Jiggering our plans for the tomato section was first priority on our list this year. We learned a lot from the towering plants that we had last year and wanted to make sure that they were well supported.
By the end of last season most of our tomato plants had become so large and heavy that they bent the heavy duty tomato cages (store-bought) right over. A few of them were almost bent in half by the time we took the plants out of the ground at first frost. The plants themselves were almost 6′ by the end of the season. We knew that we would need to build something more sturdy and much taller this year in the anticipation that our plants would be as gargantuan as they had been last year.
Over the winter we looked at all sorts of options for bracing and eventually decided to go with a nice wooden structure. The cage needed to be tall but sturdy and we didn’t necessarily want it to flare out at the top like the tomato cages do. Our wood structures were going to be made using 1 x 2 as they would be easy to work with and wouldn’t break the bank. We figured they should be strong enough to hold up our plants.
As soon as the snow thawed we got to work. We wanted to build twelve of the cages and double the amount of tomato plants we had this year. We knew we were going to do a variety of types including big beef, starfire, cherry tomatos and tomatillos.
We went to one of our local hardware stores and bought 4 budles of 1×2 in 8′ lengths. Each bundle was around $20 and would make 3 cages, about $80 for the full 12 cages, which works out to just under $7 per cage. We bought our heavy duty wire tomato cages for around $5 and they only lasted 1 season. These would last years, so it was worth it.
Once we got home, we decided to do a tester first. Similar to what we did with the gabione cages, we wanted to try one out and make sure it was actually what we wanted before we cut all the wood up.
We decided 1′ square cages would be wide enough to support the stem of the tomato plants. If we were finding that the branches got to heavy with fruit, then we could add additional braces onto the main cage to help support. So we started by cutting 2′ off the bottom of each 8′ length. We then cut the 2′ pieces in half, making 1′ brace pieces. As we were getting 8 pieces per cage, we were able to make 2 bracing sections per a cage, resulting in 4 lengths of the 1x2x8 per cage.
Once we had cut all the pieces to size, we measured where we wanted the braces. Our intention was to dig the cages 2′ into the ground to make them as sturdy as possible. We ended up putting one brace at 3.5′ and the other at 5′. We started by assembling the two sides of each cage, and then tied them together using the rest of the braces. It took us about an hour and a half to cut, measure and assemble all the cages.
Now for those of you who know the show “Fawlty Towers” you know the relationship between Basil and his wife. I’m not going to lie, I felt like we were in an episode of Fawlty Towers while building these cages. Poor K, I kept laughing at the way he was drilling the screws and incessently gave suggestions, not quite in the same condescending way that Sybil would have criticized Basil, but in the same constant way. I am happy that he is so laid back and eventually switched positions so that he could then laugh at me making the same mistakes, not quite in the same smug way that Basil would have but rather in a fun laid back way. And of course Ellie acted like Manuel, constantly getting in the way and messing up our nicely laid out pieces just waiting to be drilled. In fact, I am pretty sure she thought the smaller pieces were her new chew toys and was quite disgruntled to be told no.
Next came the really fun part…JK! We had to dig the holes in the slope to place the cages into. We also wanted to fill part of the holes with a nice top soil for the tomatoes. So down into the yard we went with our shovels and started. We once again decided to do one to test out what depth we wanted…or could actually achieve. The first one went in perfectly, although by the time we put the soil back into the hole we realized it wasn’t quite 2′ into the ground. We wanted to leave a bit of a lip around the cage to help collect the water and ensure we weren’t losing it down the slope.
After our first one, we decided to call it a day and get back at it the next day. That one had gone in easily enough, we figured we could get the rest tomorrow. Well that wasn’t how it went. After day 2 we managed to get 3 more cages into the ground. The junipers reared their ugly heads as we started digging in more of their cages. It turned out that there was still quite the intricate network of roots running throughout the slope. And they weren’t little roots, most were around 1-2″ in diameter and needed to be cut out before proceeding with the digging. It was time consuming digging a few shovels full and then stopping to use our hands to dig around the root so that we could cut them out.
We did eventually get all the cages in after a final push to just get it done. Our tomatoes were already outgrowing their pots in the house and we didn’t want to transplant them again before their final transplant into the ground. A few of the cages definitely did not get even close to 2′ in the ground as a few of the holes were too overrun with roots. In fact, after digging in a few areas, we had to move some of our holes as we couldn’t get more than 6″ down before hitting a major root ball.
The final result looked quite comical with 12 cages standing tall on the slope. They will look better once the tomatoes were growing, but until then it looked like some weird art installation.
Next step was to bring in some nice top soil and transplant the tomatoes into their permanent homes. We had more than 12 plants total so we chose the heartiest of the plants and put them were we thought they would do best. The ones that didn’t make the cut unfortunately went into the compost.
Next step was to run irrigation to each plant. Last year we tied into the upper garden’s underground system, but this year we had some new plans. To find out more it will be in our next post so you will have to come back.