Introduction: Build the Best Tomato Cages Ever!

Picture of Build the Best Tomato Cages Ever!

Every year my wife and I plant a variety of tomatoes - and every year we encounter the same problem: finding or making cages big enough and strong enough to contain and support the monsters we tend to grow. Having been unable to find a satisfactory cage, this year I set out to discover a really good solution to the problem. An internet search produced a webpage entitled "The Ultimate Tomato Cage in 5 Simple Steps" which is the work of Mr. Joe Lamp'l, producer and host of the PBS television series "Growing a Greener World". Mr. Lamp'l's design is, I think, the best solution I've come across...but in the process of replicating his work I wound up making a few crucial modifications that, in my humble opinion, make the ultimate tomato cage even...ummm...ultimater.

The cages are made from cattle panels that are constructed of heavy gauge galvanized wire. This makes them both very sturdy and rustproof so that they will retain their shape and silver-gray color for many, many seasons to come. They are 18 inches square and stand 56 inches tall - enough to tame even the most "indeterminate" tomato beast. When the growing season is over, each cage can be disassembled, nested and stored flat against the side or in the corner of your shed to await the next growing season.

The single biggest drawback to these cages is the initial cost. Cattle panels run about 20 bucks apiece and Mr. Lamp'l's design produced one cage per panel. But the cost is eventually offset by the fact that you can use the cages over and over again for many years to come. The major modification I made was to find a way to to construct the cages of the same material, with the same dimensions and same stability - but to save nearly 1/3 the cost - and for people such as my wife and myself who live on a very limited and fixed income this makes a tremendous difference. Mr. Lamp'l's design produces one cage per panel; mine produces one and a half cages per panel - thus the 1/3 reduction in cost.

MATERIALS YOU WILL NEED

Cattle panels: They come in 4 feet wide by 16 feet long panels. Just ask for them at any farm supply store - they will know what you're talking about. Since each panel will make 1 1/2 tomato cages, you'd need four panels to make six cages.

You'll need a pair of bolt cutters or really heavy duty wire cutters to cut the cattle panels to size. Take them with you when you go to buy the panels because, unless you have a nice, long trailer, you'll have to cut the panels to size at the store where you buy them in order to fit them into a truck or van to get them home. (If you don't have bolt cutters they just might have a pair you can use at the yard - call and ask ahead of time).

One eight foot long 2" x 8" pressure treated board for each cage to make the raised bed.

Eight 3" zinc plated screws per cage

Four 1 1/2" screw eyes per cage

Six 6" zip ties and four 8" zip ties per cage

A large hammer or (better) a 2 pound sledge

A drill

A level

Work gloves

Step 1: Make the Raised Beds

Picture of Make the Raised Beds

NOTE: This step is not absolutely necessary as you can install these cages without raised beds, but raised beds will produce healthier plants and make your garden easier to maintain. More notes on this later.

A. Cut each 2 x 8 board into four 23 1/2 inch pieces.

NOTE: MY tomato garden is a small, fairly square area so I elected to make an individual raised bed for each tomato plant. If you have a longer garden area you could save some lumber by making longer raised beds and placing multiple cages in each row. If you elect to do this, you'll only need two 23 1/2" boards for each row, but you'll also need two boards as long as the row you want to make. See Figure 1.

B. Drill pilot holes and assemble each raised bed with two 3" long screws at each corner as shown in Figure 2.

C. Place a screw eye in each corner - about one inch down from the top and one inch in from the corner as shown in Figure 3.

D. Level the area for your raised bed, put the frame in place and fill with dirt.

Step 2: Cut the Cattle Panels

Picture of Cut the Cattle Panels

As I mentioned earlier, unless you have a flatbed trailer you'll need to take your bolt cutters to your farm supply store and cut your panels on site in order to get them home. This design assumes a standard cattle panel as sold in the U.S. These panels are 16 feet long and 4 feet wide. The wire forms rectangles that are each 6" wide by 8" tall. The last row of rectangles has an additional wire which cuts the last row into two rows of 3" by 8" rectangles as you can see in Figure 4.

