Playing With String

Monday, August 9th, 2010

It’s often been my experience that my most successful projects have been ones where the constraints have been clear and immovable – such as a small budget or a difficult site. When it came to coming up with some way of elegantly supporting my tomato plants, I was definitely constrained by a limited budget (having already spent a goodly amount on the lumber to build the beds and the gravel to cover the paths). So I quickly discarded the idea of using copper piping (so sad – how gorgeous would the patina-ed copper have looked?) and, I soon discovered, plain old metal piping wasn’t much cheaper (it would have cost $120, at least, to have supports for only four beds). Plastic piping wasn’t the look I was going for so, in the end, I settled for bamboo – a slightly more rustic aesthetic than what I aspired to but it was well within budget and I learned a new skill.

I’ve previously used metal spiral stakes to support my tomato plants, curving the stem around the stake as the plant grew. The problem is that my stakes aren’t tall enough for the cherry tomato varieties and not sturdy enough for the heavier fruiting varieties (they tended to lean during the more prolific seasons). The concept for the new supports is the same except that string is used instead of the spiralling metal – a technique used by commercial tomato growers that’s easily adaptable for a residential kitchen garden.

All I needed was a way to support the string and that’s where the bamboo came in (and my knowledge base expanded).

The first step was connecting two bamboo poles together to form an upside-down vee.

Shear lashing is used to connect two bamboo poles together.

Shear lashing is used to connect two bamboo poles together.

A search on the Internet revealed that the best way to do this is with a shear lashing. I calculated how high I wanted to hang the string and marked the height on the two poles. Making sure the tops of the poles were level, I connected them using the shear lashing with some regular garden twine at the location of the height markings.

The second step was installing the vees.

Two of those vees were pounded down onto either side of a bed, making sure that the distance at the base of each vee was the same. A fifth pole was laid horizontally between the two vees and eyeballed to see if it was level – if not, the vees were adjusted up or down.

Bamboo vees installed and levelled.

Bamboo vees installed and levelled.

The third step (and the most time-consuming) was attaching the string.

Using the same garden twine that was used for the lashings, I tied a length of twine to the base of each vee. Then I connected those lengths with another piece of twine (paralleling the horizontal bamboo pole at the top of the vees). Lastly, I tied a length of twine (one per tomato plant) to the horizontal bamboo pole and secured it to the bottom piece of twine – not too tightly because you need this supporting string to have a little give so that you can easily twist the tomato stem around it.

It took me an entire day (including researching knot tying) to build enough supports for 8 beds. The grand total for 36 eight-foot lengths of bamboo and a ball of garden twine cost me $49.93, including tax.And the new supports appear to be more than adequate for the dizzying heights reached by my cherry tomatoes and the heavy fruiting stems.

The vertical support string is tied to the horizontal bamboo pole.

The vertical support string is tied to the horizontal bamboo pole.

The vertical support string is tied to the horizontal base string.

The vertical support string is tied to the horizontal base string.

Twine is tied to the base of each vee pole.

Twine is tied to the base of each vee pole.

The finished result: the tomato is (gently) twisted around the vertical supporting string.

The finished result: the tomato is (gently) twisted around the vertical supporting string.

Best of all, the supports make the kitchen garden feel more like a garden room, although they are visually light enough to not make the small space feel constricted. Birds have taken to perching on the poles and, in my more eccentric moments, I imagine hanging tea light lanterns on them and tenting them with billows of fabric (maybe not at the same time though unless I like all my vegetables to be grilled). Definitely another case where constraints made the project.

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Tied Up

Friday, July 23rd, 2010
Lashing for the tomato supports as a metaphor for my life? Or am I overthinking this?

Lashing for the tomato supports as a metaphor for my life? Or am I overthinking this?

This post’s title refers as much to me and my time as it does to the tomatoes. I’ve been wanting to write about, what I think is, an elegant solution to supporting tomatoes but have been struggling to find the time to put it together. And it’s had me thinking about how the kitchen garden is working within the framework of a balanced lifestyle, one where I have the time to spend on the people and relationships and things that are important to me. It’s a thought process that I’m sure many people are familiar with (although we all arrive at different conclusions). For me, planting a kitchen garden is part of how I balance my ‘work’ and ‘play’…I’ve decided I don’t like categorizing my activities like that - ‘work’ should be playful and ‘play’ can become work too easily - but it’s a commonly understood shorthand to how we view ‘things we have to do’ (for survival) and ‘things we choose to do’ (for pleasure). 

I don’t have to grow a kitchen garden for survival. In these days where we fear for our food security, it’s a common enough reason that people give for growing their own food (and, in some scenarios, a completely valid one) but it’s not my motivation.

I don’t have to grow a kitchen garden so I can eat ‘organic’ produce. I do garden sustainably without the use of synthetic, petroleum-based substances (except from my car) but it’s because it’s cheaper – compost is free fertilizer - and easier -a balanced ecosystem takes care of itself. And okay, it’s satisfying to know that I’m ingesting a few less chemicals when I eat from my garden.

I don’t have to grow a kitchen garden to save money on the grocery bill. It just so happens that I buy fewer groceries but again, it’s not my primary motivation.

I choose to grow a kitchen garden for the creating, the nurturing, the tasting, the pure pleasure of it all. I am not romanticizing the effort involved – the dirt, the sweat, the bugs, the fact that gardening is as much about dispensing death as it is about nurturing life – but, at the end of the day, it is one of the things in my life that brings me the most soul satisfaction; it is my ‘play’ time.

This blog is too. But, unfortunately, the thing that I have to do (work) is sapping the energy I need for the thing I choose to do (writing). So, of course, the only conclusion I can reach is that the work thing is going to have to change.

Stay tuned for how (if) I can manage to get more play from my work (and for the post on how to support tomatoes)…

Snapshot: June 27, 2010

Sunday, June 27th, 2010
The big change is the bamboo supports for the tomatoes, tomatillos, and lemon cucumber.

The big change is the bamboo supports for the tomatoes, tomatillos, and lemon cucumber.