Have you ever passed the tomato cages in the nursery and wondered why people cage tomatoes? Do your tomato plants sprawl uncontrollably over your garden? Does the fruit get dirty and attacked by pill bugs? Cages can help. In two studies by Agrilife Extension in Hunt County, the caged tomatoes significantly outperformed tomatoes with no cages regardless of the cultivar of the tomatoes. They had more tomatoes, less disease, and fewer tomatoes were rotted or spoiled by ground dwelling bugs.
Choosing a cage
The earliest tomato cages were really just sticks placed one on each side of the tomato plant with string or rubber bands to fasten the plant to the stakes. This kept the plant upright, but did not really give it as much support as it needed. The rubber bands or string also tended to constrict the stem and damage it.
Most modern tomato cages are made of metal. There are patterns for making cages of wood, but the metal ones stand up to being used again and again. Homemade cages are common, as just about any wire mesh that will stand upright about four feet will work. However, when obtaining the materials to make the cage, make sure that the metal will not rust. Rebar rusts quite quickly and starts looking pretty ratty. It also gets rust all over your clothes and that can ruin them.
Wire mesh such as that used for fencing works well. Put a T post or stake in the ground, attach the mesh to it, then make a loop about two or three feet across and attach the end to the same stake. Instant tomato cage!
The best cages, however, are those funny looking ones you buy at the gardening place. The points go in the ground to anchor it, and the openings on the side are big enough to put your hand through. This is a big plus when picking, as you do not have to strain to reach tomatoes in the middle of the plant.
Using your tomato cage
Having chosen a cage, now how do you use it? Most people wait until the tomato plant has grown a couple of weeks after transplant before they cage it. Some people, however, set the cages down as soon as they plant the tomato plants, while others wait until the plant is sprawling before caging it.
If you wait a couple of weeks before you put the cages up, that gives you a chance to make sure the plant will live. Some transplants die, even with the best of care, so assessing the mortality rate and replacing the doomed plants is a good idea. Otherwise, you have to move the cage to replant and that can be a nuisance.
Depending on what cage you are using, you put on end into the ground somehow to anchor it, being careful not to damage the plant or its roots. Small plants can be allowed to grow into the cage. Vining varieties of tomatoes will eagerly make use of the support to grow up and not out.
The long stems of larger plants need to be lifted gently into the spaces provided through the cage. These plants will need to be secured to the cage while they grow tendrils holding themselves up in it. You can purchase twist ties for this purpose that are covered with a little more substantial paper than the ones that come in your garbage bags. It is essential to hold the tomato vine gently but securely. Ideally, the plant will grow more and you do not want the holders to cut into the vine. This will slow growth and might even kill it.
If you intend to cage tomatoes, you will have to allow a little more space between plants. The cages are a fixed diameter and the tomato plants will probably fill them completely. This means that they will need air space around the cages to prevent disease.
Harvesting tomatoes from a caged plant can be a bit of a challenge. Make sure you can reach your arm all the way in a cage before purchasing or installing it. Having good tomatoes that you cannot reach is very frustrating.
While cages improve yield and reduce disease, they seem to increase bird problems. Perhaps it is because the birds can reach the tomatoes easier when they are up off the ground, but you will find more fruit with triangular pecks out of them than you will when the tomatoes are not caged. Using bird netting can be helpful. The cage readily supports it and then the birds cannot steal your ripe tomatoes. Hanging CDs or DVDs nearby helps for a bit, but the birds quickly become accustomed to the sunlight striking the shiny surface and flaring.
Things to remember
In summary, caging tomatoes increases yields and decreases diseases. It is important to chose a type of cage that will not rust, has openings large enough that you can easily reach through and harvest the tomatoes, and is big enough to hold the type of tomato plant you are growing. Ideally, you will place the cage around the plant when it is small enough to grow into it, but if you must attach it to the cage you will do so with plant ties in a loose enough manner that further growth will not strangle it. Throw some bird netting over the cage to keep the birds from taking your tomatoes, and you are all set for a bumper crop.