If you grow tomatoes and peppers, then you are probably familiar with tomato cages. It’s likely that you’ve got the metal 3-ring cages that you can get from a big box store or garden center. I’ve used those for years, but found that each year I need to replace about 25% of the metal ones because I’ve got rocky soil. This was not a happy moment after building my garden. I damage and bend the cages when I hit rocks. So, I came up with a low cost solution.
Behold my simple DIY tomato cages for rocky soil. These are basically a simple frame made of low-cost furring strips, and held together with construction adhesive, nails on one side and screws on the other. That is all – very easy.
It turns out that my cages can be stored much easier than conventional cages. At the end of the season you can simple unscrew two of the sides, which will allow you store these easily on a wall or tucked away in the basement.
Benefits of my DIY tomato cage design
These cages have held up large tomato plants filled with juicy tomatoes. They have never tipped over or broken. They are strong vertically and sturdy horizontally. The design allows you to bury them 6″ deep, which makes them very secure in storms and with large plants.
Using simple but effective design principals, this design is able to support the weight of a fully loaded and mature tomato plant. But, using only 1×2 furring strips the cage is remarkably lightweight.
The simple but practical design allows for endless customization as to the supports. You can adapt and customize this design for any variety of tomato of pepper. Add as many braces as you like, or change the dimensions to your body size.
This design is incredibly simple to build. Even if you have no experience, you can build these simple tomato cages.
Low-cost / economical
Because the base material is cheap 1×2 furring strips, you can make a single cage for about $7 in lumber. Of course, you will also need a tube of construction adhesive, nails, and screws. But the raw material costs are minimal.
These 1×2 furring strips typically cost $2 from most lumber yards or big-box home improvement centers. So, you can make a single cage for $8, or four cages for $26.
These cages store nicely. Because the cross braces are screwed, not glued/nailed you can easily take them apart and store them flat during the off-season. They can be hung on walls, laid flat in a shed. They store much easier than traditional tomato cages.
The best tomato cage for rocky soil
If you have rocky soil, you’ve undoubtedly dealt with bent/twisted tomato cages. This is a frustrating problem that costs money, as once a cage is bent, it never is the same and is always weaker. The solution is to build your own cages that only need to go down 6″.
Materials and Tools needed
Ok, so how do we build them? Well, let’s look at the materials & tools needed:
- 1×2 furring strip, 8′ long. You will need a total of 4 per cage. If possible, try to find straight pieces using this method.
- Construction Adhesive – This is important. Exterior construction adhesive can move a bit, and deal with ‘shocks’ better than wood glue. Do not use wood glue. Get exterior construction adhesive.
- Exterior Box Nails 4d
- 1-1/4″ exterior screws
- Crosscut handsaw or miter saw – if you have a hand saw, and are unsure if it is rip or crosscut, see here. If you don’t have a saw, I strongly recommend the Japanese pull-saw I use in the pictures. It cuts on the pull stroke, not the push. And one side of the blade is cross-cut, while the other is a rip cut. So, a 2-in-1 saw. You can find this saw on our recommended products page.
- Clamps – you need to have a way to secure at least one side of the cage frame for glueing/nailing the side frames in place. You can use simple 6″ squeeze clamps, or c-clamps – whatever you have available. Or, if you have someone who can help hold everything together, that would work too.
- Hammer – the small box nails you will be using can be driven in with almost any hammer
- Drill / Screwdriver – A power drill/driver is necessary for when we screw the two halves together. You will need to be drilling some pilot holes.
- Tape measure
- Speed square – this helps make sure you are putting everything together at 90 degree angles
- Workbench or work surface – It really helps having something to clamp on to for making these. But don’t fret if you don’t have a work bench. Even a picnic table would work fine.
How to make that cage
You will need to buy four 1×2’s to make a single cage, and will have 6′ of 1×2 left over. But, if you want to make four cages, then you should buy 13 1x2s, and you will have no scrap left over. If you don’t have a truck, know that most big-box stores can cut your lumber down for you. Simply ask someone to cut the furring strips in half, and you will be coming home with 4′ pieces.
