I love Teton de Venus paste tomatoes -- they are heritage, they grow big, they are meaty and tasty -- and the plants are indeterminate, so they sprawl out of conventional tomato cages.
I wanted my tomatoes to grow up, not out, so I decided to build some proper tower cages for the dozen plants I wanted to grow this year.
Step 1: Materials and Tools
You will need:
- wire fencing (chicken wire is too flimsy)
- tent pegs for anchoring
- bolt cutter sufficiently strong to cut the fencing
- heavy-duty pliers for bending fence wire into hooks
I found 4-foot high goat/sheep fencing at my local TCS (The Country Store) here in Canada. It has 4 inch by 4 inch squares: big enough for my hand to go through for picking, pruning, and shaping but dense enough to provide lots of support. It was on sale for $97 CDN for a 100-foot roll. I used 4 feet for each cage. I made 12 for my tomatoes and 2 for tomatillos (another nightshade member that sprawls mightily). I'll probably use the rest for bean and pea trellises next year. TSC (Tractor Supply Company) probably has a similar fencing.
My other investment was in a mini bolt cutter with just enough oomph to cut the fence wires: on special for about $3 CDN at Canadian Tire. You'd probably be able to find something similar at Harbor Freight in the US.
I had the heavy-duty pliers and a stock of tent pegs on hand, accumulated over the years from various tents and shelters that wore out. The plastic pegs are readily available in Wal-Mart and dollar stores.
Gear for yourself: gloves !!!, and I'd recommend wearing long pants while doing this rather than shorts -- wire ends from the fencing can make bloody scratches on your legs ( I know 'cause I wore shorts that day!)
Step 2: Cut the Fence Length
This stuff does not flop flat. You can use this to make cutting the cage panels easier.
Working by myself on this, I developed the following system:
- take the "cut" edge of the roll and pull it down to left of the roll
- stand on the cut edge and push the roll away from you at least four feet
- catch the edge as it springs up as you step off it
- lift the edge up and carry over to the right of the roll to form an arch so that the twelfth row of squares (12 squares = 4 inches) is in the air above the roll
- cut the horizontal wires that form the twelfth row of squares at least 1/4" away from the vertical wire that is the right edge of the thirteenth row of squares. Cutting closer than that may cause the vertical wire to come off the horizontals.
Step 3: Trim Wires on Newly Cut Edge
You could bend every wire to hook it to the other side of the cage, but that is not necessary. Using the top and bottom wires and every third wire in between them is sufficient.
When you cut the intervening wires, be sure to leave at least 1/4 inch of trim from the vertical wire; otherwise the vertical wire could separate from the horizontal.
Step 4: Bend Hooks
With the heavy-duty pliers, grip the wire in the last third of its length and bend it down and around so that the hook faces into the curve of the cage length.
Step 5: Hook the Cage to Itself
Stand the length up. I use the red wire as the top for visibility in the garden (no doubt its purpose as well when made into a fence). Bend it with the curve to form a circle. Latch the top and bottom hooks to the inside of the squares. It doesn't matter whether you hook the middle wires in the square above or below its other end.
Step 6: Stake Down Over Plant
I placed these over plants that had been in the ground for two weeks.
To prevent the cages from tipping over from wind, pets or humans, use tent pegs to anchor them on each side. Place the peg's hook over the wire and drive into the soil.
I installed over mulch and after a couple of weeks I noticed the horizontal wires were lower than the pegs as the mulch had settled. I simply pushed them down further.
As the plants grow, encourage them to stay inside the cage by moving drooping branches to drape on higher wires. After a month, my tomatoes are reaching the top of the cage and all fruit-bearing branches are supported. I've been conscientious about removing suckers as well (the cage makes this easy to do).
Step 7: Caged Tomatoes in July
I can fit six cages in my 5 ft x 2.5 ft raised beds. All of the plants are accessible and doing well.
In fall, I'll remove the cages, unhook the circles, and "store" the curved panels by using them to weigh down leaf mulch over my raised beds through the winter. The fencing, after all, is made to be weather resistant.