My love/hate relationship with tomato cages

Well I love tomato cages. I hate how they are pretty much on the list of items guaranteed to be garbage quality. This is our collective fault; as a society we go for the cheapest possible price, which turns items like these a rush to the bottom; nobody builds a $10 cage because everybody buys the substandard $5 cage. Still, a bit of sweat equity can make them work.

Here is my problem: strong winds on a regular basis. Bushes with canes suffer from sagging before they get a chance to lignify.

You don’t want to see my gooseberry bush…

But back to tomato cages. Of course about a third of the ones at the big box store already had broken joints. Probably another third were waiting to get at least one snapped before they even went into the ground. I start with the largest available one which usually has thicker wire; I can always cut it down to size.

While watching TV I wrap the joints with 12~14 gauge solid copper wire I strip from regular Romex electrical wire:

The bottom joints only get the wire wrap. On the top joints I take the extra step of a dab of solder. If the joint in the lower ones separate the wire is more than enough for structural integrity, the top could pop out so it gets that extra bit of loving.

Cutting it down to size with the angle grinder. Of course the joints you want to break will be the ones that will fight you…

The final product. This red Rovada currant can grow inside and outside of the cage, but if need be I can tie up the branch to the cage while it hardens enough to stand on its own. Better yet now the cage is built to last forever; it may take quite a bit of effort (most done while watching TV) but to me it is worth it.

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That size and shape may be perfect for protecting young ribes but for indeterminate tomatoes and even vigorous pepper plants they are far too small. I used 5’ tall rings of about 10’ circumference galvanized fencing I purchase at Home Depot (for lack of a convenient Lowe’s). Then I cut holes strategically to allow my hands to harvest tomatoes. For peppers 3 to 4’ tall rings of about 7’ circumference work well. 6’ would be better for tomatoes but I have lots of old rings of 5’ hanging around that I use for establishing fruit trees. I augment them with taller stakes and get support for plants and deer protection.

For your purposes I would expect a single stake and string would work well enough, but I see the advantage of the rigid wire loops provided by the tomato cages. Much better for currants than any decent size tomato plant. .

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I picked up some green painted higher quality cages from tractor supply this year that are far more substantial seeming than the cages you have here Don (pre-retrofit of course). They only appear to have a darker green colored one in stock right now that is probably not as good. Mine were a lime green and made in USA.

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For Tomato cages I use Texas tomato cages: http://www.tomatocage.com
They are not cheap, but work for many years and hold plants very well.
For gooseberry, I decided to fan espalier it. It is much more convenient to pick and branches stay where they should.

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For many years I used the store bought tomato cages (looked just like the ones in your pic) and yes, they are not much… will last a few years, they were never really tall enough for the varieties I grew… mine would grow out the top and the hang over the side and grow all the way down to the ground again by fall.

I supported them with a tomato steak or two, u-post, or t-post, zip tied the steak or post to the cage to make sure it stayed upright… it worked OK.

My Dad passed away in 2004 and he had 5 nice large home made concrete wire cages, which I inherited being the only of his 4 offspring… that gardened…

A few years later I decided to make some of my own, but did not want to purchase a whole roll of concrete wire… so I just bought a couple of 16’ x 50" cattel panels (local TSC Store). I made 6 really nice extra strong tomato cages out of cattle pannell… now these were nice, tall and very stout.
best tomato cages I have ever seen.

But a couple years ago I realized that growing my big beef and brandywine or rutgers tomatoes in cages, and letting all that foliage grow (so many suckers)… was making my leaf blight issue crank up big time… when there is so much foliage that air flow is impossible, it just gets much worse.

So year before last I tried something new that worked out very well…
And repeated that this year…

Below shows my 5 big beef tomatoes not long after planting this year, right after I put my cattle panel trellis in place.

I think that piece of cattle panel is 50" tall, and I cut it 10-11 ft long… and I have 5 big beef tomatoes planted along that row. the panel is held in place with 3 Tpost (6’6") and the bottom is raised up 18" or so, so the plants have to grow up some to reach the bottom of the panel.

I simply put some bamboo steaks in place to help them make that first run up to the panel and trained them to single stem until they got to the panel…

This pic I took last week, Once they reached that panel I started training them to 2 stems, and I let them go all the way up and over the top of that panel with 2 stems. They are loaded with fruit, and have plenty of leaves, but are much more open to air flow, and my leaf blight issue is (yes still there) but much more under control… I simply remove a few infected leaves… but for the most part the leaf blight is showing up, down below my ripening fruit. Does not hurt a all to remove foliage below your ripening fruit.

I do like to keep some leaves over my ripening fruit, to help protect from sun scald.

