Wednesday, June 29, 2011

DIY: Frugal Tomato Cages

Guest Post by the Handyman Husband

The Frugal Frau loves her garden and I still have more time than money.  We wanted to plant a lot more tomato plants than last year… hoping to get some canned! We decided to try tomatoes cages rather than the wooden stakes we used last year, as they were time intensive. Unfortunately, all the GOOD cages we’ve looked at were very expensive – over $20 EACH. Surely, we could make them ourselves for less. In the end, we made tall cages for about HALF the price of those fancy cages they sell at the Master Gardener's plant sale. Here's how we got there:

Stakes were cheap
I have to say – stakes have it over cages hands-down when it comes to cost.  The stakes I used last year were from recycled redwood fence boards.  The old fence boards ripped down to about 2” widths by 7’ lengths worked well.   (Love that old table saw… Thanks Honey!)  Many San Marzanos and Amish Pastes knew what it was to be roasted in the depths of the Slor that season, I can tell you! 

The case for cages
Stakes were not without problems though:  tomato tying is labor intensive and the stakes were a little short.  Labor intensive because we needed to go out every day or so and tie the growing tomatoes to the stakes as needed.  By the time we pulled the stakes I found maybe 15 ties on each stake.  Driven into the ground, the 7 foot stakes were about 5 and-a-half feet high.  We grew indeterminate tomatoes last year.  Something I didn’t know about indeterminate tomatoes is that they keep growing all season long.  By the time July came, we were out of stake length and we had to let the tomato vines flop out of control.  When we pulled the tomatoes in October, we found many hidden and rotted tomatoes under the mad tangle of vines.  

What’s out there now?
So, now that tomato planting season had come around again – we forged out to the local home garden centers to see what kind of tomato cages we could buy.   My opinion of what we found: fiercely expensive, too short, cheaply made, and take up to much space in storage.  “Good” cages were $10-$15 each.  “Good” I qualify as well enough constructed to stand up to a few seasons, collapsible for storage, and at least 4 feet high.  We didn’t even see any “good” cages on our shopping expedition.  Most of what we saw was $5-7 each and only 3 feet tall.  Crap basically.  Desperate as she was to get tomatoes into the ground… the Frugal Frau was (I think) tempted to buy them anyway.  We knew that the Master Gardener Plant sale would have those heavy duty folding square cages for about $25 -- with our plan to plant 15 plants, that cost was out of the question, no matter how wonderful the cages were!

I told her I could make cages for less that would be better than what we could buy.  Of course – I had no idea how I was actually going to accomplish such a thing!  It was just an out-of-body moment when swollen handyman ego seized control of my mouth.  We purchased two six-packs of on-sale tomato plants and one six packs of pepper plants to go along with the plants we started from seed, and went home.

The plan develops
Now the pressure was on.  Sad little tomatoes needed to be planted!  Their roots desperately seeking room and nutrients!  Frugal Frau giving me occasional garden dagger looks that said to my guilty conscience “Handyman… Handyman… my tomato harvest is being delayed… where are the quality frugal tomato cages you said you would make?”  I watered the trays for a couple of day… pressure building… must DO SOMETHING!  Finally handyman ego seized on the rolls of rusted concrete driveway reinforcing wire I had picked up off the street last year during our citywide spring cleanup campaign.  The wire was heavy gauge steel with a 6” square pattern of welded wires… and it had that most frugal quality: FREE!

I dragged the roll of rusted welded wire out of the side yard where it’s been for the last year.  I’m sure the neighbors were thrilled that I had found a use for it – the roll was so tall it overtopped the fence and you could even see it from the street!  Looking at it laying in the driveway, I was sure I had plenty of material to make all the cages I could imagine we would need for the garden this year!  And FREE!  Alas, I was woefully mistaken.

I wish I could say that the cage plan leapt fully formed into my mind like Athena from the brow of Zeus, but that didn’t happen.  I sort of tried a couple of ideas until I came up with one that works.
Handyman ego (working totally by himself with no actual input from me) came up with a TOTALLY IMPRACTICAL plan of 4 2-foot wide by 7-foot tall panels that hook together on the edges with hooks-and-eyes to make a 2x2 foot square tubular cage that could be collapsed into flat panels after the season was over.  Excited, he set to work cutting out panels from the material on hand.  Handyman ego stopped Frugal Frau as she was passing by to explain his wonderful plan.  Frugal Frau was not impressed (besides – we didn’t have enough material for these anyway).  We decided instead that the cages should be 6 feet tall and 1 foot square.  Fortunately, all the panels I had cut could be bent 90 degrees and turned into 2 sides of the 1 foot square cage.  A nice addition: I trimmed out wire crosspieces on one end of the tube giving about 12 inches of wire to poke down into the ground… now the cages should stand 6 feet tall – with 12 inches of wire stuck down into the ground.  