If you need to cut the panels where you buy them, PLEASE print out Figures 5, 6 and 7 and take them with you to the farm supply store. Cutting in the wrong place would be a very expensive mistake - once you make the first cut, that panel is YOURS. P.S. Wear gloves!

A. Use the bolt cutters to cut the panel so that you have a panel 3 feet wide by 16 feet long as shown in Figure 5. You won't need the smaller piece, but I cut it into two 8 foot long sections so that I could get it home in my van. Never know what use I may find for it.

B. Cut the remaining panel into three equal sections. This will leave you with three 64" sections - one will consist of six full rows and eight full columns of rectangles while the other two will consist of six full rows and seven full columns with seven 8" tines extending from one end as shown in Figure 6.

C. Cut the last wire off the end of the odd panel so that it is the same as the other two, as in Figure 7.

D. Load it all into your truck/van/whatever and schlep it all home.

Step 3: Bend the Panels

Picture of Bend the Panels

Each panel will form one half of a tomato cage, so each has to be bent to 90 degrees down the middle of the 36 inch width.

A. Wear gloves. On a flat surface such as a driveway or sidewalk lay a panel flat. Use a fairly heavy board (I had a 4 x 4 laying around) laid at the edge of the center wire. You're bending to form two sides of the tomato cage - each 18 inches wide and 64 inches tall. Put your weight on the board and bend the wire toward you by hand, working back and forth to get the side most of the way toward the 90 degree angle you need. See Figure 8.

B. Using a two pound sledge (preferable), a heavy hammer or the flat end of a hatchet or axe, pound each wire near the base to a final 90 degrees as in Figure 9. Do this on one side, turn the panel so that the side you just pounded is on the ground rather than in the air and pound the other side until you wind up with a nice, straight angle. See Figure 10. Keep going until you have every panel bent to 90 degrees. Straighten out by hand any bows in the panel or any bent tines.

Step 4: Plant Your Tomatoes and Assemble the Cages

Picture of Plant Your Tomatoes and Assemble the Cages

OPTIONAL: I drove a section of rebar into the center of each of my raised beds to tie the main stalks of my tomatoes to as they grow.

A. Plant your tomatoes in the center of each raised bed.

B. Push two bent panels into each bed to form a square around each tomato plant. Push them in far enough so that the first horizontal wire above the tines is even with the dirt in the bed.

C. Secure the corners of the two panels to each other with the smaller zip ties at the top, near the middle and near the bottom (Figure 11). You'll use six of the smaller zip ties for each cage.

D. At each bottom corner, run a larger zip tie through the screw eye and around the bottom of each of the corner wires just above the bottom horizontal wire as in Figure 12.

NOTE: If you didn't make raised beds you should drive a stake near each corner of each bed and secure the bottom corners to the stakes with zip ties or hog rings. This will give you the same stability you would have with the raised bed design.

That's it! At the end of the growing season, cut all the zip ties and pull the panels out of the ground. They can easily be stored in your shed or garage by stacking them along the edge of a wall or standing them in a corner, taking minimal space. Next spring, all you'll need will be a bunch of new zip ties to reassemble your cages and start all over again.

Thanks for taking the time to look my Instructable over - I hope it will be helpful to you and will help you grow fantastic tomatoes for many years to come!

Peace,

Radical Geezer

P.S. I published this Instructable in the middle of June 2017. The final picture (Figure 13) shows my tomato garden on July 19 - and I am thoroughly pleased! As you can see, the plants are about a foot above the tops of the cages now and both plants and cages are rock solid. I have never, ever before had such an incredible group of tomato plants. All I've done has been to water on occasion and about every week or so tuck a few branches back in when they've grow out the sides of the cages. Haven't harvested anything yet but there are plenty of tomatoes growing in every cage; beefsteak, cherry and a few heirloom varieties. Why didn't I think of this years ago?

