It’s time someone stood up to say a few words about tomato cages. I’m thinking of the spindly kind made from painted green wire and found nested together in hardware stores and garden centres. They’re lightweight and it’s easy to grab several at once. The six I once bought are still hanging from a ceiling hook in the garage. I saw them today when I was out rattling the boxes of gardening tools to assess if I’ve got absolutely everything I might need in spring. There are stronger, heavier weight cages with larger dimensions, but I don’t have any in my stash of garden gear. The smaller cages made from thinner gauge wire seem to be what are commonly available for purchase, and it surprises me that there hasn’t been a consumer revolt. (Gardeners can be too acquiescent.)
In my experience, these flimsy cages are useless for tomatoes. A well-tended tomato is a strong, robust plant, quickly overwhelming the height and girth of a standard tomato cage. When the thin wire legs are anchored in soil, the cage stands about 27 inches (69 cm) tall and 14 inches (36 cm) wide, and most indeterminate (vining) tomato plants grow twice that tall, or more. The weight of the fruited branches drags the cage over, and what you have is an alarming heap of metal a nd tomato.
I suppose the cages would fit a compact determinate tomato cultivar, such as ‘Sunstart’ (veseys.com) with six-ounce (170-g) fruit in 65 to 70 days, or ‘Lunchbox” (stokeseeds.com) with three-ounce (85-g), egg-size fruits in 62 days on a plant reaching 36 inches (90 cm). But you’ll likely come to grief if you’re trying to grow plants like six-foot (1.8-m) yellow-orange ‘Kellog’s Breakfast’ (superseeds.com) or meaty ‘Bulls Heart’ (tomatogrowers.com) with fruit weighing up to two pounds (1 kg). See what I mean?
What I’m really concerned about is finding something else to do with my useless cages. In recent summers they’ve been handy for supporting all sorts of other plants. I stabilize the cages by weaving two or three strong bamboo canes or metal stakes down the sides and anchoring them in the soil. They work well for corralling the stems of sprawling clematis like non-climbing Clematis x ‘Durandii’, which flowers for 12 weeks in my garden. I add additional light bamboo stakes to the sides, tying each clematis stem up to stand vertical and make a blooming tower. I’ve also used the cages for clumps of tall, leaning perennials like meadow rue (Thalictrum rochebruneanum ‘Lavender Mist’) and Rudbeckia laciniata ‘Herbstsonne’, and as a brace for flopping Michaelmas daisies like Aster novae-angliae ‘Alma Potschke’ (syn A. novae-angliae ‘Andenken an Alma Potschke’), which frequently ends up with her face in the dirt. In a pinch, the cages (braced with strong canes or stakes) will even work as substitutes for peony rings.
Just because retailers tell us these flimsy cages are for tomatoes doesn’t mean it’s true. Rise up! Use your imagination!
Other posts by Judith this week:
Posts by Judith last week: