by Todd Walker
Dirt Road Girl wanted something substantial to cage her tomatoes in our front yard. She hates those flimsy wire cages. Our backyard is full shade. We followed the sun and started food-scaping the font yard. There’s sunshine 8 hours a day out front.
She wanted something functional, sturdy, and of course, homemade. I made rolled wire cages last year from fencing. One problem with these cages was that they blew over during summer storms – even after staking them down in the container. We needed something anchored into the ground.
We had an old wooden ladder by my shop. I suggested we use it as a ‘cage.’
Here’s what she came up with… for me to do!
After a quick search online, she drew inspiration from Mother Earth News – Woody’s Folding Tomato Cages.
Keep in mind that these tomato ladders are going in our front yard. I printed Woody’s plans, gather lumber, and set to building. He calls for using 8 foot 1×3 lumber for the legs. I go to work.
It never occurs to me that erecting two “twin tower” tomato ladders in our front yard might draw neighbor’s ire. We try to fly under the radar as much as possible in our front yard food-scaping. These 8 footers would work in the country or a backyard.
I quickly build two of these bad boys, set them over the containers, and think, “wow, those sure are high.”
They lasted about a week after we noticed neighbors walking by with thought bubbles over their heads…
“What are they up to this year!?!”
Back to the drawing board.
I needed to shrink Woody’s plans.
Here’s the plan if you want to build our 6 foot model.
Bill of Material
Use non-pressure treated lumber to keep chemicals from leaching into your plants.
Four 1 x 3 boards 8 feet long
Two 1 x 2 boards 8 feet long
10 1/2 inch piece of 2 x 4 lumber
About 40-50 1 5/8 inch screws (I use star drive decking screws. It’s my personal mission to convert everyone to superior star drive screws)
Four 3 inch decking screws (2 will be used to attach the 2 x 4 to the legs – 2 will be used to attach the base of the legs to ground stakes)
Circular Saw – If you’ve got a miter saw, it makes quick work of the cutting chores. But a circular saw will do the job.
Hammer (for driving anchor stakes in the ground)
1/8 inch drill bit
30 minutes per ladder (that’s a generous estimate)
1. Cut four 1 x 3’s six-foot long.
2. Cut one piece of 2 x 4 scrap 10 1/2 inches long.
3. Cut the 1 x 2’s for the rungs of the inside legs – working from the bottom of the ladder to the top: 19 1/2 inches, 17 1//4 inches, 15 1/2 inches, 13 3/4 inches, and 12 1/4 inches.
4. Cut the 1 x 2’s for the rungs of the outside legs – working from the bottom to the top: 21 inches, 19 inches, 17 inches, 15 1/4, and 13 3/4.
5. Cut two 1 x 3’s twenty inches long (use the extra two feet cut from the leg pieces). These will be the cross braces on the legs.
Putting it all together
If you don’t want to cut all your material ahead of time, that’s perfectly fine. Pre-cutting will streamline your build and save time.
Step 1: Stack two of the 6 foot 1 x 3 inch legs with the ends flush. Drill a pilot hole through one end of the boards with the 1/8th inch drill bit in the center of the 1 x 3 about 3/4 of an inch from the end of the board. This is where you will insert a 3 inch screw into the piece of the 2 x 4 in a moment. Repeat the process with the two remaining 6 foot 1 x 3 legs.
Step 2: With two of the legs stacked flush, screw a three-inch screw through the pilot hole into the end of the 10 1/2 inch piece 2 x 4 stock. The ends of the 1 x 3’s need to be flush and centered (meaning about 1/4 inch of 2 x 4 exposed on either side of the 1 x 3) on the end of the 2 x 4. Don’t over sink the screws or you’ll spit the wood. Then attach the other two legs to the other end of the 2 x 4. This will serve as the top of the ladder and pivot point for the legs.
Step 3: Go ahead and drill pilot holes in each end of the rungs. Attach the bottom rung (19 1/2 inches) with one 1 5/8 in. screw per side – one foot from the bottom on the inside legs. Continue attaching rungs – longest to shortest – up the ladder with one foot spacing. Now, flip the ladder over and repeat the process for the outside legs starting with the 21 inch rung.
Step 4: With the rungs attached evenly, open the ladder and stand it up. Connect the 20 inch braces to the sides of the ladder. I attached mine at the second rung from the bottom. You can adjust the width of the ladder by moving the braces up for a wider base or down to make the ladder more narrow.
Step 5: Place the tomato ladder over your tomato plant. Drive a pointed wooden stake in the ground beside two legs catty-corner style. Screw the legs into the stakes to anchor them securely.
After the growing season, simply take one screw out of each brace, unscrew the legs from the ground stakes, and fold the tomato ladders up for storage. Or move them into your greenhouse for the winter growing season.
Note: I cut two feet off the top of our original “twin tower” tomato ladders to keep neighborly busy-bodying to a minimum. Here’s the finished product.
Friends don’t let friends use lame tomato cages! What’s your best method of caging tomatoes?
Here’s a non-related byproduct of building these tomato ladders…
Keep Doing the Stuff,
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I have two ladders that are not usable anymore. So, that takes care of two tomato ladders. I can put tomatoes at each end of my metal swing and use those for ladders. Now, I don’t have to build anything or use short cages anymore.
Something for your wife to do: paint the ladders and then add painted vines and/or flowers so they look more “front garden attractive” to your neighbors : )