Tomato Patch: Caging While the Job Is Easy

My caging system

Tomato growers could almost hear their plants growing during those hot, humid days early last week, but cooler, springlike Thursday brought a stiff breeze as a reminder that we’d better think seriously about getting our rapidly-growing plants staked, caged, or otherwise secured before they are tall enough that a gusty storm can knock them over and make the job much more difficult.

I spent two hours or so Thursday caging my 23 tomato plants. I have a simple system that uses iron stakes, wire cages, PVC pipe, nylon string, scissors, and a level and a small sledge hammer. Let me tell you how I do it.

PVC pipe lashed to stake

The overall picture: I use the hammer and level to put an iron stake near each end of my short tomato rows (3 or 4 plants per row). I lash a PVC pipe to the posts with the string. I then lash each of the tomato cages to the PVC pipe. Here are the details.

Step 1: I lay the PVC pipe along the tomato rows. Originally the pipes were 10-feet long, but over time I’ve cut them to fit tomato rows in the plots of various sizes on our hillside. I have two longer rows with four plants each and five rows of three plants each, so I place the longer pieces of pipe along the longer rows.

Step 2: I install the iron stakes near each end of each row, using the hammer and the level to make sure the stakes are reasonably plumb. I place the stakes so at least six inches of pipe extends beyond each of the stakes and three or four inches from the plants.

Step 3: I install a wire cage over each plant.

Step 4: I put the PVC pipe through the cages, letting it rest on the top or second horizontal rings of the cages in that row, and then use nylon string to last the pipe to the stakes. I thread the string through one of the holes in the stake and secure the pipe to the stake before knotting the string and cutting off any extra. I cut these strings about 36 inches.

Cage lashed to PVC pipe

Step 5: I adjust any of the cages that are too high or too low, so from a distance they look relatively even in height and so a horizontal or vertical wire of each is near the pipe. Then I use more nylon string to lash each cage to the pipe. I cut these strings about 15 inches.

This simple system works—usually. The only time a storm has toppled a tomato cage was last year, when I failed to lash one of the cages to the pipe. That was “operator error,” not “system error.”

Here are some tips about staking:

Tip 1: Most gardeners stake (I’ll use that term to cover all support systems) their “indeterminate” tomato plants, sometimes now called “tall” tomato plants. Indeterminates continue growing, flowering, and setting fruit until something stops them—usually frost here in Maryland. An indeterminate Sungold plant may grow 10 feet or more and will need substantial support. It still will be growing in mid-October when frost blackens its leaves. “Determinate” or “short” plants, by contrast, need little, sometimes no, staking. They grow to a pre-determined height and stop. Determinate varieties are often recommended for container gardens, and sometimes have names suggesting they are short plants, such as “patio,” “dwarf,” “pixie,” or “tumbler.” A Tiny Tim plant may grow to only 15” and need no staking, and a Celebrity may grow to 3 or 4 feet and need only a simple stake.

Tip 2: I cage. Other tomato growers stake. Still others attach the growing plants to strings hanging from a pipe or other structure. Search the Internet, and you’ll find lots of possibilities. Two reasons for staking: It keeps your plants off garden soil that probably contains pathogens that will attack the plant or the fruit, and it makes caring for the plants and picking fruit easier.

Tip 3: If you’re growing tall plants and want to use wire cages, buy the tallest available. You may have to pay an extra dollar or two, but you need the extra height. However, shorter cages will work well if you’re growing short plants.

Tip 4: I use nylon string because I’ve learned that biodegradable string, such as cotton or sisal, often will weaken and break in summertime rain and wind and let cages topple. Nylon doesn’t degrade, though the downside is that I have to put it in the trash when I cut it off the pipes in late October.

Intensive work in the Tomato Patch is about done for this season. I’ve planted, mulched, and caged our plants. I’ve expended most of the sweat and enjoyed most of the aches and pains that our patch demands for this year. In future blogs I’ll show you the “maintenance” work that I do while waiting for the plants to produce those beautiful red and yellow tomatoes later this summer.

2 Comments on “Tomato Patch: Caging While the Job Is Easy

  1. I found out the hard way that the smaller tomato cages don't work for tall tomatoes. However, they work great for Pepper plants! I also put large tin cans (top and bottoms cut out) around my plants. When I water them, it directs the water to the roots and keeps it from watering any weeds that are around. I think they are called #10 cans? When the weather gets hot, I place grass clippings or straw inside around the stems.
    I am experimenting with using a smaller cage around my zucchini plant.

  2. Experience–the great teacher! We should start a club with that as a motto. I'm glad you found a use for your smaller cages. Mine are unused.

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