Step 5:

Comments

RustyRoller (author)2017-08-26

Thanks so much for this plan ... I've got some hefty bolt cutters, and now I have a great project on which to use them! I also like that by having such heavy-duty cages, there is good support for protective netting, which I need to put in place. This year, for fall harvesting in Florida, I'm planting just two versions of cherry tomatoes, but they can go wild when happy, so I'm definitely going to use your idea to help corral them. I also appreciate that your design can be stored flat. Thanks again!

CPUDOCTHE1. (author)2017-06-16

I am another fan of 6x6 concrete reinforcement wire. It is cheaper, easier to cut and bend (and bend can be bad, you have to straighten them out sometimes). We made some hog pens out of hog panels. An angle grinder is much easier. You can find angle grinders on sale for $10. Bolt cutters are going to cost you $30 for a decent pair, but the angle grinder is not as portable unless you have a generator.

I have a shorter, fairly cheap pair of bolt cutters that did the job even if they required a bit more effort. Had thought of using my angle grinder but wasn't sure they'd have an outlet in the yard where I bought the panels. I still may take the angle grinder to them as it would smooth out the wire ends nicely.

jimdkc (author)Radical Geezer2017-07-09

Yep. A set of 14" bolt cutters will run about $15 at your local big-box hardware store.

PaulC504 (author)2017-06-20

I had to use a different smaller opening wire due to birds enjoying the bright red tomato's before I got the chance to pick them.

jimdkc (author)PaulC5042017-07-09

I had a bird problem, too. I solved it by tying long strips of reflective mylar (previously I used strips cut from an old insulated shopping bag, this year I purchased mylar "space blankets" on eBay) to the tops of each cage. They move with the slightest breeze and reflect the sunlight. The birds steer clear!

Radical Geezer (author)PaulC5042017-06-21

I've never had a problem with birds but I've read accounts from several people who have hung red Christmas tree ornaments on their tomatoes prior to the fruit ripening. When the birds discover they're not edible they don't bother the actual fruit when it ripens. Don't know for sure that it works but it might be worth a try.

leslielimpid (author)2017-06-15

You could also use 10 Ga. 6/6 WWM concrete reinforcing, which comes in 5' x 50' rolls. No transportation problems either. You can get 8 -18" sq. or 10 -19" dia. cages from 1 roll. Round is easier just cut 60" from the roll and tie the ends together.

Thanks for the alternative ideas. I have no experience with concrete reinforcing wire; whether it is as heavy gauge and rustproof as cattle panel wires. If it is I see no reason why it wouldn't work just as well.

TJF11 (author)Radical Geezer2017-06-21

Concrete will most definitely rust.

jimdkc (author)Radical Geezer2017-06-15

Those are some nice cages! I got tired of flimsy commercial tomato cages a few years ago and bought a 150 foot roll of 6x6x10x10 concrete reinforcing remesh. (6x6x10x10 = 6 inch x 6 inch opening, 10 squares or 5 feet high, and 10 gauge wire). I cut off 6 foot lengths and zip-tied the edges together to make cylinders (roughly 2 feet in diameter). They are NOT rustproof... but it will take YEARS for them to rust through! I staked them to the ground this year with 3 foot lengths of rebar driven 2 feet into the soil, 3 per cage (previous years I used 2 foot wooden stakes driven 1 foot deep... but I did have 1 cage fall over!) And I still have most of the roll of remesh in my garage! I've also made 2.5 foot extensions to attach to the top of the cage when the plants get really tall. One of my plants last year grew to over 9 feet tall in its 7.5 foot cage!

JohnC430 (author)jimdkc2017-06-18

where do you live for the plants to grow so well?

I live just north of Los Angeles. very peasant winters but hot and dry in the summer months. i have tried growing tomatoes but i get nothing. in all the years i got one tomato about an inch in diameter. absurd but true. i don't know what i am doing wrong, and i have seen people with those huge plants

jimdkc (author)JohnC4302017-06-18

I live just east of Kansas City, Missouri. I have lived in Southern California, too, and the best tomatoes we ever grew there was with the aid of chicken manure, applied a few weeks before planting. This year, put a handful of worm castings and a little epsom salts in each hole where I planted my tomatoes. All my plants (except 1!) look really good this year, so far.

