Tomatoes in Bondage

A.V. Walters

There’s a debate, heated sometimes, about whether tomatoes should be allowed to sprawl or whether they should be restrained in cages. This is a true measure of the farmer-gardener divide. Obviously, tomatoes grown in the field couldn’t be effectively caged. (It would interfere with all that mechanized equipment.) Here, on our farm, there’s no question. Elmer likes a tidy garden. When I came, I decided to solve that with a few cages, and now he’s a convert. (Well, an armchair convert, since it’s us doing the work.)

The garden stores offer a wide, and wild, variety of vegetable restraints. I’ve tried most of them. Any such restraint system must be analyzed in terms of ease of use, strength, durability (season to season), visual impact (yes, it matters), accessibility (if you can’t get your hand in, nothing’s coming out) and cost. Since it’s an investment, the repeat gardener wants something that will give years of use. Back in the city, over the years I tried those wooden stacking cages, standard wire cages, lattice fencing, and these lovely, but expensive, aluminum spiral stakes. Part of the consideration is just how many tomatoes do you have? With just a couple of pampered urban vines you can afford the high end stylish systems. These days, though, with thirty-three bucketed tomatoes, we have to go with industrial strength cages

We made the investment last year. We’d been monkeying around with “tomato-cage-lite” for a couple of years and they kept collapsing under the weight of the plants. So last year, we bit the bullet and bought thirty, heavy-duty, welded-wire, 54 inch cages. (That’s the gardener part of me.) They were on sale, and since I was buying so many of them, I negotiated an even better price. There was no way I’d have paid the original sticker price of over nine bucks a cage. (That’s the farmer part of me.)

Our cages are the envy of the farm. I’m not sure why, because it’s a community garden—so everyone enjoys the tomatoes. But both years that we’ve had them, they’ve elicited comments of admiration and envy. I don’t think it’s a come on—Hey honey, them’s fine restraints you got there—this is real equipment admiration, with just a touch of covetousness. They just are nice sturdy industrial strength cages and everyone who sees them, notices.

I suppose you could put in the cages when the tomatoes were just little sprites. But, that would be too easy. It’s not just that, though, in the early garden, when you’re digging in, there’s so much to do to catch the early season. You do what’s needed so you can get it all done. Then, when there’s a breather between establishing the garden and the onset of weeds, you can worry about the extras, cages, structures for pole beans and cucumbers, etc. Some years I’ve been caught short, wrestling undisciplined, sprawling, teenage tomatoes into cages. It can take up to three people to do it if you wait too long. This year was just right. I needed to sterilize the cages in bleach-water after last year’s blight, so that caused a little delay, but otherwise the timing was perfect. For the most part, the tomato plants were less than a foot tall, so the cages slid over them easily

The installation of the cages brought out the neighbors. It’s a sign; the garden is in. (Hopefully it’s also a sign that there’s no room for any more tomatoes.) We all stood out in the early evening rays, enjoying beers and garden talk. One of the neighbors nodded at how good they look and added, “You know, I’ve got a bunch of beans started…” She doesn’t know if they’re bush beans or pole beans. More buckets to dig in….beans, fit to be tied.

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