Garden Prototype: The quest to build a stronger, attractive and more practical tomato (or dahlia) cage

I've never been a big fan of the traditional wire tomato cages. Most are too flimsy, or too short, and will fall over when a tomato plant is loaded with the fruit of the vine. (In fact, I have a leaning tower of tomatoes in one part of my garden right now.) The circular cages have always created a storage challenge for me, too. I've never used the collapsible square cages - which in some case do have height extensions - but they still look like...well, tomato cages.

In my own garden, tomatoes and other vegetables are mixed in with the perennials, annuals and shrubs to take the greatest advantage of the sun in the front and back of the house. The usual tomato cage is not always the most attractive garden element. In the past, I've also used tomato cages in flower beds to help support dahlias that grow to five or six feet tall. I decided to play around with an idea for a better - and more attractive - cage for the tomatoes and dahlias. I was hoping for something that might convey the appearance of garden art, in addition to serving a practical purpose.

I sketched out my rough idea (above) for a prototype of a possible functional and artistic tomato cage. My idea was to make individual panels (below left) made of rebar that could be used in groups of three or four pieces to support plants. By reversing the manner in which panels were put into the ground, the supporting cross-bars would be at different levels on which vines could rest. A simple copper ring, cut from plumbing pipe, would hold the panels together at the top and provide added support to the structure (below right).

Materials needed for each panel of my prototype:

• 2 pieces of 3/8" rebar cut to 48" long

• 3 pieces of 3/8" rebar cut to 18" long

• Pieces of 1" copper plumbing pipe cut to 2" lengths

• Welding equipment - or friend/relative who welds

I handed my prototype doodle off to my partner Ed and, with rebar purchased for a few dollars, he and his father fabricated four of my cage panels as designed. With a hacksaw I cut four 2-inch copper pieces from plumbing pipe leftovers we had around the house. My initial tomato cage was easily installed in my garden (below left).

A couple months later, with the tomato plant growing well around and on the cage, I have a better idea of how I might refine my original design. The welds need to be a bit stronger, as a couple have come loose under the weight of the vines. I would most likely expand the height of the cages by using five or six foot pieces of rebar; rather than the 4-foot lengths used. I do really like the rusty patina that has developed on the rebar with exposure to the elements and sprinklers. It gives the cage more of a garden art appearance. To finalize my design, in the future, I would probably replace the copper pipe collars I used with copper caps using lamp finials or drawer/cabinet pulls (as I did with my previous garden hose guard project).

One of the reasons I designed the tomato cage as I did, was to make removal and winter storage easy. Individual panels can easily be stacked in a garden shed or garage. However, I may just leave the cage in place after the plant has died away to give the garden some visual interest during the off-season.

Note: You might also want to check out my flower pot umbrella stand and copper pipe garden trellis projects.

© 2010 Jeff Fisher LogoMotives

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