Build the Best Tomato Cages Ever!

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Introduction: Build the Best Tomato Cages Ever!

About: 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 talented wife and fat...

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

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

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

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

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?

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    51 Comments

    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...

    3 replies

    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?)

    Based on decades of woodwork, working around cedar mills and handyman work, you are right - treated fir trumps cedar every time, for ground contact.

    For reference:

    1) Cedar will not take treatment as well as fir; and,

    2) Wood used above ground dries and shrinks, which causes cracking and splitting. For treating such woods, the best treatment is non-hardening oils. Unlike surface coats, they move with the wood, as it expands and contract with moisture. Too, it will not allow moisture in, then hold it in.

    To make the best use of oil, thin it, so it will penetrate the wood. Then apply it regularly. If the wood soaks it up, keep adding.

    Oil does not evaporate, though it may appear to. Instead, it wicks deeper and deep into the wood.

    When the oil saturates the wood, it swells it, just like water does. This will close small cracks and splits, and stop new ones from appearing, due to additional drying.

    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.

    So, why on earth do hardware stores sell those tiny tomato cages? They are worthless anywhere real tomato plants grow.

    Cages like this could be marketed because they could be sold in packages of four panels each. They protect the plant from wind and the holes are large enough you can reach through them to pluck fruit.

    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!

    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.

    2 replies

    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.

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

    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.

    2 replies

    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!

    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.

    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.

    7 replies

    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.

    Concrete will most definitely rust.

    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!

    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

    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.

    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*

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