Radical Geezer (author)JohnC4302017-06-18

We lived in the San Diego area for the first ten years of the century and absolutely loved it, but I could go on at great lengths about trying to grow (a) tomatoes and (b) corn in a home garden there. First let me say that if the only tomatoes or corn you've ever eaten has been from southern California then you have absolutely no idea what tomatoes and corn taste like. We tried tomatoes there and had some small success - but nothing like what we are able to grow here. First of all, I think the soil there is not conducive to success, so we never tried growing corn because it takes lots of space. The small success we had with tomatoes came from purchasing decent top soil and being very diligent about watering. I think those are the two important factors (soil quality and sufficient water), and we still could never grow tomatoes that compared to what we get in the Midwest (northern Illinois). When we first arrived in San Diego, the "sweet corn" we got there - store bought or home raised - tasted like the field corn we grow here - that is, terrible. Tomatoes had very little taste at all. I have to say that by the time we left in 2011 the quality of the taste of corn seemed to have improved a bit (I think because it was shipped in from Colorado) but the tomatoes were still bland. Of the very few things we missed from the Midwest tomatoes and corn were at the top of the list. If you're going to try again I'd suggest container gardening on the patio with some garden store topsoil combined with planting mix and watered faithfully. Good luck! BTW, we now wish we could grow passion flower and passion fruit here as wonderfully as we could out there - but you can't even get passion fruit that will overwinter here. *sigh*

JohnC430 (author)leslielimpid2017-06-18

I like this idea. easier to build. just roll it and tie the ends. thanks.

Radical Geezer (author)JohnC4302017-06-18

I've done round cages in the past. They are certainly easier to build. But one of the primary advantages here is the fact that when the season is over, these can be quickly disassembled and stored flat, taking very little storage space.

AlyssonR2 (author)2017-06-20

Nice cages - have to keep those tomato plants from escaping somehow!

For anyone with a rabbit problem (as we have), a simple addition of galvanised chicken wire (poultry netting) around the bottom of the cage will suffice.

Radical Geezer (author)AlyssonR22017-06-20

Thanks! We don't have a rabbit problem but one of our dogs loves the cherry tomatoes and will sneak around to the side of the house and grab as many as he can before we notice he's gone. Maybe some chicken wire will curb his enthusiasm.

mistersurefire (author)2017-06-19

Very well made and informative instructions.

Thank you very much!

GeneSmith (author)2017-06-16

Wait...shouldn't that have been "ultomater?"

Radical Geezer (author)GeneSmith2017-06-16

You may not believe this, Gene, but I actually thought of that...and then I thought again...<|8^O

GeneSmith (author)Radical Geezer2017-06-17

Oh, I totally believe it! Great Instructable, too.

jessyratfink (author)2017-06-16

These are great!! I live in the Rockies in Colorado, and we had lots of issues last year with regular tomato cages not being able to handle the wind. These look like they'd fair much better :D

Thank you, Jessy! They already seem to be a thousnd percent better than anything you can buy commercially.

jlsmoothash2o (author)2017-06-16

Don't USE - - - Eight 3" zinc plated screws per cage - - -

You are using pressur treated wood in a wet environment those zinc screws will rust.

-

Make sure you are using stainless steel, galvanized, or a coated screw(like deckmates) to screw your boards together. They will last longer and be stronger for years.

-

Also make sure your eye screws are stainless steel too. If not they will rust too.

-

Also stainless steel is less reactive with chemical i.e. Fertilizer, bug spray then zinc plated screws. The last thing you want is to introduce some strange mettle or chemical into your food you will be eating because the screw is corroding away into your soil.

