Building Wooden Tomato Cages

Regular readers (they exist?) of this blog will know that I have been growing tomatoes for a while. The Season Red tomato cultivar that I have been growing is supposed to be a determinate type, which means that it should reach a certain size and the stop growing. That and the fact that I am growing it in containers lead me to believe that they would not require much more than a single stake to support.

Instead I found that they grew much larger than was practical to support with stakes. This is particularly true if you want to keep the container movable which means that you cannot place the stakes into the ground around the container. I realised that I needed some sort of more serious support structure for my tomatoes.

I have often though of building cages that look something like this, but the need to weld has put me off. Even if I could get hold of welder, I’d probably kill myself. I’m a klutz… So I decided to think of something that could be built fairly simply and cheaply using only basic tools. This is what I came up with:

Completed wooden tomato cage

Advantages and disadvantages


  • looks natural
  • doesn’t require welding
  • can be made by idiots


  • Less robust
  • more expensive?
  • less durable?


  • 4x 1.8m long, 16mm diameter pine dowels
  • 4x 900mm long 8mm diameter pine dowels
  • 0.9m and 1.8m long 25x40mm pine planks
    • Cut into 4 500mm long sections and 4 40x40mm blocks. There will be some leftover.
  • 8 4x40mm wood screws
  • Wood glue for future repairs :)


  • Electric drill
    • 16 mm wood drill bit
    • 8 mm drill bit
    • 3 mm drill bit
  • Hacksaw/steaknife
  • pencil


Base construction

The base supports the whole structure from the ground up. The trellis will be supported by inserting the 16mm dowels into the 16mm holes that will be drilled into the base.

  • Align the 500mm pieces of plank such that they form a square, with the ends overlapping so that the corners form double-height regions.
  • Starting at a corner
    • Ensure that the two planks meet flush, and at right angles.
    • drill two diagonally opposed 3mm holes, penetrating both pieces of plank. Ensure that you are not to close to the edge of the top or bottom planks, but leave enough space for a 16mm hole through both.
    • Attach the two planks using screws through the 3mm holes.
    • Repeat for the other corners.
  • Drill a 16mm hole at each corner. The holes should go through the top plank, and about 2/3 down the bottom plank. Should look something like this

Top side of base
Bottom side of base

Top support construction

  • Drill a 16mm hole about half way through 4 of the 40x40mm plank blocks.
  • Drill an 8mm hole on two sides of each block such that all four can be connected to form a square.
  • Connect the blocks using the 8mm dowels to form a square.

Closeup of top-support connecting blocks
Assembled top support

Marking the posts

The trellis will be constructed by winding wire around the four support posts. To do this we will mark the four posts in sequence such that each quarter rotation results in the trellis being 20cm higher. To do this

  • Lay the four support posts alongside each other on the floor.
  • Alternately mark each of the posts every 20cm, starting again at the first post once you reach the fourth.
Marked posts

The posts are marked every 20cm such that every quarter rotation around the structure results in the wire being 20cm higher.

Assemble all the wooden bits

  • Place the base on the ground with the 16mm holes pointing up
  • Stick the support posts firmly into the 16mm holes. You might wrap paper around the ends if the don’t fit snugly into the holes
  • Connect the four posts to the top support by placing the posts into the 16mm holes in the blocks. This will keep the top from collapsing.
Cage complete except for wire

Winding the trellis

  • If the plant you are trelissing is already somewhat grown, you might want to place it inside the cage before starting to wind the trellis.
  • Using the hacksaw (or knife) make notches in the posts at the pencil marks. Angle the notches slightly down when sawing. This is to keep the trellis wire from slipping out.
  • Tie the construction wire around the first post.
  • Working around the support posts, put the wire into the gaps. Mind to keep the wire under a bit of tension so that it can support the weight of the plant that will one day lean on it.
  • Tie around the top support structure.
Sawing support notches for the wire

Saw slightly downwards, at a 45 degree angle to the base

And there you go, a cage to contain your tomatoes, or other climbing plants.


So far my cages have held up reasonably well. They look a bit distored now due to the tomatoes growing somewhat asymmetrical. They also blew over in one of our Cape windstorms, resulting in some of the top connecting blocks breaking. This is where the woodglue came in :) I have since put some gravel in bowls on the bottom frame to keep the cage upright in the wind. Something that I may also want to try in the future is the tormato, a trellis constructed using only plastic pipes!

