3 Simple But Sustainable Ways to Build Tomato Cages

The fact of the matter is that tomatoes are, indeed, perennial plants when in their native tropics, but that is also beside the point because some foods, perennial or not, are just too damned tasty to fully wave goodbye to. There is a time and a place to play with tomatoes in the greenhouse, see how many years they might last. But, ultimately, when spring rolls around and temperatures start to elevate, or summer’s end grows nigh and the threat of a really sparse selection of fresh produce is just around the corner, most of us just want get some seedlings in the ground and dream of juicy slices on a tomato sandwich, fresh wedges in our salads, and even jars and jars of canned tomatoes for the leaner times.

Once those seedlings are in the ground, they won’t be far off from needing something to grow up, and getting them vertical can save space in the garden, providing room for quality companion plants like garlic and basil, which conveniently pair wonderfully with tomatoes in the garden and the kitchen. Nasturtiums, another companion, can work as a ground cover, yielding salad greens and leaves, while borage, also with edible leaves and flowers, reminiscent of cucumber, can help attract bees and dig up minerals from below. Before we get ahead of ourselves, though, we need to devise just how we are going to get those tomatoes moving up and out of the way.

Lots of people simply settle for store-bought conical cages that are rather flimsy and disappointing, but I have strong faith the tomato-loving permaculturalists will undoubtedly be keen to build their own. In all likelihood, I strongly suspect most permaculture-influenced growers have already devised their methods for tomato cages, but nevertheless, it never hurts to share a little info and perhaps inspire a new, innovative idea or two. So, without further ado, here are some thoughts for tomato cage systems that I’ve picked up here and there and now and then.

A Modified Version of Paw-Paw Pete’s Method

Not long ago, my father started reading an article or two of mine on the PRI site, and something I’d written inspired him to tell me about my Paw-Paw Pete’s tomato method. I’d been doing some similar things and started to mesh his practical methods with my thoughts, and I quickly found out that we weren’t really anything all that new, which was both a good sign I was on to something good, as well as a good ego check. Nevertheless, this is an easy and sensible way to combine naturally fertilizing, staking, and companion planting with tomatoes.

YouTube: Garden Bucket Feeding Station

Drill some holes in all over an old five-gallon bucket and dig a round hole large enough for it to fit in and roughly deep enough for about a half to three quarters of the bucket to be below the earth’s surface. Then, using some leftover cage wire or chicken wire about three-feet tall, create a wire cage around the bucket. Use the excavated topsoil to create sheet-mulched garden around the bucket, high enough to cover most of the holes. Plant a few tomato plants around the bucket.

The bucket, of course, is for in-situ compost, which will feed the tomatoes plants as they grow. Adding a handful of red wigglers would probably add a little more magic to the combination. Then, for the sake of biodiversity, the area around the tomatoes could be planted with some of those companion plants mentioned earlier, and suddenly a tiny space has become a highly productive and highly fertile area that can eventually be reinvigorated by the microbe-rich organic matter inside the bucket.

An Upgrade to Granny Shirley’s “It’s Already There” Method

While Paw-Paw Pete’s method works a charm, that isn’t meant to take anything away from Granny Shirley, his wife, who was the more consistent tomato producer in my childhood. She had a small garden plot that curled in-line with the wire fence that separated their house from a work space. She used to plant her tomatoes right along the fence line so that they would grow up the ready-made trellises. With it, she used to grow a combination of peppers (another good tomato companion) and cucumbers, which I’ve never seen as a suggested pairing with tomatoes because they are both heavy feeders. Nevertheless, we had plenty of it all each year.

But, I like to reimagine her system now. I like the thought of playing with methods of hopefully enhancing what she’d mastered. I think of putting lettuces between the tomatoes as ground covers. I daydream of a mulched trench—like a mini-swale—on the outside of the row of tomatoes with more great companion plants, pest repellents (basil and garlic and chives) and dynamic accumulators (borage) outside that line. Beyond that, nasturtium—another edible pest repellent—could run wild, moving the productive area further and further out.

Video: Constructing Urban Swales with Weeping Tile and Mulch

With this method, the mulched trench would capture plenty of moisture and the organic matter would work to keep the soil stocked in nutrient. It would also provide great habitat for beneficial animals like lizards and frogs. The companion plants would fulfill services and give yields. The fence line—a definite edge—would recognize its potential as a premier spot for nutrients to collect and production to thrive.

The Using-What-I’ve Got-Rather-than-What-You-Can-Buy Approach

Mostly what I admired about both these grandparents’ approaches is that neither required a trip to the store. Paw-Paw Pete was a cattle-and-horse man who always had spare fencing wire and buckets lying around, and Granny Shirley happened to be married to a horse-and-cattle man who always happened to have an abundance of manure and a nearby fence, just steps from the kitchen window, for her to set up a growing space. Nowadays, at least for me, these elements have not always been readily available but, undoubtedly, something is.

I like to use things that rot and decompose, hopefully getting pretty far along by the end of the season, because I can then just throw them down in the bed or mulch trench to feed the soil life. Stick or bamboo cages are simple to make, and they only require a few small-diameter lengths and some natural twine, likely in any gardener’s regular arsenal. Make a pyramid with the four sturdiest sticks, roughly five feet long, putting the ends equal distant apart, say three feet, to form a square at the base, and then tie their tops together with twine. String more sticks (or twine) horizontally between all four corners every foot or so up the pyramid. Plant tomato plants at each corner and spaced every foot between, with perhaps some companions running between them, and perhaps start with a large pile of organic material inside the cage.

When all is said and done with the season, simply dismantle the cage and add it to the organic matter. Then, spread the pile, likely a bit more broken down, especially if it had some nitrogen material—fresh grass clippings, manure, spent coffee grounds, and/or kitchen scraps—buried in the middle. The soil then gets replenished and insulated over the winter and will be ready for the next go around come spring time. Maybe next time uses green beans or peas so that the soil can get an extra boost of fertility before the next tomato crop. This could be organize into a series of rotating garden beds.

Feature Header Image: Tomato Cage Workshop (Courtesy of Oregon State University)

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