You are absolutely correct that stainless steel fittings would fare much better and last much longer, but...
A couple of years ago I replaced the entire front porch floor on our 100+ year old Victorian, removing the plywood someone had slapped over the ancient tongue and groove planks and returning it to its appropriate T&G glory. Had I known about Instructables at the time I would have done a step-by-step and published it - and would have gone to great lengths to explain why stainless steel hardware was an absolute necessity to ensure a long-lasting, sturdy finished product. But here we're talking about assembling four chunks of wood for a raised tomato bed - and doing it economically. I specify zinc plated screws because they will offer a modicum of weather resistance and in the hope of dissuading others from simply nailing them together with uncoated nails. Stainless steel screws are great, but their cost is ridiculous! Being one for whom cost is a significant factor, I am sensitive to that aspect of a project. And as far as what may or may not be leeching into my soil - I have no idea where or how 95 percent of my produce is grown or what nasty stuff is in the soil where it's grown. Whatever may be there has not killed me in nearly seventy years so far and there's no way I'm going to start worrying about it now.

No disrespect intended - stainless steel hardware is outstanding...if you can afford it. Untreated wood that is naturally rot resistant is great. These are suggestions that are worth everyone's consideration, but because of a lifetime of cost being a significant consideration, I tend to aim a bit more toward practicality than toward the ideal.

LarryD32 (author)2017-06-16

Even easier is concrete reinforcement wire. 5 feet high in rolls. Sure they are rusty but last for many years. We use them for 5 foot cages up to 7 foot cages. Also they have 6" squares for easy access to plants.

PRR5406 (author)2017-06-15

This is a simple solution, yet so easy it's brilliant! Thank you!

Radical Geezer (author)PRR54062017-06-15

Thanks so much. Brilliant? You make me blush! Most of the praise belongs to Joe Lamp'l - I just tweaked his design a bit.

Many, many years ago my husband made tomato cages out of CRW (concrete reinforcing wire). They lasted many years - 20 to 30 until they got too short b/c the bottoms would rust out. I eventually bought heavy duty tomato cages one fall several years back. They are so much easier to work with and store well by sliding them inside each other. Mine were from the heavier crw and I can't imagine how you could collapse them unless you made them in 2 sections like Radical Geezer. I plant my tomatoes using a 3" bulb auger on an electric drill. That way I can make a deep enuf hole to plant my tomatoes straight down with only the tops sticking out. In a dry summer they will get the deep moisture with less watering. I also put a coffee can around my plants 'screwing' it about an inch into the soil. That way, when I water, I fill the can twice and it waters only the tomato and not the surrounding soil. Best wishes guys.

SuperDuty59 (author)2017-06-15

My son and I made 22 cages out of CRW (concrete reinforcing wire). I bought a 150' roll for $60 and have plenty left after building 22 cages. The holes are 6x6" we made triangle cages. they are about 24" on each side and 5 feet tall. Mine are made to fold flat when not needed. I never do though. I also use 6 foot T-posts to drive into the ground and zip tie the cages to the T-post. Very, very sturdy and easy to get to the tomatoes.

22 cages!?! That's just downright scary - unless you have a contract with Heinz! I'll be looking forward to your Instructable ;-)

clazman (author)2017-06-15

Nice, my 40 year old idea is being resurrected!

I used hog panels and hog rings for joining to allow for the units to be collapsible.

Don't see any benefit to having the wood frames, nor do I see any benefit to anchor the cages to the woods framework. Winds of the Midwest would topple this system with ease. I simply drove stakes deep into the soil for anchors.

Still, nice job.

Radical Geezer (author)clazman2017-06-15

Glad you like my Instructable. I have to honestly say that - with over 50 years of living in the midwest under my belt - if a storm strong enough to rip these out of the ground comes along my tomato cages are definitely going to be the least of my worries! Seriously, each cage has fourteen eight inch tines in the ground and four pretty sturdy zip ties anchoring each corner to the raised bed. I fell pretty confident that should do it.

jimknorr8020 (author)clazman2017-06-15

Cedar board are pricey but will last for 10 years +. I have tried painted pine boards which will last for 4-5 years. Low VOC paint should be used and the sawed ends and screw holes should be carefully touched up. Untreated pine will last about 2 years. I would not use green treated boards but the SDS sheet should be reviewed. The vendors don't say much about this type of use.

