember: you
can add more next year. Then cover the bed's surface with
three to four inches of straw.
The bed is now ready for your hardened tomato transplants.
If you're waiting for warmer weather to plant, you may want
to cover the bed with plastic in order to prevent any rain
run off of the soil's nutrients. This will also greatly
reduce the offensive odor that manure inherits for several
There's not much else that compares with actually creating
what was once an idea. So have fun building, and change the
blueprints to suit your own imagination.
I planted 50 6" tomato plants in April of 1992 in this
manure-sand mixture. The manure was only a few days old and
didn't burn the plants at all. In fact, they thrived,
providing hundreds of pounds of healthy tomatoes-much more
than my family could consume. Use them fresh, in sauces, or
canned for the winter. Plus, I more than made up for the
initial money invested ($75) with my sales to restaurants,
grocery stores, and local neighbors.
My tomato foliage reached heights of more than 10',
covering the west side of our trailer and dramatically
lowered the temperature inside. We had no problem with
insects-inside or outside- except for my mate's fear of
spiders, which benevolently stayed outside trapping harmful
garden pests. A couple of dozen applications of cow manure
(a shovelful every couple of weeks per plants) seemed to
keep the pests away and helped feed the thriving
tomatoes-not to mention built up the bed to the proper
I made the trellis out of bamboo poles fastened together
with baling wire woven through V holes drilled through the
bamboo. Biodegradable jute string was perfect for tying the
ever-growing vines. I wish now that I had strung another
roll of fencing to the 4 x 4s cemented in the ground every
8' or so for a maintenance-free trellis; the jute string
was fairly expensive and the labor of stringing was a bit
time-consuming. I believe the fence trellis would provide
much better support after several years went by, and would
be cheaper than using the string as well.
Be sure to plant disease-resistant indeterminate varieties
according to your preference. My plants were spaced 12"
apart and did fine. No pruning was done until the end of
August. (Pruning doesn't increase the total yield.) In
fact, pruning encourages tomato-splitting from excessive
water (the extra foilage absorbs extra water) and provides
less shade. This fall I will add an extra 8" to 10" of
birdnesting and soil-medium. Next year's crop should be
even more bountiful.