April 19, 2011 - The Tomato Fortress

Several people have asked me for more information about the structure I use for my indeterminate tomato plants that are in the raised garden bed. So, here ya go!

Click on photo to enlarge.

The dark green "bars" are 6' metal T-posts (fence posts, heavy duty). They are crossed because there are the remains of a maple tree underneath the bed and we couldn't pound them straight down. We ended up crossing them, then drilling holes through the Ts at the bottoms and screwing them into the boards that form the beds. We wired them together where they cross. We erred in that the bed is just a bit longer than 8', so the horizontal 8-foot 1"x2" doesn't quite span it. It was supposed to seat in the Xs. We had to drill holes in the board and just attach it with zip ties. Last year we wired everything together, but I dismantle it in the spring to empty the buckets, and I felt snipping the cable ties would be much easier than removing all that wire.

1. The entire bed was given a few inches of compost, which was scratched into the top six inches or so. Remember, the buckets are bottomless and the roots of the tomatoes will go right on down into this soil. Also, there will be crops planted all around the base of the buckets, which is the object of using them.

2. Set the nearly bottomless buckets into place. I use 3 or 4 buckets in this 8' long bed. Last year I felt four were a bit crowded, so this year I'm only doing three. I have done as many as seven, but never again! See: why I use bottomless buckets.

3. I use heavy duty cone-type tomato cages. I try to poke the prongs down into the ground until the bottom ring sets on top of the rim of the bucket, but sometimes they're stopped by those pesky tree roots. I have holes drilled in the nearly bottomless buckets for the prongs, so I don't add the soil to them until the cages have been installed. If you're going to just push the prongs through the large hole in the bottom, you should go ahead and fill the buckets first.

4. Add your planting medium. I use a mixture of half garden soil and half composted manure. I mix in some perlite, probably 1-2 quarts of it for a wheelbarrow full of soil mix. Then I add to the wheelbarrow, and this is just my personal preference, a pint or more of egg shells that have been pulverized to a course powder in the food processor, aspirin tablets equal to two per tomato bucket and some old calcium tablets (10-12) that have passed their use-by date, all of which have been pulverized with the egg shells. I also add a half cup of 10-10-10 fertilizer, a slow release mostly organic variety (contains chicken poo and a bunch of minerals). This year I even mixed in a packet of powdered milk. Don't ask me why, it just seemed like a good idea. A cupful of corn meal (regular kind you cook with is fine, NOT corn gluten) and a couple of cups of alfalfa pellets also get mixed in. That just about covers everything! That is the concoction I used last year, and the plants grew huge and heavy with fruit.

I only fill my buckets about half full, then add extra soil mix as the plant grows. The bucket provides a good environment for the young plants, sheltering them from wind and keeping them warm.

5. Add a second tomato cage, inverted, to the top of the lower cage, and wire or zip tie them together. I actually used wire fence clips and attached mine permanently with about 8 crimped clips per set of cages.

6. When your double decker cages are all secured, run the horizontal bar (8-foot 1"x2") from one side to the other. Wire or zip tie it to the posts at the ends and in the center.

7. Pound the 8' long stakes down the middle of each bucket (you'll need a ladder and a helper). Check them for plumb and attach them to the horizontal cross bar with screws.

8. Gather the prongs of the top cage together and secure them with a zip tie, tepee style. Don't fall off the ladder!

9. Secure the cages to the X-fence posts with zip ties, pull them all good and tight so the cages don't move.

10. Using heavy garden twine or cotton clothesline, tie it horizontally about every 8-10 inches up each side. The tomato branches can be tucked in to keep them under control. This is similar to the Florida Weave, only it's done before the plants are in the ground.

11. When it's warm enough, plant your tomato deep. Add soil to the bucket as the plant grows. I keep removing the bottom leaves until I have about a foot of bare stem showing above the bucket, then I do no more pruning.

So there you have it, Granny's tomato fortress!

4/27/10 Tomato plant nestled down in the bucket for protection from the elements.

5/25/10 Lower leaves and stems removed.

6/3/10 They've grown past the horizontal support.

6/24/10 They're past the tops of the T-posts.

7/6/10 Heading for the tops of the 8' stakes.

