Stakes vs cages

Stakes and tomato cages

Every year so far, there’ve been two or three major projects that I’m sure just HAVE to be done. They’re usually EXPENSIVE (at least, expensive in the world of tiny farm finances!), which means, they take some thought. We’ve had the seedling greenhouse, excavating the pond, the Milkhouse Extension, the tiny tractor, the first full-time field hand (Conall!), and a few other steps… So far, so good. For the coming year, I have in mind a few more…important upgrades. I was reminded of one of them in the drive shed today, where the stakes used for my semi-effective semi-sprawl method of tomato support are stored, along with some of the couple hundred (largely useless) home-style tomato cages. For a while, I was dreaming of moving up to the basket-weave method—lots of twine and…weaving—although I have a hard time picturing all of that suckering getting done. What I REALLY want is BIG CAGES made from concrete reinforcing mesh…but it seems so expensive. Rough pricing: about $7 a cage times 500 cages, plus a fair bit of labor setting them up and taking them down. I know the method works well, but will it work well HERE, this year? Is it worth the money? For the same cash, I could almost build a second, production-size greenhouse. Or put more into drip irrigation. Or build a cooler for better short-term storage. Come to think of it, does growing dozens of varieties of tomato really make sense, couldn’t I just sprawl two or three big, round red varieties that would be easiest to sell…? In fact, I could grow a lot more of a lot less, cut out many varieties and entire crops, concentrate on the trendy best sellers, and get on the waiting list for an upscale farmers’ market in the big city. Top dollar! Maybe try for a bank loan for a bigger tractor (hey, there’s more acres in the garden field!) and a refrigerated truck?! If this is a (tiny) farm business, that seems to make sense: GROW! Yet somehow I’m heading in the OTHER DIRECTION. Stopping the city CSA to go local. Trying more crops and varieties every year and figuring out ways to buy stuff for them, like big tomato cages… It seems so…contrary. Which, in tiny farming, is something I guess you gotta like!!

7 thoughts on “Stakes vs cages”

  1. I think you need to grow various varieties to maintain the diversity of your fields. Diversity is a form of crop insurance and it can also help confuse the bugs – not the tomato horn worms, though :). Diversity is important on a small farm. But I hear ya’ about those cages and all that. I use a semi-sprawl method, too. Although I have some tomato cages, the tomatoes very quickly overrun them. I often pull the dying branches at the bottom to allow the tomatoes to layer less spaciously as the season progresses. I am going to try pruning some back this year to see if it helps with tomato production.

  2. I like your site its a great site with lots of useful info. I am home/community gardner. On the tomatoes I found its easy to pound wood stakes in ground by first pounding a digging iron bar to needed depth . Works great too for bird feeders that use threaded iron bar. This year I tried supporting tomatoes by using piles of brush around the plants. It didn’t work well. The plants seemed stunted, but that may have been rye cover crop I turned under pre-planting. And some animal woodchuck or something had an easy time hiding and snacking under the brush. It took one bite out of each tomato except for the brandywines which from the top looked ok but were eaten away from the bottom. Next time I’ll try it on a few plants not the whole crop.
    Also on mulching garlic I usually don’t unless I happen to find discarded bale of straw from Halloween. And when I do mulch I wait til ground is frozen, that way to keep it froze and prevent freezing and thawing induced heaving. I would think a good snow cover would do the same if it falls after freeze up.

  3. The best we found for tomato trellising was pounding in T-posts at an angle to each other so they made an A frame; we put these down the row every 20ft. or so. We tied the posts together with bailing wire. There are plastic snaps that attach to the posts to hold a wire and we snapped one of these on the top where the posts met and one on the bottom of the posts on each side of the row. We ran wire through the snaps and covered the whole thing with plastic netting which we attached with tomato clips. See here:

  4. I’m not sure what your growing conditions are where you are, but you could try growing your stakes. There are varieties of bamboo that take the northern climes (we grow them here in pennsylvania) and then you could use these for stakes. This does take several years, but they take over like crazy and can be used for all sorts of building projects.