Anyway, who needs cages… well if you are planting tomatoes in rows, this method works very well and all you need is a panel, simple, easy, works great.

TNHunter

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Like @galinas - I invested in Texas Tomato cages years ago. They are pricey - but last a long long time, store flat, and support huge tomato growth. I started staking them with metal posts a couple of years ago, after a big storm came through and tore my tomatoes up. We have bamboo growing on our property and I add tall uprights to the cages so that the tomatoes can be supported as they continue to grow above the cage heights.

I constantly pinch back the suckers - and end up with a ‘modified string-staked’ version within each cage. (Much like @TNHunter) If not - the growth gets too dense and invites disease and worms, etc. I used to cable tie them together at the tops - but found that the plants needed more room between them.

I used to have the rusty concrete wire cages - but they always felt ‘nasty’ and were difficult to store. I was always cutting/scratching myself on the raw ends - and I found that I just didn’t like using them.

The tomato in the photo is a ‘Supersonic’, which I am growing for the first time. It’s a tasty tomato . . . but I believe I still prefer Better Boy.

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I like hearing about storing flat, since why I hate them is because of the too many times I’ve tripped over them.

I don’t see the ROI in buying a cheap tomato cage, then having to constantly dink around with it to make it work. I have 48" high, square, heavy duty cages. They are on their second year of use with no bends, broken welds, or visible signs of wear. I don’t see any reason they won’t last 20 years. They fold to store. Less than $50 for a set of 3. I’m pretty sure they were these ones: 48 inch Parks Wire Tomato Pen - Pack of 3 | Park Seed

I inherited 6 of those used 20 years ago. They are very rusty and nearing their end.

We use 6’ or 6.5’ 1.25lb T posts…
3 plants between posts, the plants 2 to 2.5 ft apart, so the posts are about 7 ft apart.
Stretch string and tie to each post, on one side, then the other…
About once every 7 to 10 days so you need a string after so much growth and it ends up being about every 6" or 8" so.
We use tomato string they sell it at commercial stores in bulk rolls for vegi farmers, or bailing twine would be similar.
It’s the only way to go if you want 100+ plants…
As you can see I have fallen behind on pulling twine… :slight_smile:
Our rows are about 4 to 4.5 ft apart so they do take over… 5 to 5.5 ft between rows would be more ideal… :slight_smile:



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Here in Alaska it is what I have available to work with. Think of it as me buying the materials to build it, which just happens to be packaged in the end shape I need :smiley:

My modified cages from five years ago are still going strong. This is compared to the brand new ones that just while reinforcing them kept snapping off the darn weld spots. Once that’s done they last forever.

Also the main thing is to buy the extra large ones; the smaller ones come with thin worthless wire.

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The small cages are for pepper plants miss labeled for tomatoes. Thank god I don’t like tomatoes anyway. Problem solved

I made some tomato cages out of cattle panel several years ago. I think I used a conduit bender to shape them. I use a t-post to hold them up. Very robust, durable and easy to reach tomatoes.

Not using them this year because I’m trying the square foot gardening method. 16 tomato plants in a 4’ x 4’ raised bed. So far, so good but I don’t think it will be as easy as advertised to reuse the box and growing medium year after year.

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I had a few pieces of old, military grade cement remesh panels, what you call cattle panels. The thickness, galvanize treatment, and welded joints are above and beyond just about anything you can buy today. The builder for my garage saw my little stash, you could see at once how he could both appreciate the quality and be sad that you could not find it anymore. I ended up using mine for building the gates on my fencing.

I like taking the time reinforcing the ones from the store because of how well they stack. For perennials that’s not much of an issue as they are meant to stay in place for years if not decades, but when they come out I just stack them under the porch to wait for their next duty assignment. I was running low on them so I did four more; it cost me about $20 bucks and two episodes of the current show I’m watching with my daughter.

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i love cattle panels. i have 2 grapes growing on 8’ ones wire tied to 3 5’ heavy t posts. my father used to tie his tomatoes on them as well.

I agree; you have to do what works for your specific situation.

I do too @steveb4 … love those cattle panels. Grew some half runner green beans on a panel last year … worked great.

I have a loganberry that I propagated from a tip rooting this spring and planted over in the edge of my back yard… it is starting to take off now… growing nicely… I am going to give it a nice chunk of panel to grow on.

TNHunter

my pole beans are growing on a 8’ panel i attached vertically to the back of my raised bed. works great.

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Next year I need to build a few cattle/remesh panels for grapes. Basically I need to build them like a billboard that is installed in a 60-degree angle, which can then be dropped to the ground the canes can be buried in the snow.

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Commercially available tomato cages are too spindly and far too short to be useful for anything but the smallest determinates.