At the Organic Gardening Test Garden, tomato plants grow in heavy-duty wire cages we’ve used for years. These square, vertical columns keep our tomatoes standing tall, even when wind whips through the farm. We expect to get a few more decades of use out of our tomato cages—they’re that durable.
What’s the secret of their strength and longevity? Our cages are constructed from livestock panels—rigid, 16-foot-long fence sections, made of heavy-gauge galvanized wire and sold at farm-supply stores. The panels are designed with different sizes of openings for various types of farm animals. For this project, we chose cattle panels that are 50 inches tall with openings 8 inches by 6 inches. Panels with wider-spaced wires cost less and are easier to work with, and it’s easier to pick ripe tomatoes through the larger openings.
This is a two-person project. It requires a bolt cutter (and the strength to use it). You’ll also need a plank, 2-by-6 or larger and about 6 feet long, and a 5⁄8-inch box wrench. Each 16-foot panel makes two tomato cages with a small section left over. (Use leftover panel pieces to construct compost bins or A-frame trellises, or mount a rectangle of wire grid on the garage wall and add hooks for hanging garden tools.)
One disadvantage to this style of tomato cage: They don’t collapse or nest for storage. That’s no problem for gardeners who live in deer country, where the cages can be employed in winter to protect young trees and shrubs from browsing deer.
|1. Using a bolt cutter, cut a section of panel 6 1⁄2 feet long, leaving the horizontal wire stubs along the cut edge. If you plan to use a pickup truck to transport the panels home, do this step at the store where you purchase them.|
|2. Lay the section on the ground. Measure and mark a line 18 inches from the side of the panel without wire stubs; this is where you’ll make the first bend. Place the plank so its edge aligns with the marks. With two people standing on the plank, bend the panel upward to make a 90-degree angle.|
|3. Repeat the measuring and bending twice more. After the third bend, the two panel sides will meet.|
|4. To connect the two sides, slip the ring end of the box wrench over a wire stub; bend the stub until it loops around the vertical wire of the other panel side. Repeat with the remaining wire stubs. Cut the stubs with the bolt cutter, taking care to leave no sharp points protruding.|
5. Cut off the horizontal wire at the base of the cage, leaving vertical wire ends to help stabilize the cage in the ground. If you live where the wind is exceptionally fierce, you might want to reinforce each cage with a length of rebar pounded 18 inches into the ground and tied to the cage.