Thursday, June 18, 2015

Heavy Duty DIY Tomato Cages

Like many gardeners, I used to struggle with how to support my tomatoes.

My cherry tomatoes, Roma/paste, and heirloom/eating tomatoes got so large and heavy that they quickly wound up dragging on the ground and entangled in a huge mess.

I used store-bought tomato cages, but quickly found that these small wire tomato cages are useless. The large "sturdy" ones are a little bit better but they still eventually collapse under the weight of all the delicious fruit by mid summer.

My solution to this common gardening dilemma? Homemade tomato cages, using concrete reinforcing mesh (the stuff they use to lay on the ground to pour concrete over). At my local hardware store I bought a roll of 5' x 50' 10 gauge concrete re-mesh, some baling wire, and a medium-sized pair of bolt cutters to snip it with.

Construction actually went faster than I anticipated and I got two completed in about 45 minutes. Subsequent ones went much faster.
To assemble the cages, cut a 3 to 4 foot by 5 foot section of the mesh using some manner of wire cutters or bolt cutters.

Roll the section up and secure the conjoined edges with a piece of wire. Then trim the circular portion of the bottom of one end so that you have a bunch of pointy ends and the ability to shove the cage into the ground.

After several years of using these DIY Heavy Duty Tomato Cages and with that experience under my belt, I thought it would be useful to perform a final cost benefit analysis to determine if it was worth it to go through the trouble of making these DIY Heavy Duty Tomato Cages.

So was it worth it to build these myself versus buying them? My initial impulse reaction is yes since there just aren't commercially available tomato cages that are this big and this sturdy. But how much did each tomato cage cost? Well I purchased the following materials:

  • 5' x 50' Reinforcing Mesh, 10 Gauge - $29.99
  • Bolt Cutter (to cut wire mesh) - $19.99
  • Spool of Wire for securing cages - $3.49

The total cost of all the material was $53.47 and I got 12 tomato cages out of the 50 foot roll, for a cost of $4.46/tomato cage. There was enough material left over to make another cage, but instead I used it to make a couple of slender trellises for climbing clematis vines elsewhere in the garden.
Theoretically, my per unit cost could have been ($53.47/13) $4.11/tomato cage.

The big question is, would I have paid more than $4.46 to buy tomato cages from a store? This is an unequivocal Yes. I'm fed up with the flimsy tomato cages that you buy for a couple of dollars, and probably would have spent $8 to $12 for the "Sturdy" or “Heavy Duty” tomato cages you can buy online.

It's not the best cost benefit analysis if I don't know exactly what I would have spent, but suffice to say it would be significantly more than $4.46.
And although the Reinforcing mesh was used up, I still have almost the whole spool of wire and the bolt cutter for future use on other projects. The bolt cutter isn’t much use except for cutting heavy gauge metal, but I have used it for other things over the last two years.

So, even though I'm including those costs, I still have the benefit of use of the bolt cutters, which would reduce future tomato cages I make. Here are some final pros and cons as well:

  • These cages are sturdy as heck and can actually fully support the large plants filled with heavy tomatoes.
  • The cages are five feet tall, stick six inches in the ground and aren't going anywhere.
  • It wouldn't be surprised if these last 15 or 20 years.
  • They're very easy to use and the six-inch grid spacing makes tomato harvesting easy.
  • They’re both cheaper and sturdier than anything I could buy commercially.
  • It was a great rainy day project to make them. When it was too cold or rainy to work in the garden, I could hole up in the garage and make tomato cages.
  • They're bulky to store. Right now I have space in a second garage, but I may end up storing some outside in a few years when we convert the second garage to a greenhouse.
  • You’ll get covered with rust when you make them. Wear old clothes and (ahem!) make sure you're up to date with your tetanus shot.
  • The concrete reinforcing mesh is a bit unruly to work with. Since it's in a roll, it wants to stay in a roll, and tries to roll itself back up. You need to have your wits about you, it's pretty easy to get some nasty scratches and gouges (thus the tetanus shot).
The original posts about making and using these tomato cages over the years is on the Deaf Dogs and Benevolent Gnomes blog.

You can read the First Post, the Second Post, and the Third Post in chronological order.

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