  5. Something I want to try at my house is to put some 8 inch drainline pipe into the soil sticking straight up so you have about a 6 foot vertical pipe…fill it with soil and plant the tomato on top(even run a drip irrigation tube up it) and voila, you’ve eliminated the need for support since it grows down the pipe. I’m thinking the hassle of doing it is outweighed by higher productivity since essentially you have soil which has been tilled six feet deep. I think this is how they grow strawberries in Israel (with extra side holes in the pipe for more plants).

  6. What a great bunch of comments in one intense blast. Sparked all kinds of different thoughts and an adrenaline rush. Mind racing, I went for a snowy walk just to chill out… :)

    Anne, your regular comments for the last few days have a cool effect. You seem to be in a fairly similar tiny farming situation to me (minus the snow), so it’s kinda like having a neighbor across the fence that you chat with about the same stuff. Like Bob’s stories about when they used horses, regularly meeting at adjoining farm fences to give the teams a break and let the farmers chat! I can start to imagine what it would be like if LOTS more people…farmed small.

    chuck monk, if I was ever gonna consider piling brush around my tomatoes, I’d remember this… That’s not a pretty picture you paint! And thanks for the reassurance about the unmulched garlic. Even unconsciously, I wouldn’t do or not do anything I thought would pose a serious veggie problem, but I am a little…wary of this year’s garlic situation. It’s always interesting going against the overwhelming popular advice. But the principles are sound. Snow is a great insulator, and we’ve got snow! Sometimes (often!), you gotta see for yourself. It’ll be fun to prove the point!!

    Sarah B, T-bars! I looked at the photo (and I am going through all the others). That looks solid and scalable to my 30 or so 50′ beds. I particularly like the healthy 20′ spacing—I’m always thinking in spacing and multiplication of work and cost! T-bar has been on my mind for various support schemes—strong and rigid, poundable, lasts forever, common and relatively cheap—but I’ve never seen this method. How do the tomatoes climb on the slanted netting, do they just grow through or do they have to be trained somehow, my indeterminates can get to 5-6′? Do you need to sucker? How labor-intensive is the clean-up, do you have to cut the vines off the netting? Do you have later in the season pictures? Just when I was thinking Big Cages are it, another possibility!

    Simon, very cold-climate bamboo really got my head spinning. Yet another fantastic thing that’s hidden in plain sight, like grain amaranth, yurts, wheel hoes, the joy of tiny farming… :). I’ve already asked a few people, and no-one so far is aware of growing bamboo as a farm utility crop around here, only as a novelty garden thing. But I looked up bamboo sites with extreme cold-weather varieties, there are several for Zone 4 US (Zone 5 Canadian system) which is what we are here, and read about harvest and curing. That’s AMAZING. If I’d known about this at the start, we’d have bamboo everywhere by now. There’s a nursery in British Columbia, so I can get plants without crazy cross-border import considerations.

    Steve: Cool! I’ve been intrigued by growing tomatoes upside down, and a while ago I read an article about a big commercial greenhouse where they grow them trailing down from 10′ or so, then when they get low, raise the vines with, like, twine and pulleys, for continued growth. Something like that. There’s so much to try with tomatoes particularly, and the 8″ pipe is the most appealing small-scale experiment I’ve heard so far (quick, easy, dramatic! :) I dunno how it would work out as a field method (cost, labor, etc), but I’m DEFINITELY gonna try a couple like that (this “definitely” I’d give about an 80% chance when the spring rush hits). I like the idea of testing techniques that could improve yield in very limited spaces as well (I get people asking me about their small home gardens). You should take some photos of your experiment!!

  7. I can’t wait to see blog posts about planting and harvesting bamboo. The stuff grows like crazy and you will find all sorts of uses for it. I think it will become the base material of choice on your farm.

    Good luck!


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