Tomatoes are ramblers, that is, in nature they climb, but only very weakly. They have no tendrils and their stems don’t twine, so they lean on and mix their branches into nearby shrubs to get their lift off the ground.
Home gardeners rarely allow them to invade their shrubs, though, but instead, have learned to grow them on tall stakes. Since the stems can’t cling to their support all on their own, you have to tie them to it, then tie them again and again as the stems lengthen… and that’s a job a laidback gardener can do without. Most have come to prefer tomato cages.
The idea of a tomato cage is to put a supporting structure around the plant, setting it in place while the plant’s still young. It then grows inside the cage by leaning against its sides, which allows it to grow upward. The only “work” involved is to push any stem that tries to escape back into the cage.
Small Cages for Small Tomato Plants
The classic commercial tomato cage is made of wire and is shaped somewhat like a funnel. Typically, it measures 33 in (83 cm) high and 1 foot (30 cm) in diameter. Hundreds of thousands are sold every year… but it isn’t always very effective.
Of course, it will work perfectly with smaller tomato plants (determinate tomatoes), but it is usually too low and too frail for indeterminate tomatoes, which produce enormous plants, 5 feet (1.5 m) tall at least, many nearly twice that height. Not only will an indeterminate tomato quickly overflow its now tiny cage, but its weight often bends and twists the thin wire supports, causing it to collapse.
Another problem: since these cages can’t be folded or taken apart, how are you supposed to store them for the winter? You can try nesting one into another, but as they become twisted over time, that soon becomes difficult or even impossible.
The result is that many gardeners start their gardening experience with these cheap tomato cages only to abandon them after a few years.
A Big Cage for Big Plants
If you grow indeterminate tomatoes (and most gardeners migrate towards them over the years, as they are so much more productive than determinate ones), look for a larger tomato cage, one made with stronger supports. You’ll find different models in just about any garden center or hardware store.
Some are composed of 3 or 4 panels that you assemble to form a column and I find these particularly interesting, as they are easy to dismantle and store over the winter.
However, you can also easily make your own tomato cages. What follows is a model I’ve been using for years and that I find very convenient. It’s not only much stronger than most commercial cages, but taller as well.
A Cage of Concrete Mesh
You need concrete mesh, also called concrete reinforcing wire. It’s used to make reinforced concrete and is available in any hardware store. You can find it with either 4 or 6 inch (10 to 15 cm) openings, just the right size so you can slip your hand inside to harvest tomatoes, and in widths of 4 to 6 feet (120 to 180 cm) (6 ft/180 cm is better if you’ll be growing really tall tomato plants). Cut it with wire cutters into sheets 6 feet wide … or have the guy at the hardware store cut it for you. At home, roll each sheet into a column, bending the metal ends into hooks to hold the column together.
Now just place the cage over a tomato plant and hold it in place with tent stakes or some other kind of staking method so it remains upright … and let your tomato grow! All you have to do, as mentioned above, is to push any wayward stems back into the confines of the cage.
When Plants Overflow
By the end of the season, any good indeterminate tomato will have risen above the cage and its stems, arching under their own weight, will start dangling down, sometimes almost touching the ground, creating a fountain effect. That’s not a problem and no pruning is required: every arched stem will, by then, be bearing dozens of fruits and just harvesting them all will keep you busy enough without you having to think of pruning.
At the end of the season, just unroll the cage to form a sheet again and place each sheet one on top the other in a garage or tool shed to save storage space.
Rust and Durability
True enough, concrete mesh is not made of stainless steel and will soon rust. I suggest discovering that its new reddish-brown color is just charming rather than trying to paint to prevent it from rusting.
And how long will a homemade tomato cage last? I don’t know, but my oldest cages are nearly 20 years old now and are still going strong.
There you go: is DIY project for a rainy day that can keep you waist deep in tomatoes for years to come!