By Stephanie Paige Ogburn
I’ve always found store-bought tomato cages to be utterly unsatisfactory. First of all, there’s the aspect of price. How a garden store can reasonably charge $6.99 for a piece of cheaply soldered metal that barely holds together is beyond me. (And of course one needs six to ten of them, since a gardener’s job is to have tomato aspirations well beyond the three or four plants that would suit most of us just fine.)
These store-bought tomato cages are not only overpriced, they usually don’t do their job as advertised. As the season waxes and tomatoes ripen, indeterminate tomatoes grow taller than the cages and overpower their spindly legs. Or spring winds come along and the flimsy cages topple, bringing one’s poor plants with them.
What are the alternatives? There are many. I’ve seen strong tomato-bearing structures created out of metal reinforcing wire, and my Colorado friend Barbara created an ingenious wood-and-metal structure upon which she grows prize-winning tomatoes. But as someone with few tools and little money, I decided there had to be a cheaper way. So I settled on bamboo, an incredibly strong and readily available structural material in the Oakland/Berkeley area. No fewer than four Freecyclers offered to let me come down and cut down their rampant bamboo with the tri-edged hand saw I borrowed from the Oakland tool lending library. I biked over to the nearest bamboo-bearing house and harvested a few 7-foot long canes.
Back at home, I started improvising. I planted three of the long bamboo legs in the ground, used cable ties ($1 for a 40-pack at the local dollar emporium) to connect the teepee tops and side supports: instant tomato cages at a cost of a few cents per cage.
These homemade cages are about 5.5 feet tall, with the rest of their length sunk into the raised bed. The first ones I made seem a little short, so I may try cutting my bamboo a bit taller for the next batch. Already seem stronger and more supportive than the low-grade store-bought ones, and cost a fraction of the price of the raw metal materials I’d need to make my own from fencing.
The bamboo cages don’t just add a heaping measure of frugality to the garden. They’re also lovely, and their bright lines lighten up the space, inviting growth in and around them. I only hope the tomatoes feel just as invited as I do.
Before we’ll have tomatoes, much else will be ripening in the garden. When I last wrote, I was in the process of gathering free supplies from around town and was readying to collect seeds from a friendly seed-sharing gardener (who also gave me two tomato plants!). Now, I and my able housemates have constructed four raised beds in the backyard, completely out of wood salvaged from Freecycle and around the East Bay. I shoveled enough compost at the City of Berkeley’s giveaway in March to finish two of these beds, and hope to get enough for the remaining two at this April’s compost offering.
And plants are growing! The arugula seeds that a Freecycler mailed me have sprouted, and the just-planted radishes, always the fastest to poke their heads through the chilly soil, have awakened in me the gardener’s pride in growing something useful through the amazingly basic, civilized act of putting a seed in the moist earth, covering it, and waiting for the magic of food production.
Other stirrings in the garden right now include sugar snap peas, which to me always symbolize spring. I found the peas' trellis by the side of the road one day and carted it home on my bike. I’m sure it looked awkward, but the peas now have something great to climb on, and should do well. I’ve also taken rosemary cuttings from around the neighborhood and rooted them in some potting soil, and I’m about to do the same with mint. Both will stay potted, since they each seem to be prolific spreaders in this climate.
Thus far, I’ve spent about $35 — and a whole lot of time — on my household’s back-yard garden. The majority of that went to seeds and to the nails and screws we used to construct our raised beds. The creation of the garden has become a household affair. We’ve all gotten into the spirit of the frugal garden project; one of my housemates is going to create garden art to make our space beautiful, another one planted her first seeds with me in our communal “lettuce and stir fry” bed, and a third snagged some horse manure to enrich our compost heap.
To me, this is all part of the garden project. We’re not only building something using our time instead of our money, we're also building community, as we hold boards and pound nails, ride around town town picking up things piecing together our backyard from the wealth we find. I hope that one of the future stories we'll tell about our garden goes something like this: “You’ll never believe how well these homemade bamboo tomato cages performed for us…”
Stephanie Paige Ogburn loves growing food in her new Oakland, CA home almost as much as eating it. She also contributes to Grist.