Gardening Articles: Edibles :: Vegetables

Supporting Tomatoes with Cages

by National Gardening Association Editors

One of the simplest ways to support plants is with cages -- tall cylinders of wire mesh. Cages have more advantages than just being easy to use.

Advantages of Caging:

You'll spend less time removing suckers, pruning branches or training the plants up the cage. Most of the time you leave the plant alone.

* The plants grow naturally and support themselves as they get big and the branches start resting on the mesh.

* Caged tomato plants develop enough foliage to provide plenty of shade for ripening the fruit. The shade protects tomatoes from sunscald.

* The shaded soil underneath the plant retains more moisture. Even moisture in the soil reduces blossom end rot and cracking problems. That's especially important for midwestern and southern gardeners with brilliant sunshine and hot, dry weather.

Disadvantages of Caging:

* Cages cost money.

* Cages require more space than stakes.

* By late summer, indeterminate tomatoes in small cages will tend to fall over from the weight of the fruit.

How to Cage

Garden centers sell tomato cages, but you can easily make your own. They should be strong, at least five feet tall (to handle most varieties), with holes big enough to get your hand in to bring out nice, big tomatoes! Otherwise, it looks a little odd heading out to pick tomatoes with a pair of wire cutters!

Sturdy galvanized wire mesh is a good choice for making cages that you can use for years. The cages can be from 12 to 30 inches in diameter; use the larger cages for vigorous, indeterminate-type plants. You need about three feet of mesh for every foot of diameter. Fasten the cages on two sides to short stakes driven into the ground to prevent them from toppling over.

Short, one- to two-foot-high fencing can be used to hold up smaller, determinate varieties such as Santiam and Siberia. (Use smaller-diameter cages for these varieties, too.) Though it's not necessary to support these varieties, you'll probably get more rot-free tomatoes by using short cages.

Extra Mileage from Cages

Here's an easy way to give your caged tomato transplants a boost early in the season. (You can adapt the following suggestions to plants you're growing unstaked or with other kinds of supports.)

When you put the tomato plants in the ground, set the cages over them immediately and secure the cages with small stakes or push them firmly into the ground if you can.

Then make a tight circle of one-foot-high black felt roofing paper (or dark plastic) around the outside of each cage at ground level. Staple the overlapping ends of the paper together. The black paper will gather heat for the tomato plants -- they appreciate it early in the season -- and it will also protect the plants from bruising winds.

If you don't use cages, rig up a support system for the black paper using stakes or cut coat hangers that keeps the paper standing straight around the plants 8 to 10 inches away from them.

It's pretty easy to find inexpensive roofing paper. Most lumber and building stores have it.

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