I "discovered" this method of supporting tomatoes when a southern pen pal sent me a photo of her garden. I subsequently adapted it to my needs for supporting not only tomatoes, which we all know can get very heavy, but also any vining plants, such as beans, squashes, and gourds.
Hog panel, aka cattle panel, is sold at any farm supply store. I use the larger of the grids, running $25.00 to $30.00 each. I now utilize six. Yes, it can be a pricey project, but you will have a system that will last a lifetime. It pays for itself year after year. Each piece measures 16 feet long by 4 feet wide and is made from galvanized steel. No rust. Getting it home can be a challange, but it is bendable and will fit into the back of a pick-up truck easily. You simply bend it into a hairpin and place the ends in first. It holds itself in place for the ride. Just use some caution when removing it, as it will spring back rather abruptly.
The photo above was the spring of my first year with this method. Those are newly planted Roma, Early Girl, Better Boy, and Burpee's Big Boy plants. In the photo below, you can see the shorter Romas growing in the first section, while the others, being indeterminate, grow right to the top and over! The adjoining row is 60 feet of Boyne raspberries and Honeyberry bushes.
I started with one 60-foot row, spacing 3 pieces of panel in each, with spaces of 4-5 feet in between and at each end. Each panel is mounted/wired onto 6-foot metal stakes, driven into the ground 4 feet apart for maximum support. The twine from the straw is used to tie the plants up to the panel for support. Every week I wind the new growth in and out for added support. This system worked so well for me the first year that I plotted a second.
The rows are mulched thickly with straw. This blocks the weeds. As far as weeds go, they are always going to be a problem for those of us destined to garden. It's finding the best way to manage them that is key. The wheat seeds in the baled straw sprout and grow, but they are easily managed and are the lesser of evils for me. Another big benefit is the moisture retention. The straw mulch lasts about 3 years before having to be replenished, and the sprouting wheat decreases each year. (In the above photo, the straw is 1 year old on the left and 2 years old on the right.) The soil is so friable from the dense mulch that the earthworms are abundant. It's amazing! Come spring, I just rake the straw back to add lime, Epsom salt, alfalfa, and wood ashes, rake those in a little, and replace the straw. Tilling isn't necessary. The straw and the worms do that work for me.
I keep a map of the rows, so I can plan the crop rotation each year. Since gourds and squash are in the same family and tomatoes have their own issues if planted in the same spot year after year, rotating crops is a big factor in keeping disease and pests at bay. This season I'm planting beans, tomatoes and eggplants (both are in the nightshade family), and squash. I will also grow onions, nasturtiums, and radishes down the rows, as companion plants for pest control.
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