7/31/10 Over the top!

8/2/10 Still growing.

They gave me tomatoes, too!


  1. Wow, that's an amazing amount of work and creativity! Great work Granny! And all I do is throw some cages into my SWCs, ROFL. Thanks for sharing.

  2. You're welcome, Sinfonian.....thank you!

  3. 'Dedications what ya need' as Roy Castle used to say. You've got it in buckets literally. Great informative blog you have here

  4. Good lord Granny you would need a ladder to pick the ones at the top. Last year I had my cherry tomatoes outgrow their cages. There was a lilac a 2-3' above them. They grew up into the lilac. I couldn't harvest any of the fruit up there. I kept trying to pull out the stems and bring the plant down to me. This year I might have issues again. I get extension for my cages. I'm not sure I will be able to reach the top.

  5. Gran, my beds have 8 in each, should be pretty funny this year - that is if it doesn't turn into a horror movie and I'm never seen again when I go out there to harvest :)

  6. I was wondering about that too, but forgot to ask. That is really cool. It is so fun to learn from all you wonderful bloggers out there who just have a ton of experience and some really amazing ideas.

    Thanks for sharing with us Granny!

  7. That's what I call heavy duty!
    Thanks for posting this, it's just the kind of practical, informative thing I like to read.
    Also, your tomato plants,in later photos, are beautiful!

  8. The growth that you got from those tomatoes is incredibly! No wonder you need something so heavy duty! I only had a few plants achieve that type of growth, so I don't think I could consider something like this for all twenty tomato plants I've got this year. Well done!!

  9. Thank you so much for this post. I can't wait to implement your ideas in my garden. You must have had a million pounds of tomatoes last year!

  10. Captain, if I weren't dedicated, I'd have given this job up 50 years ago!

    Daphne, yes I do have to use a ladder. I have a light weight aluminum one that is easy to move! I also need it with the cherry tomatoes, by the patio, growing up over the roof.

    Erin, look at this, and you'll know what to expect:


    That was 7 in that same bed, and I think only six actually survived because I know I never picked a single Black Cherry that was supposed to be in there. I did get a ton of tomatoes from them, but I missed an awful lot, too. There was just no way to find them all in that jungle.

    You're welcome, Lorie.

    Thank you, Mud! It's a bit extreme, but I have nothing better to do in my old age ;-)

    Megan, I had more than twenty last year, but they didn't all have a "fortress" LOL. I did, however, have them all firmly secured to something such as eaves of the patio or shed, or to stakes that were screwed right into the fence. The smaller plants were in buckets that were placed right over fence posts and secured, as you can see in that next to last photo.

  11. Lynda, last year was actually a bad year for the tomatoes. I only harvested 379 pounds, compared to my 2009 total of 443 pounds.

    However you look at it, that's way too many tomatoes for two people. I must be insane, but I'll do it again. And again.

  12. Oh thanks for that - I almost spit out my coffee LOL! I'll send the kids in a give them an hour before I start to worry :)

  13. Erin, now you know the reason for the buckets and the fortress, LOL!

  14. That is one amazing tomato support. I'm constantly amazed by the creative engineering that comes out of your garden, not to mention all the beautiful harvests.

  15. Thanks, Thyme. I just do what I gotta do ;-)

  16. That is so sturdy and effecient. I think the buckets add such a tremendous amount to the overall system - protection early on, a deeper bed for the root systems, probably holds heat in to the roots, concentrates where you put your watering efforts, and allows you to grow the root line by gradually adding soil. Not to mention it puts the tomatoes up higher so you can plant under them in the rest of the bed. Brilliant!

  17. Kitsap, plus, if the buckets are over the fence posts in the lawn, Mr. Granny doesn't hit them with the mower! It's all good ;-)

  18. A tomato fortress indeed! I need to come up with something similar this year as last summer's tomato vines toppled over and ended up being a tangled mess! I lose a lot of fruit just from the vines being compacted. It's not easy making a tall stable structure like the one you have, Gran!

  19. Thomas, it definitely takes two people to construct it, but it's worth it. The drawback to using it with buckets is that I have to de-construct it to get the old plants out of the buckets and refill them with new soil mix, then build it all over again each year.