To begin, cut the 1×2’s per the following cut list. This is for a single cage.
- 1×2, 48″ long (4)
- 1×2, 12″ long (10)
Making the side frames
What is nice about this design is that it is so simple and customizable. Should you decide that you need more cross braces, you can simple add them later.
You are going to make two side frames that are joined by three 12″ braces each. each side frame should look like the following:
The lowest cross brace, the one 6″ from the bottom, will be the ‘bottom’ of the whole cage. This way, you can drive the cage 6″ deep into the ground. Having four pieces 6″ deep into the ground makes for a sturdy foundation for a tomato cage.
To build the side frames, carefully lay out the pieces. Then, secure them with clamps so they don’t move. It is a good idea to clamp your pieces to your workspace, as it will help keep everything square. Use a tape measure and square to make sure your cross braces are even.
I like to draw lines with a pencil where the pieces should go. This helps when gluing.
Apply a single bead of construction adhesive to the cross braces, then flip them over and position them so that the frame is square.
Next we need to hammer a single nail into each end of the cross braces. The construction adhesive is what holds the wood together, the nail just acts as a clamp. But before you hammer the nail in, blunt the tip of the nail. This will help prevent the cross brace from splitting.
To blunt the nail tip, just flip the nail over on a sturdy surface with the tip pointing up. And strike the tip with your hammer, enough to flatten the tip a bit.
Then drive the nail into the frame. I like to go at an angle, as it will help make the joint more secure. You should see some construction adhesive squeezing out of the joint. Don’t worry, this is a sign that you are getting good contact.
To achieve the strongest joints, you should allow the construction adhesive to cure for 24 hours. I recommend you do this, this is the main strength of the frame. If you try to marry the frames together now with uncured adhesive, you may ruin the joint and weaken the frame.
But you will need to build two side frames, and let them sit for 24 hours. You can add weight to the pieces to help get a better bond as well.
Assembling the cage
To assemble the cage, place two side frames on their side and secure them with clamps as best as you can. This shouldn’t be a problem if you’ve got a decent work surface.
Next, lay out the cross pieces and clamp them to the side frames. Again, this helps keep everything square and secure.
Then, drill pilot holes for your screws. The pilot holes should be about 75% the thread diameter of your screws. Simply find a bit that looks right, and drill.
Then, drive in your screws. I recommend that you set the torque setting pretty light, as it isn’t hard to split out these cross braces. Driving anything near the edge of a small 1×2 carries a risk of causing a split. Fortunately, for this project splits are generally easy to fix.
Now drive your screws into the cross brace, taking care to use a lower setting on the drill. Use two screws per cross brace end.
That’s it, you are now done. Next we will look at how to install the cages.
Installing the cages
To install the cages, set the cage down where you would like it to be. Then, tilt it up and make a 6″ deep hole, or loosen the ground. I use a simple weeding tool or large screwdriver to do make the hole.
Push the cage into the ground. You can step on the bottom cross braces with your foot, or use a wooden mallet to pound the cages into the ground. When the bottom cross brace contacts the ground, the cage is installed. For added security you can set a rock on these bottom cross braces, although I’ve not found this to be necessary.
Storing the cages
At the end of the gardening season, you can remove the cages and store them as part of your normal Fall cleanup. Simply wiggle the cages, or loosen the soil a bit to remove them. Then, brush off any dirt on the frame.
Next, unscrew the cross braces, but leave one screw partially installed. This allows you to rotate the cross brace inline with the frame. This feature greatly reduces the space required for these cages.
I then use a small bit of twine to tie the side frames together. This is an important step, as you can’t mix side frames of different cages, as they are all going to be slightly different. But, once done, the cages can now be hung on hooks along a wall, or stacked somewhere out of the way until next season.
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