You call them “tomato cages”…

…but I call them pepper cages.  You know, those ubiquitous three-tined, three-tiered galvanized metal things you can find stacks of in any home gardener’s plot, shed, or back porch.

I’ve somehow amassed quite a collection of them (maybe 70 or 80) on the farm–some that were here when I arrived; some that I collected from my own various garden projects; some that were given to me when friends were moving away.

I have to wonder what some alien species would make of the piles and piles of those things in present-day human’s possession–like maybe they were the remains of someone’s failed attempts at a primitive antenna of some sort.

Even the bigger, four-tiered amalgamation isn’t worth a darn for any variety of tomato I grow–the plants literally heave them out of the ground, and by that time, there’s nothing you can do with the flopped-over plant and its vine-clad cage except try in vain to prop it up somehow.

So, I use them on peppers–specifically, fifty sweet pepper plants put in the ground this very morning.  The cages are much better for the less-outrageously-sized capsicum species–they help stop the wind from snapping branches laden with fruits and they keep the fruits from dangling on the ground, where rot and insect depredations occur most often.

For the tomatoes, I’m trying something different this year.  For years, I’ve been lashing the vines up to cattle panels anchored with t-posts driven into the soil (and I am still doing that with the cherry types to facilitate upright picking).  The rest of the tomatoes are going to be allowed to sprawl this year.

I’ve got some six-foot-wide landscape fabric that I”ll be laying over the top of a row of already-dug holes.  I’ll cut small holes in the fabric (big enough for a tomato plant and my hand) and stick them in, then allow the plants to sprawl out over the top of the fabric as they grow.

What I had planned on doing was to anchor the fabric with cinder blocks and lay cattle panels flat on top of them, so the vines could grow up through and sprawl on top of the panel.

However, it occurred to me that we don’t actually have enough blocks to make this possible, and this system could make picking kind of a pain (not to mention pulling the bindweed sure to find those small chinks in the fabric armor around the stems of the young tomato transplants.

So, directly on the fabric is the new plan.  I’ve grown on black plastic before, and water tends to be a problem (both after-rain puddling on the surface and watering the transplants when there’s no drip irrigation installed underneath).  Because landscape fabric is porous, that shouldn’t be an issue.

There’s also the fact that I have the landscape fabric–purchased when I was going to set up the old greenhouse frame I bought as a greenhouse instead of the newly-hatched plan of it being a high tunnel.  (If you’ll allow me to consider as newly-hatched a plan I’ve had for at least two years now–I’ve had the frame much longer!)

Still in the tomato-planting plan is the intention of sowing the aisles between the fabric-covered rows with New Zealand white clover as a cover crop, nitrogen-fixer, and (hopefully) bindweed suppressant.

So, that’s the plan I’m slowly putting into action now that the wind has died down a bit and it’s not 95 degrees out there.  We’ll get the wind back tomorrow, unfortunately, but I’m hoping to have at least one 55′ row covered with fabric and planted before then (that’s about eighteen plants) and at least one more row prepped.

Already this morning, I’ve got three each of six varieties of cherry tomatoes in (if you’ll allow me to use the term “cherry” loosely): Sungold, Red Pear, Chocolate Cherry, Cherry Roma, Blondkopfchen, and Coyote–all on the cattle panel trellis I planted to heirloom Marvel of Venice yellow pole beans last week.

As I mentioned before, the cherry types still get to be on the cattle panel because they’re a lot more of a pain to stoop and pick at ground level.

But the new sprawling method for slicers, salad types, and pastes will avoid the constant problem that lashing (usually pretty much un-pruned) plants to trellises creates–squashing the plants and restricting airflow, which can lead to disease.

I don’t mind pruning a cherry tomato so much because these types are typically so outrageously productive that trimming a few escapee branches isn’t a major dent in the overall output of the plant.  And in the height of the summer, sometimes it occurs to me that I want my cherry tomatoes to produce a little less.

Well, there you have my updates and my plans–I’ve got a load of work ahead of me, and a lovely day to do it.  I’d best get on it!


2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Joanie on May 23, 2010 at 8:51 pm

    When I was married, my husband made tomato cages out of good old fasioned woven wire. To hold them in place he cut 2x4s to a length a little taller than the wire. The wire he used was about 4 ft. tall and what he did was weave the pieces of wood, one on each side of the wire, through the holes and then using a hammer pounded out the end that stuck above the wire. These worked real well even the year that out tomatoes reached close to 7 ft. tall. They didn’t produce real well when they were that tall, but it made for an interesting picture of my husband standing there, holding the top of the tomato plants upright so we could see how tall they were.

  2. So do tomatoes grow based on the size of the cage? So if I build a cage that’s 6 feet tall, will the tomato plant grow 6 feet high?

    Robert (“Bobby”) from How To Build Greenhouse

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