A prototype emerges!
I did make one complete cage of with “hooks and eyes” on the edges of the panel – but this turned out to pretty much unworkable.  It was just impossible to get all the hooks to engage all the eyes at once to lock the panels together.  I had to get 2 sets of hooks/eyes to lock simultaneously to get the two panels to fit together into a square tube.   Maybe I could make this work if the wire I was working with wasn’t all bent and rusted or was flat to begin with and I was some kind of machine that could consistently bend each wire accurate to a fraction of an inch – but I am neither.  My loops were all different sizes and the hooks were bent in different places and had different lengths.  It was just not humanly possible to link the panels this way.   I decided instead to make panels with loops at each edge so that a rod, wire, or stick could be pushed through the loops to “lock” the halves of the cage together. I re-bent the hooks on the panels I had made into loops – thus saving my material.

I wish I had some bamboo growing in my garden to use as rods to link the panels together; but I don’t.  Sigh.  That is probably the most frugal solution to linking the panels together.  I could have ripped some sticks down on my tablesaw as an alternative, but the sticks would have to be pretty small (I’m thinking about ¾” square.  Most of the wood I have has knots that would be weak in this application (a 6 to 8 foot long stick).  So, I went down to Home Depot and bought some 3/8”rebar (10 foot sticks) which I then cut into 8 foot lengths with my bolt cutters.  I bought the 10 foot lengths because they fit in my truck – but they weren’t the most cost effective lengths (10 foot for $3.46).  Turns out, I should have taken my bolt cutters with me and purchased the rebar in 20’ lengths and cut it to 8 foot lengths in the parking lot (20 foot for $4.27 or $2.23 for each 8 foot length I needed).  (My bolt cutters rule!)  Rebar is never wasted around my house – seems like I always have some little concrete project going eventually – so even the extra material isn’t wasted – it’s just waiting for a project.

Rebar probably isn’t the best solution for a rod anyway.  As you push it through the loops – the ridges tend to hang up and bind on the wires.  That’s why I was saying I wish I had some bamboo.  I do have to say though that rebar does a neat job (once it’s through the loops!) and it’s easy to drive into the ground and stabilizes the cage nicely.  Note: don’t try to put the panels together on the tomato bed.  Just lay them down sort of open-face initially and push one rod through all the eyes – linking two panels together.  Fold the panels together using the inserted rod as a hinge.  Then line up the other loops, and drive a second rebar through to complete the tubular cage.

As an alternative, I also tried linking the panels together by just zip-tieing them at the edges with rebar stabilizing rods driven in at 2 corners.  This works well – but it does leave little wire points exposed at 2 corners of the cage to catch clothing and scratch you.  It is more frugal with panel material though.

Build a Tomato Cage: Step-by-Step 

  • 6x6 remesh wire (rolls are the most cost efficient way to purchase the material, or find some for free!)
  • rods (rebar or bamboo, minimum length is the height of your finished cage)

Tools you will need
bolt cutters, vise grip or pliers, plus something to drive cages into the ground when the cages are ready to go intot he .

Step 1. Cut panels to size. Mine were 2 feet wide plus 3 inches on each side to form the "loops" used to connect the panels. Also, you can remove cross wires to provide longer "anchor" wires that go into the ground
Step 2. Form the loops you'll use to connect the halves of each cage together.
Step 3. Bend the panels in half. It helps to use a board (any scrap 2x4 will do!)

Step 4. While the parts are STILL NOT INSTALLED, lay out the first half of the cage. Lay the second half on the first, as they would be installed in your garden, lining up the loops at the edges. Push your connecting rod (rebar, bamboo is suggested) through the matching loops to connect them together one side at a time. This is what the connected loops should look like.

Step 5. Position your cage over your garden bed. Use a mallet (or a scrap of 2x4!) to gently persuade the "feet" of the cage into the ground. I'd suggest having your plants in the ground already.. it will be challenging to plant them afterwards!

Cages installed!

The result!
I didn’t have enough free wire panel material to meet all the Frugal Frau’s tomato needs, so I had to go buy some more.  I went to Home Depot and Lowes to see if I could find more material.  I couldn’t find an exact match to the rusted material in size, but I did find 5 foot high rolls of stock fencing material with a 6 inch grid that was stocked in 50 foot and 150 foot rolls which was pretty close.  I didn’t want to commit to 150 feet so I purchased the 50 foot roll – I think it was about $50.  For the tall square cages, this enough material to make 3 and a half cages of the loop edged panels plus 3 and a half cages of the zip tie variety.

Material Cost For 1 Foot Square by 6 Foot Tall Tomato Cages:
$7.14 – Wire Panels
$4.46 – 3/8” rebar (plus I have 4 feet of left over rebar)
$11.16 per cage.

At the end of the season, these cages can be taken apart and the sections nested for storage.
I had some of the wire mesh material left over after making the 1 foot square cages.  I used this material to make 5 foot tall 1 foot circular tomato cages at a cost of $3.57 each… but that is another blog post.

Do you prefer cages to staking? Have you made your own tomato cages? I’m sure next year we’ll be reviewing how these turned out…  so far so good. Thanks my love, I'm looking forward to lots of wonderful tomatoes!  -Judi

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