Sometime last summer, likely around the time my tomato plants were loaded with fruit and breaking branches right and left (again), I wrote a blog post lamenting about my fantasy of one day—some day, finding the ultimate way to support tomatoes. I think that day has finally come.
Considering all my years of gardening personally and professionally I was completely frustrated that I had yet to find a support that met all my criteria for being considered the “ultimate tomato support”.
You would think by now, some person or company would have produced something that was anything other than those cheap, flimsy, ubiquitous and totally useless undersized cones you find in every garden center, box store, and ultimately—garbage container in America.
But this was the year I finally took matters into my own hands. I was determined to once and for all, change my tomato-growing world forever, and hopefully yours too.
I think I’ve finally found the answer.
While I am quite sure there are many versions of my ultimate tomato cage design already in existence, I am surprised I have never seen one in person. So while my version is purely what I came up with on my own, I certainly don’t lay claim to inventing it.
As for the version I created, the idea quickly evolved as I found myself staring at one of the many livestock panels I have around the garden farm. Ironically, we don’t use any for livestock, but I use them all the time in and around the garden, from trellising cucumbers and peas, to using them as planting templates, protecting plants from hungry deer, and recently, even on my new deck for the protective railing.
Yet on the ever-evolving list of 101 uses for livestock panels, my ultimate tomato cage is the latest, and so far, greatest use.
In case you’re not familiar with such panels, you find them at farm and tractor supply stores. Each panel is 16 feet long and just over 4 feet wide. Made of sturdy galvanized wire, they come in several styles, such as a smaller 4 x 4 inch square grid pattern, to what I use most often in the garden at 6 x 6 inch squares at a cost of about 20 bucks each.
Getting them home is easy if you have access to a pickup truck. With the help of one other person, simply walk the panel from both ends, into the bed of the truck, with the center of the panel up against the cab and the ends facing towards the tailgate (like a big inverted “U” shape). It’s flexible enough to load many in one trip. I use a single ratchet strap to secure all the panels in the bed for the ride home.
Over the years, I’ve searched far and wide in hopes of finding some tomato support or cage to crown as the “ultimate”. In order to be considered as such, it has to meet all of the following requirements.
My seven non-negotiables to be the ultimate tomato support:
1. It has to be sturdy. When tomato plants get tall and laden with fruit, the only thing that will work is something beefy enough to stand up to the demands. This first criteria alone is the deal breaker for many contenders. Most retail cages and supports are just not able to carry the weight.
The Ultimate Tomato Support can take anything you give it. Considering the panels are made to contain livestock, it can certainly stand up to even the heaviest clusters of tomatoes.
2. It must be tall enough. Even if the cage is strong enough (and that’s a big if), they’re rarely tall enough for the classic type of tomatoes I like to grow. While there are varieties that reach a certain height and stop growing, “indeterminate” varieties keep growing and producing all season long.
The beauty of using long livestock panels is that you can choose how tall you want to make them and cut panels accordingly. While the width of the original panels doesn’t allow for making a tall enough cage for my needs, the magic is in the more than ample length.
3. It must be wide enough. Similarly, supports that are too narrow don’t do plants any favors by restricting their growth, or limiting airflow and sunlight—two critical issues for healthy, thriving plants.
Here, the original width of the livestock panels works perfectly for providing plenty of space.
4. It has to be rust resistant. The closest thing I’ve seen to a reasonable support is the round wire cages made from wire used for concrete reinforcement. It’s pretty sturdy but it rusts like there’s no tomorrow. That’s a deal killer for me. Plus they don’t store easily.
Conversely, the galvanized panels are made to resist rust stand up to the elements with ease.
5. It has to be attractive. Not only can it not look rusty, it needs to look attractive. Even if I wasn’t using them in a garden filmed for a TV series, I’m a stickler for neatness and order. I suppose you can tell that just by looking at my garden layout. Yes, I’m a little OCD.
The uniform grid pattern of the panels allows for great consistency for every dimension and adds a nice orderly look to any garden.
6. It needs to be efficiently storable. For everything there is a season, and since tomato season doesn’t last all year, these cages need to go away, stacked and stored in a space-efficient way until next season. Unlike round cages or even wire cones, they just don’t stack well.
The beauty of this design is that the two panels making up the cage when disassembled can be stacked neatly on top of each other. In a small amount of space (about 12 square feet), you can stack and store many panels.
7. It has to be long lasting. I probably shouldn’t admit this but I don’t currently own a single tomato cage or support that I’ve used in any previous season. That’s how much I dislike them. They’re just not worth keeping around.
These panels however, are made to stand up to the elements, and the tomato plants they support, year after year. The best part is, once they’re purchased and made, all the work is done other than retrieving them and placing them in your garden in subsequent seasons.
I now have 24 of my ultimate tomato cage in the garden. Even with that large number, they don’t look obtrusive. In fact, they add a nice element of organized structural with an architectural flair. Moreover, as the plants have grown up and out, the cages have pretty much disappeared into the plants as they’ve grown around them. I love the look and my plants are thriving. Could this finally be the year I get through the season with all my plants and tomatoes intact? I believe it is.
Here’s a link for the VIDEO and step-by-step guide to building the ultimate tomato cage yourself. Just one word of caution; these are addictive. You won’t want to stop at just one. So plan accordingly. Like me, you’ll likely wonder how you lived this long without these in your garden too. Enjoy!