Cos lettuce grow-off

Some time ago, I saved seeds from cos lettuce plants that had bolted. Back then, they did not grow so well, but they did produce a heck of a lot of seed. I decided to do a bit of a grow-off by different methods. The first two contenders are 7l self watering containers, the one filled with 1 part perlite to 4 parts Culterra potting soil, the other a 50/50 mixture of perlite and vermiculite. The third is a low-budget kinda-SWC a la Mexico.

Why the grow-off?

The 1 part perlite (or sometimes with 1 part vermiculite also) with 1 part potting soil mixture seems to be the de-facto standard for SWCs. I find it somewhat unappealing since the potting soil is good for a max of 2 years, or usually just one growing season. The (somewhat expensive) perlite that is mixed with the soil is also discarded, since there is no easy way of recovering it. The purely soil-less vermiculite/perlite mixture is very inert, and can actually be sterilised and re-used many times. The Mexican style SWC really only uses organic waste material that is available for free, so that seems quite attractive too. Seeing which one yields the best crop is of interest too!

Special needs

The vermiculite/perlite mix is completely inert, hence no normal soil mechanisms. This means that hydroponic nutrients need to be used. They are surprisingly cheap from the gro-shop. They are also the cheapest place for perlite that I have found so far. For the Mexican style container, you need to save some urine! Well, you could use other fertilisers, but I thought, you know, what the hell :)

So far

I germinated about 20 seeds, and then selected the best seedlings. I planted three in each of the 7l SWCs, and 5 in the somewhat bigger Mexican style SWC soon after the seedlings formed their first pair of true leaves. Since the Culterra potting soil includes a slow release fertiliser, I decided not to add nutrients to the soil/perlite SWC to start with. I used maple leaves from my back yard to fill the bottom part of the Mexican SWC. Since I also used the Culterra soil for the Mexican style SWC I have not added any additional urine yet. I say additional since I did use some urine for the initial wetting of the maple leaves before I added the soil on top. The nitrogen in the urine is useful for starting the decomposition of the leaves that should be going on below the soil.

All three Cosses in a row
Cos lettuce in 7l SWC with 1 part perlite to 4 parts potting soil mix
Cos lettuce in 7l SWC with 50/50 perlite and vermiculite mix
Cos lettuce in Mexican style SWC

About 60% of the volume is dead leaves, the rest is filled with potting soil. Aparently the leaves below should turn into suitable soil to use next year, so I should not need the potting soil again.

In the pictures I tried to take the close-ups of all three containers from about the same distance. Since the Mexican SWC is somewhat larger than the other two, it does not quite fit in the frame. So far (about 3 weeks after planting out the seedlings) the Mexican container and the soil/perlite container seems to be doing somewhat better than the vermiculite/perlite container. All the seedlings look quite healthy though. I think the slower growth in the vermiculite/perlite SWC may be because I started out with a very weak hydroponic nutrient mix, while the seedlings in the other two containers benefit from the included fertiliser in the potting soil. I’ve recently put a stronger nutrient in, so we’ll see if that evens things out a bit.

Flowering tomatoes

About a week or so ago I noticed flower buds beginning to appear on first tomato plant I transplanted to a SWC. Exciting, because if you are lucky, the flowers eventually turn into tomatoes! So far I don’t really see anything that looks like tomatoes forming, hope I won’t be suffering from the dreaded blossom drop. Not unlikely, since it’s actually the wrong season to be growing (winter in the southern hemisphere). The plant is in a fairly sunny north-facing spot, so let’s hope for the best.

I meant to put some pictures of the blossoms up. I even bought a cheap digital camera on a 60% off clearance sale and took some pictures, but I can’t for the life of me find the cable for my new camera. Oh my.


Managed to find my camera’s cable. Herewith a closeup and full-plant picture:

Tomato blossom closeup

Tomato plant

Going somewhat strong

Planting out to SWCs

I planted one of the tomato seedlings out into my 10 Litre Self-watering Bucket, and it has really taken off! Seems pleased as punch with its new surroundings. The bell pepper plant has also been doing well in its 7l SWC, but is not growing quite as fast as the tomato. I managed to get more buckets from the restaurant. I used one to transplant a sorrel plant that was sharing a container with (and getting abused by) origanum plants and it has been growing well. Also (Saturday) planted another each of tomato and pepper seedlings into 7l SWCs, as well as a parsley plant that was getting crowded out by the mint plant sharing its pot.