To grow super tomatoes one needs to plant a 10" plant sideways with 4" sticking out of the ground. Fertilize and water heavily all season. Limit the growing stems to 12 max. Your yield should be 30-50 pounds per plant. Your tomato cage may still be too short.

Nice job on the cage.

Thanks! I read somewhre else this year about burying 2/3 to 3/4 of the plant when starting your garden but have never tried it. Think I'll have to give it a shot next year.

hoobieschott (author)clazman2017-06-15

There are several clear benefits to the wood frames, the two most obvious being that one can control the soil in at least that top layer, and that one can mulch without the mulch spreading around. People with poor soil and those without the means or motivation to till and amend an entire garden space can benefit especially from mini-raised beds.

hoobieschott (author)2017-06-15

Nice project!

One thing to note - if you have a truck, even a small one, you can take whole panels home with you. They are really flexible and can be bent in a big arch and fit into the truck bed like a galvanized rainbow. The guys and gals in the yard at the store should be able to help with this. Bring a few tie downs and you're ready to go.

I make similar cages, but don't make a full cage out of the cattle panels, just one half / one 90 degree corner, and drive a couple small fence posts in to support them. I like this because it's plenty sturdy, there are plenty of places to tie the tomatoes up, and it's open so it's easy for the plants to spread out and for me to get in and prune and harvest.

Thanks for your instructable!

Using just one panel bent at 90 degrees is an interesting idea and would certainly do wonders in reducing the cost.

tallbob (author)2017-06-15

Nice cages, but I'd strongly recommend going for cedar instead of pressure treated wood. It'll be more expensive, but you won't have to worry about chemicals leaching into the soil and being picked up by the plants - and cedar, properly treated, will last longer than the pressure treated wood you can get today, too...

Radical Geezer (author)tallbob2017-06-15

Yes, I imagine cedar would last at least as long as pressure treated wood...but for us, cost is always a significant concern. Thanks for your suggestion.

hoobieschott (author)tallbob2017-06-15

Would you care to expand on your notion of "properly treated"
cedar? It has not been my experience that today's cedar - more likely
to be younger trees and boards therefore from the edge, rather than the
more stable center of the tree - holds up all that well to ground
contact.

In my experience today's pressure treated
lasts much better than cedar and is being made with far less nasty
chemicals. Some folks may still be concerned. But what is it you treat
your cedar with? Treatments can contain unwanted chemistry, too. (Or do you mean 'treated' as in well taken care of?)

pizzapizza (author)2017-06-15

Great project, I will use this method!!

However be careful about using pressure treated for raised beds as they contain some nasty chemicals which may leach into the soil. And the chemicals will attack fasteners extremely quickly and aggressively, even zinc plated ones, and they will just get eaten away by the compound in the wood.

If u can afford it use cedar boards instead. White oak and locust are also rot resistant naturally but cost even more.

If it's being used for something that going into my food I'd pay the extra and be safe.

Thanks! You could certainly use alternatives for your raised beds - I think there's almost always a way to make any Instructable just a wee bit better.

halciber (author)2017-06-15

This is excellent, and I love the simplicity of the construction. Thank you for sharing this with us.

Radical Geezer (author)halciber2017-06-15

Thank you for your kind words!

rachl009 (author)2017-06-15

Yes! Store bought tomato cages can be so wimpy!

Radical Geezer (author)rachl0092017-06-15

You're absolutely right - and they ain't cheap!

About This Instructable

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Bio: Vietnam era veteran (USAF), former air traffic controller, former entrepreneur, former clergy, former chauffeur. Currently retired and busier than ever. Devoted husband to an extremely ... More »
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