Even though we had good yields from our pepper plants this past year, there were a couple of areas in which we can definitely improve. The first is with spacing, as the plants were much too crowded once they reached maturity. The other is related to providing support. We had several instances were a large bell pepper was too heavy for the plant, resulting in either a broken stem or the pepper drooping to the ground before it could ripen. Andrea tried various methods of tying the plants to stakes, but, while that helped, it didn't solve the issue. She has been doing research, and has come up with a better plan for next year.
The idea is based on a design from the February/March '97 issue of Mother Earth News Magazine. At the time, it was simply referred to as A Homemade Recycled Tomato Cage. When it was referenced later in the magazine (April/May '11), it was being called The Indestructible Tomato Cage. Our plan varies a bit from the original design, but the concept is the same.
The idea is simple, although I had to get Andrea to actually show me, using some lengths of PVC, before I could really visualize what she had in mind. There are two components to the cages, the vertical pieces and the horizontal pieces. One end of each vertical piece is placed in the ground, 8"-12" inches deep. Two more are also placed in the ground similarly, so that the three from a triangle. Holes the size of the horizontal pieces are drilled through each vertical piece, so that the horizontal pieces can be slid through, to form one side of the triangle. This is done at two or three different heights, providing support for the plant at various heights. Another set of holes is drilled in the vertical pieces nearer the ground, through which water or liquid fertilizer can be poured to feed the roots directly, rather than applying on the top of the ground where it can be lost to evaporation.
The Mother Earth News article suggests using 3" diameter PVC for the vertical pieces and metal electrical conduit for the vertical pieces. We plan, however, to use 1/2" diameter PVC for the horizontal pieces, which should allow us to use smaller vertical pieces. We plan to use 1 1/2" and larger pieces for the uprights, depending on what we can find. The article also suggests that the uprights can be 3' 3" in length, but we are hoping to use a minimum length of 4', which will leave a 3' tall cage after placing 12" in the ground.
This past weekend we visited the home improvement store to get prices on new materials, and then visited the Re-Store to check their prices. At $0.25 per foot the Re-Store is much cheaper on the pieces we'll use as the uprights. We can buy new 1/2" pipe for the horizontal pieces, though, for just $0.18 per foot. However, if we are able to find the 1/2" pieces at the Re-Store we plan to go ahead and buy them there, as it is worth a few extra cents to us to be able to use scrap material instead of buying new. This project is especially well suited to using up scraps, since shorter pieces can be used.
While at the Re-Store we picked up 5 pieces for the uprights, ranging from 1 1/2" to 3" in diameter. We could have picked up a 10' length of both 1 1/2" and 1/2", but couldn't haul those in the car. I plan to keep a small tape measure and hacksaw in the car going forward, so if we find such pieces we can measure and cut them to length, making them easier to haul.
Andrea estimates that we will have 15 to 20 pepper plants next year, meaning that we'll need the same number of cages. To build at least 15 cages we will need 45 uprights, measuring at least 4' tall and at least 1 1/2" inches in diameter, along with at least 90 horizontal pieces (assuming we only do two courses), measuring 24" long and 1/2" in diameter. The Mother Earth News article indicated that each cage would cost approximately $25, using their suggested materials. By making the changes we have planned, however, and if we can get our material from the Re-Store, we should be able to build one for approximately $6 or $7.
Even with our reduced cost, the cages will still cost more than buying a traditional wire tomato cage. Why, you might ask, would we go through the expense and effort to build one from PVC instead of just buying the pre-made cages. The first reason is ease of storage. Since the PVC cages can be fully disassembled, they can be stored in a relatively small area, which is an important consideration from us since we don't have a lot of storage space around here. The Mother Earth News article seems to suggest leaving the upright pieces in the ground, and only removing the horizontal pieces at the end of the season. I can see the benefits of leaving the uprights in place, since they may be hard to remove from the ground. We do not plan to do this, however, as it will limit the ability to include the peppers in our crop rotation plans, as well as exposing the pieces to the elements when it isn't necessary.
The second, and more important, reason for going with the PVC cages is their expected longevity. I'm not sure how long the wire cages last, but I assume they will eventually succumb to rust. The PVC, on the other hand, should last indefinitely. Also, if part of the cage does become damaged, it can simply be replaced, without having to replace the entire cage.
I'll do a follow up post on the PVC Pepper Cages once we actually build some, which will not happen until we plant peppers next spring. In the meantime we will be collecting materials and trying to decide if we want to use the same design for our tomato cages as well.