About a week ago (or two, my mind…) I sowed some more rocket seeds, as well as some of the basil seeds that I saved from a now departed plant. They have now germinated, and seem to be progressing well. I’m going to plant some of the rocket seedlings in the 50l SWC, and one of them in a 7l SWC. The other rocket plants in the 50l SWC never did well, but it is possible that I gave them too much sun in the sumer. Perhaps they’ll like the winter.

Spreading the Origanum

I had (for a long time) two origanum plants (along with the sorrel mentioned above) in a rectangular (oh, let’s say 50x15x15 cm) container. The origanums grew very well, while the sorrel suffered. I wanted to clear the pot so I could put some of the marigold seedlings in it. I planted one of the origanum plants directly into my “garden” (i.e. in the sandy soil under the gravel cover of my patio), and one in a 7l food container. I had another type of origanum (has somewhat softer leaves, but grows slower) growing in a small container. It was a small stem with roots that I accidentally pulled out a while ago while harvesting from the softer-leaved origanum plant. It had grown nicely, so I planted it out into my 50l dry-herb container.

Dry herb container progress

At long last the rosemary and thyme in my 50l dry herb containers seem to have started growing in earnest. The rosemary hasn’t really increased its footprint, but has ramified quite a bit and has a number of new shoots growing upwards. Now I just hope the new origanum plant also grows well. Actually, my other rosemary plants also seem to be waking up. so hopefully I’ll have a well-establised rosemary bush or 2 to harvest from soon.


It did not take long, but white-fly seems to have found the recently transplanted tomato plant, and something seemed to be at the peper plant too. Gave them all (along with all the other pepper and tomato plants) a good treatment with Ludwig’s spray on Saturday. Seemed to result in the tomato plant virtually doubling its size overnight, though that may just be my impression of the situation ;) Some of my marigolds also seem to be suffering from something (spider mite?) so used the leftover solution to give them a good dusting. In spite of whatever may be wrong with them the are still flowering and growing.

A late update

It’s been a while, but herewith some gardening updates! The damn spider mites seem to be a recurring nightmare on my black eyed suzans. Cooler winter weather coming, so perhaps that will give me a chance to bring them under control. I’ve also had my first good harvest of basil; used it to make pesto. Had no idea pine nuts were so expensive (R60 for 100g!), ended up substituting wallnuts. Tasted good though.

I also planted a rosemary bush into the “real” ground outside my apartment. My “garden” is covered with decorative gravel, but there seems to be (very sandy) soil underneath. Good for rosemary, and since my potted rosemaries don’t seem to be doing anything, I gave it a try. The bush seemed to be doing well till I carelessly stepped on it (while spraying the black eyed susans for spider mite) and broke half the twigs off. Hope it recovers.

Procreational update

A while ago I went about creating a whole bunch of baby plants! The tomatoes are looking good, and I’ve re-potted them again into somewhat larger pots. The bell pepper seedlings are doing similarly well. One of the bell pepper seedlings have been planted into a self watering container made from 7l chutney containers that I got (for free!) from a local restaurant.

I ended up giving one each of the tomato and bell pepper seedlings to a colleague. Also gave her one of the successful origanum cuttings. The other (along with a bell pepper, chives, marigolds and store-bought rosemary and thyme plants) were given as a wedding gift. The wedding couple really seemed to like they idea of receiving plants, although I did have inside info that they were looking to gussy up the garden at their new home :)

Have had no luck with thyme cuttings, even when using growth hormones! I dunno what’s up with that. May be that I used too small cuttings and put them in too shallow soil. Have now tried a much longer (and tender) cutting, planted in more soil, and so far it seems to have made what looks like the beginning of roots fingers crossed. As an aside, it is useful not to harvest your thyme for a while if you are looking for longer tender shoots :)

The garlic seedling has been planted in a 50l washbasin container along with some chives, garlic chives and basil. The basil seems to be thriving, while the garlic chives and garlic are doing fairly well, while the normal chives seem to be just hanging on. Not sure if the (single) basil plant is interfering with the others, or if the basil just doesn’t care as much about the mix of container soil and earth in the pot. I’ll see how it goes, perhaps the chives will do well once they establish themselves, otherwise I’ll make a different plan.

The End

Bed time for this one, folks. Hope to share some more soon, as well as a recipe or two. For now, all the best!

