Wednesday, July 25, 2012

DIY: The Lazy, Procrastinating Gardener's Tomato Cage

Let me be blunt. I am a lazy, lazy gardener. I spent all of June watching my tomato plant get bigger and bigger, bloom madly, start sporting the tiniest of green tomatoes, which turned into larger tomatoes, and are currently weighing down the plant to the point of cracking the stem. And all of June, I was telling myself that I'd better buy a tomato cage now, otherwise I wouldn't be able to get it around the whole plant when I really needed to. Well, it's the end of July, and there is no tomato cage on the market that would comfortably and easily support my ginormous tomato plant.

Eleven of....I stopped counting.
This left me this morning in the uncomfortable position of needing to build a tomato cage that was 1) fairly cheap, 2) flexible, 3) modifiable (to accommodate new growth), and 4) dead simple to put together. Well. Two out of four ain't bad.

I'm writing this up because a few minutes of googling didn't turn up anything similar to this, and I figure there must be a couple more procrastinating newbie gardeners out there who might like to follow along. 

The Lazy Gardener's Tomato Cage

Note: this guide is just to show you what I did and maybe give you some ideas. You should assume in general that if you modify any particular step to suit your needs, the world will not end. 

What to do:

0. Put on sunscreen if you're going to be outside. You always wear sunscreen, right?

1. Gather your supplies. Here's what I used:

From top to bottom and left to right, that is:

  • (4) .75"x.75"x6' gardening stakes
  • (1) tomato plant, badly in need of staking
  • (1) hand saw (optional)
  • (1) claw hammer
  • (1) 550-ft ball of sisal twine (you won't use nearly 550 feet - maybe 1/3 of that if you're generous)
  • appx. (60) 1.5" wood nails
  • (4) 2"x0.5"x24" gardening stakes
  • Not shown: pocket knife or scissors to cut the twine
Of all of these, you really only need to be particular on the hammer, in that without it, you will fail really badly at this project. The other items are up for customization - three foot tall stakes? Fine. One inch nails? Also good. Cucumber plant instead of tomato? Golden. Just for reference, here are the brands of nails and twine that I used:

2. This step is optional - if you don't care whether your top struts have pointed ends, you can go on to number 3. If you are slightly worried about having pointy garden stakes around eye height, by all means - read on. (Also a disclaimer: be careful with that saw. Use proper sawing technique and wear eye protection. If you hurt yourself, it'll be because you were being stupid like me. Don't be stupid like me.)

Now you should just saw off the pointy ends of your shorter garden stakes. It doesn't really matter how much you lop off - I took just over an inch off the ends. 

If you do cut off the ends of your stakes, please don't do it like I did. Get a vise or something. 

This is not smart.

Some tips on sawing:

  • To start a cut, draw the blade of the saw very lightly several times over where you want the cut to be. The idea is to start a groove in the wood so that the saw blade naturally comes to rest there. 

About like this.
  • When you're sawing, don't press the blade of the saw down into the wood. To cut more quickly, you actually want to lessen the pressure and saw quicker.
  • Make sure all your motions are exactly parallel to your cut. It's easy to bend the blade and jam it, which can damage your saw and seriously slow down your cutting. 
So saw lightly and quickly, and soon you should have nicely squared off garden stakes:

Taking a minute to note that grain. Awesome. 
You can use your first sawed-off stake to mark the others, so they're all the same length, but that's not entirely necessary. Approximate measurements are fine here.

Not really 100% necessary.

3. Once you've done all four stakes, it's time to move on to the legs of the cage. What we're doing here is just studding one side of each leg with nails so that we have something to catch the twine on later. Add more nails than you think you need here - it's going to be very difficult to add more once the cage is standing. 

Take one of your cage legs and pick a spot at the top (the non-pointy end) to put your first nail. Find a hard, flat, level surface (or if you're me, a bumpy, inclined lawn) and hammer it in until you can just see the tip on the opposite side. 

It's a good idea to hammer the point back from the other side so it's flush with the stake. You don't want unexpected nails anywhere, ever.

