Saturday, May 25, 2013

In Pursuit of the Perfect Tomato - PVC Tomato Cages with Sex Appeal

If you stopped by for the PVC tomato cages, I think you'll like what you see - regardless, I'd love your ideas in the comments. If you came for the sex appeal, hold up before you click that 'next blog' link. You might find an idea for impressing the object of your affection. Nothing's sexier than a ripe, juicy tomato slice sitting on fresh buffalo mozzarella with slivers of basil, all drizzled with a red wine vinaigrette. Your mouth's watering already, isn't it? Yeah baby. Stop me now.

See what I mean?

I grew up hating tomatoes, but once I tasted a tomato my father-in-law had grown, I was hooked. He's in England. I'm in Texas. There's no popping round to raid the tomato plants. I was forced to grow my own.

Alas, it's not as easy as sticking a plant in the ground, watering, fertilizing, and waiting until that beautiful fruit magically appears. In Texas, our tomato plants grow tall and lanky. Eventually, they want to flop to the ground and sprawl, giving insects and disease a glorious feast.

I've tried tying the plants to bamboo stakes and rigging fence wire between two T-posts and stringing the plants to these for support. Can't make it work. I started to buy wire cages this year, but they look so insubstantial. Checked out the Texas Tomato Cages and they look awesome, but dang they're expensive. So, PVC it is. Also, I wanted something easy to store. Some sites recommend gluing the cages together. I've left mine unglued so I can take them apart and store the individual pieces in buckets or bags. I'll figure that out when I take them down and let you know what I decide.

To give credit where it's due, I got the idea for these cages from Tom Matkey, who provides directions here. They're devastatingly simple to build and it's easy to change the design to meet your needs. If I can do this, anyone can. But I'm a step-by-step and 'show me' kind of gal, so you'll get lots of instructions and plenty of photos.

My cages are 70-inches high (5-feet, 10-inches), in sections of 28-inches, 28-inches, and 24-inches, and they're about 20-inches square. They stand about 60-inches (5-feet) above ground because I plant the lower 'legs' of the cages about 10-inches in the ground for stability. I used Schedule 40, UV resistant pipe. It's gray and came from an electrical wholesaler.

For each cage, you'll need:

For the uprights (legs):

4 lengths of 3/4-inch 10-foot PVC pipe (for the record, it's not really ten feet long - I learned that the hard way, as usual)
A portion of a 5th 3/4-inch 10-foot PVC pipe to make extra horizontal supports (see below for what you'll get out of each 10-foot length) 




For the horizontal supports (arms): 

24 8-inch lengths of 3/4-inch PVC pipe (you'll get these from off-cuts from the 4 lengths of 10-foot PVC pipe, plus extras from a 5th piece of pipe)



To hold it all together:

3/4-inch PVC tees - 4 pieces
3/4-inch PVC crosses - 8 pieces
3/4-inch PVC elbows - 12 pieces



One piece of 10-foot pipe will give you:

28-inch upright - 2 pieces
24-inch upright - 1 piece
8-inch horizontal support - 4 pieces (if the 10-foot pieces were really 10-feet long, you'd get five horizontal supports. It turns out that you get 4 supports, plus one that's about 7 1/2-inch long depending on the width of the blade you used - I used the shorter cuts to make a tighter tomato cage for determinate plants)


I made ten cages in one go, and used 43 10-foot lengths of PVC pipe, 120 elbows, 80 crosses, and 40 tees. Total cost was about $30 per cage. You might be able to reduce this cost by reusing old materials or ordering supplies in bulk online.



Tools:
  • Tape measure and pen, pencil, or Sharpie.
  • PVC pipe cutting tool - I used a miter saw, but a chop saw, table saw, hack saw, or PVC saw will do.
  • A length of metal pipe marked at 10-inches from the bottom - I used this to hollow holes in the ground for my uprights, rather than banging the bottom upright into the ground with a hammer, but the hammer method will work. Just bang gently. As tough as it is, PVC pipe isn't indestructible. Another lesson hard learned. (If you don't have metal pipe, anything that's roughly the diameter of the PVC pipe will do. Failing that, try loosening the soil before you pound your PVC pipe in.)
  • Lump hammer for knocking the metal pipe in the ground.
  • Level - to ensure the cages are, well, level.
  • I wear gloves because some of the wood chips we use for mulch were exposed to poison ivy at some point. Yep, you guessed it. I learned this the hard way, too. I also wear eye protection because plastic sawdust flying through the air targets my eyes in high percentages.

We'll make one cage together and you can decide whether you want more. Exercise caution and use good safety practices if you're operating power tools or handling sharp objects. Tomato eating is easier with all your parts attached. And here we go:

  1. Measure and mark 4 10-foot lengths of PVC pipe at the height of your first upright. Mine was at 28-inches. 
  2. Make those cuts.
  3. Measure and mark the shorter lengths of 10-foot pipe at the height of your second upright. Mine was at 28-inches.
  4. Make those cuts.
  5. Measure and mark the even shorter lengths of 10-foot pipe at the height of your third upright. Mine was at 24-inches.
  6. Then measure and mark the very short lengths of 10-foot pipe at 8-inches. Make those cuts and repeat until you end up with a short piece remaining. It'll be around 7 1/2-inches. From the four pieces of very short 10-foot long PVC pipe, you should end up with 16 8-inch pieces.
  7. Measure, mark, and cut a 5th piece of 10-foot PVC pipe until you have an additional 8 pieces of 8-inch pipe. This will give you a total of 24 8-inch pieces to use for your horizontal supports.

Load your freshly cut PVC uprights and horizontals into a wheelbarrow, along with 12 elbows, 8 crosses, and 4 tees and head out to the garden.

1.  Put one horizontal section together (4 elbows, 4 crosses, and 8 8-inch PVC pieces).


2.  Lay it on the ground where you plan to 'plant' your tomato cage, and use the crosses to mark the spot where the uprights will go. (If you're smarter than me, you'll start this process before you plant the tomatoes.)












3.  Use the lump hammer and the metal pipe to knock four holes in the ground for the uprights. (We marked the pipe at 10-inches from the bottom with a piece of tape or a Sharpie, remember? Stop banging when the tape or Sharpie mark hits the soil.)













4.  Put the bottom section of the cage together (four uprights attached to one horizontal section), and drop the 'legs' in the holes. Tamp earth around them to hold them firm.

5.  Use the level to ensure the horizontal section is level. Gently bang any 'legs' into the ground with the lump hammer, if needed.



6.  Stick four more uprights in the crosses, and top them off with another horizontal section. Add the last four uprights, and top them off with a final horizontal section, using tees instead of crosses.



You're done! See? Ridiculously easy. You can now plant your tomato plant in the middle of your tomato cage, or if you're getting a late start like I did, wait for the already planted tomato plant to grow!

Is this the perfect tomato cage? Time will tell. What are your experiences with tomato cages? Have you tried the PVC route? How did it go?

**UPDATE: The tomato cages survived the season with sex appeal intact! for a full report, check out this post.**