Making Amends and Other Exciting Updates

Quite a busy gardening day! In fact, probably my only whole day spent gardening to date :) In part it was sad, since I had to admit to earlier mistakes and throw out my tatsoi and pinokio cos lettuce, neither of which yielded anything. This allowed me to make amends by amending the terrible soil that I think resulted in my lettuce no-shows. I also finished building a 50l self-watering container to plant rocket in, and started my dry-herb container. To top it all off, I planted tomato and garlic chive seeds.

Lessons about soil

When I first started gardening (not too long ago) I had the attitude that potting mix is expensive, and that I should water it down, so to speak, using normal soil. I felt I was on solid ground, since my GF’s mother plants all her containers using exclusively garden soil with some success. Initially this worked for me too, but later cought up with me.

The thing is, my GF’s house has very nice soil that is fairly light and well airated and full of organic matter. When I started I took a bag of soil from her house, and mixed that with the potting mix. Later, when I adding more pots, I started using soil from my flat complex’s beds, expecting the same results, but oh-no. Not a good idea.

The Dead Rosemary Bush

After killing a rosemary bush (which is quite hard), I found that the bottom two-thirds of the pot was pretty much a solid lump of clay, completely preventing drainage. Mystery solved there. So, I think, let’s just remove half the soil, and mix it down with more potting mix. Certainly that should be good enough. Well, it was better, but after a while the new rosemary plant was going nowhere. By now I’ve come to respect the importance of drainage for potting soils, and realised what was going on.

Of Al and his Mixes

There is a regular container mix guru on the gardenweb forums known as Al. What he has impressed on me is the importance of good drainage and aeration for pot plants. As he puts it, on a scale of 1 to 10 where 1 is gardening in regular soil and 10 is hydroponics, container growing is about a 7-8.

When gardening in the real earth there are natural processing going about the conversion of organic matter to plant-nutrients (bacteria, earthworms), processes keeping the ground aerated (earthworms, burrowing animals, etc) and probably a hundred other processes doing a hundred important things I’m not aware of ;) In container gardening you can’t depend on them.

His chief aims when choosing a potting mix is that it is

  1. Well aerated. Surprisingly, plants actually need to obtain most of their oxygen an CO2 requirement via their roots rather than their leaves.
  2. Durable. Some components used in a potting mix can decompose and turn the mix into “soup” that kills aeration.
  3. Well drained.

Al has some mixes that he prescribes, and also goes to some length to explain the rationale behind his mix-design. He also discusses container fertilisation.

Paying for Sins Past

Well, as I mentioned, the new rosemary bush also started looking not so good. After the first death I took care not to over-water, and occasionally tilled the soil bit, but there is only so much you can do in a pot!. For my efforts the top layer of soil was in reasonable condition, but as I went deeper I found pretty much a replay of the soild conditions implicated in the first rosemary death, including a nice rotten-egg smell in the bottom layer. The rotten smell indicates a complete lack of oxygen, resulting in anaerobic bacteria doing their stinky thing.

And so, I decided, enough messing around. Time to get rid of all my bad soil. Out came the old rotten soil, and in came fresh Culterra potting mix. I hope Rosemary enjoys her re-decorated home. An added advantage of using proper potting mix is that it is much lighter than garden dirt, making it much easier to move pots around.

I also ripped out the pinokio Cos Lettuces that I planted some time ago. After going absolutely nowhere since I first planted them, they started to bolt without having given me a single usable leaf! Also planted with them was some tatsoi that also suffered from going nowhere. I remembered doing some dodgy soil-mixing with that container, but was surprised when the soil appeared to be pretty much pure potting mix. As I dug deeper, however, I soon came to a solid-blocked layer of clay-soil again. Ahah. I planted two of the bolting lettuce plants in another container with the hope of harvesting some seeds, so perhaps I will get something for my efforts in another generation of plant!

Planting out Rocket Seedlings

In the 50l self-watering container I built today, I planted out some of the rocket seedlings that I raised from seed. I also removed a wild rocket plant from another pot that had bolted before making hardly any leaves. I think the problem with that rocket was that it was in the small pot at the nursery for way too long. I was about to throw all of it away when I saw that it actually consisted of several separate plants, and that a couple of them looked like young plants and were not bolting. I planted those out for the joke too. I may have been a bit hard-handed in removing them from the other pot, so we’ll see if they make it.