Now hammer in 9 (or more or less, your choice) more nails down the length of the stake. I used the nail box as a spacer, but you can just eyeball it, if you want.

When you're done, you should have something that would be an excellent weapon in the zombie apocalypse.

Be careful with this.
As of the current moment, there is no zombie apocalypse, so you can hammer the nails over so they're bent parallel to the longest dimension of the stake, heads pointing upwards:

Makeshift hooks or a first-grade woodshop project gone wrong.
Now do the same for your other three long stakes. It's a lot of hammering, but fairly easy, low-pressure hammering.

4. There's a tiny bit of hammering left, but it's pretty painless. I hammered three nails partway into each shorter stake to serve as hooks on the top of the cage. I don't have a great picture of this, but you can sort of get the idea:

Of course, do this for all of your shorter stakes.

5. I had very ambitious plans to nail this whole thing together, but it turns out that without a proper vise setup, it's very difficult to nail one thin, low quality piece of wood to another, thinner, low quality piece of wood, especially when you're holding the entire setup in one hand and a hammer in the other hand, standing on the stairs so that you can reach the top of the stake. Bad idea.

I ended up lashing all of the pieces together with twine, which has the disadvantage of taking quite  a bit of time, but the benefit of looking pleasantly rustic when finished.

I'm sure there's a better way to do this, but here's how I went about it:

Hammer a nail in about 1/2 inch from the edge of one of your top stakes and bend it over like the others. That makes a nice place to anchor your twine. Cross your short strut with a long one so that about one inch of each is overlapping.

You should have a very lopsided X - the bottom legs of the X are ridiculously long, and the top ones are ridiculously short. Take your twine that's anchored at the nail, and wrap it in a figure eight around the short legs. Give it maybe 8-10 turns. I went a bit crazy with the twine and it took forever - you don't have to.

Now wrap the twine in a figure eight around the longer legs of the X. Once you have those two sets of wrapping in place, you can wrap anywhere you like. I don't have pictures of what else I did, but do what makes sense to you to limit the flexibility of the joint. You can wrap horizontally around the point where they cross, vertically, weave around the intersection, etc. Presumably the sailors in the audience can point out some better ways to do this.

Attach two long struts to each of two short struts, so that in the end you have two pi-shaped frames.
Pi, not pie.
6. This step is probably the trickiest, and of course the one I don't have any pictures of. What you want to do is take one of your remaining two short stakes, and lash it so that it sticks out perpendicular to the frame in question (perpendicular to the ground in the above photo). I put mine in the inside corner, between the long legs of the X, but you don't have to - you could put it on top, or on the side even - whatever's easiest, just make sure that you do the same thing to both frames. 

Also, before you lash the last short stake to its frame, make sure that when you're done, both three-legged frames will fit together! Up until here, the frames have been mirror images of each other, but in this step you need to line things up before you make anything permanent. 

When you're done with this step, you should have two identical pieces, each with two long legs and two short ones. When you stand them up together, they should form a rectangular prism shape - like a big box.

7. Doing really horribly with the pictures here - after an hour of wrapping twine, my fingers were green, and I really wanted to go drink some lemonade. 

 I hope this step is obvious - stand up your two frames and tie them together! Your smaller stakes should end up at the top, with the longer "feet" free and able to move a bit to accommodate uneven ground.

8. Now for the fun part - position your frame over your tomato plant. Using all those nails you hammered into the frame in the beginning, tie lengths of twine between the frame legs looping underneath your tomato plant to hold it up as needed. You can use any pattern here, but I liked the even look I got by tying the twine straight across. Diagonal wrapping would also work. 

And there you have it: one very lazy tomato cage!

All that wrapping with the twine gives the cage some flexibility, so I made the base wider than the top so that it would be a little more balanced. 

Some of my branches really needed some extra support, so I ended up looping the twine over the top struts, which are stronger than the "ladder rungs" that everything else is resting on. I also left loose ends after I tied the twine to the nails - I think it looks kind of rustic-chic, when really all it is is lazy.

How did your tomato cage turn out? Let me know!

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