What was interesting to note was how quickly the seedling roots grew down, through the bottom aeration holes and into the water resevoir! I hope that does not cause problems later.

Planting out Marigold Seedlings

I planted Marigold seeds at the same time as the rocket mentioned above, and planted a couple of them out into the pot vacated by the wild rocket. Their roots had grown even more crazily than the rocket seedlings’. The roots of some of the seedlings were probably 20 times longer than the seedling itself! I may have broken some of them off in the process of transferring the seedlings, so I’m hoping for the best.

Bellpepper seedlings.

Lo and behold, the seeds I saved from a store-bought pepper have germinated. Now we must see what we get!

Dry-herb Container

By dry I mean herbs that like dry growing conditions, such as rosemary, thyme and origanum. I re-purposed the 50l basin-type container vacated by the cos lettuce (I think I’ll try a self-watering container next time I grow lettuce) for this. To make the soil even better drained, I added (what I hope is) pine bark-fines to the potting mix, making up about a third of the mix. I haven’t come across bark-fines at local nurseries yet, but the bark sold as mulch usually has a fair portion of fines. By fishing out the largest pieces by hand, a reasonable mix can be had.

The reason I hope it is pine is that some other tree bark can inhibit growth; I bought at Cape Garden Centre on the R44, but they could not tell me if it was pine or not. It looks like pine though. Earlier the day I was at the Stellenbosch Builder’s Warehouse Express where they were certain that their product was pine, but I did not buy it then. Later when I realised I wanted it, they were closed, and I had to go the the Garden Centre.

I re-planted another rosemary bush in this container; this bush was previously in the same container as my basil and chives. Since the basil and chives like more water than rosemary, replanting seemed like a good idea. I also planted a new thyme plant that I bought at a supermarket. I have a thyme plant in another container, but did not want to re-plant it at this time. I will probably add origanum if/when my cuttings take off, and then see if it makes sense to add anything else to this container.

Garlic Chives and Tomato seeds

I planted about 10 garlic chive seeds in the 2l self-watering container vacated by the rocket I planted out today. I also planted some Season Red tomatoes. These being hybrid seeds, you only get about 10 or so seeds in a packet. In fact, they package the seeds within another little paper envelope inside the seed-packet. For now I’m only planning to grow one plant, but just in case I planted four seeds into 5cm pots. with the Master Organics Super Premium Potting Mix. I’m keeping them wet from below in a tray. If they all germinate successfully I’ll decide what to do with the extra seedlings.

The End

Phew, what a day. I hope I can one day pick the fruits of my labour :) It’s getting a little late, so Good Night!

Chives have sprouted

Today I noticed that my chives have finally sprouted! Yay!

Quick update: Marigolds and organic bugspray

Just a quick update. Yesterday after a fun day kloofing at Rivier sonder end (more info), I got home and noticed that my recently sown Marigolds have germinated. Still waiting for the chives to get going though.

Also a follow up on old Ludewig’s organic garlicy insecticide spray. It seems to be working. The following morning I still noticed some evil looking white thingies walking around, but yesterday and today there does not seem to be anything. Will still re-apply tomorrow or the day after though.

It lives! Rocket Rises

Quick update: Watering my garden this morning I noticed my rocket seeds have sprouted! This seems to be a bit ahead of schedule, but you don’t se me complaining :) This is the rocket I planted in the 2l self-watering icecream containers on the 18th.

Bugs and garlic. Two counts of garlic

Something is eating my Tsatsoi and Cos lettuce that I had planted before. I’m fighting them with garlic (and other stuff), and also planing some. The Tsatsoi are quite new, bought seedlings at the same time I made my self-watering buckets, while I planted the Cos lettuce from seedlings a while ago. Actually they never thrived, and I got hardly anything to show for them, but it’s been fun so far.

Keep reading

My first gardening log: Chives, Rocket and Marigolds

OK, been a bit busy, and I’m up past my bed-time (again, sigh), but I had better write this stuff down before I forget.

On Friday I planted some Chives, mainly to test my 10 Litre Self-watering Bucket (don’t bother clicking yet, I will do pictures and stuff later). The bucket is probably bigger than neccesary, but I’m not yet convinced of it’s proper functioning ;)

Front of Starke Ayres chives packet

Sorry about the poor picture quality, my decent camera is elsewhere.

I also planted some Marigolds and Rocket in 2L icecream-container self-waterers tonight (actually last night by now, i.e. the 18th), but more about that later.