Sunday, August 22, 2010

Handyman Gardening

I built the planter boxes, and we filled them with plants a few months back. There was another facet to that project that, until recently, had fallen by the wayside: how to support all these tomatoes and tomatillos that were going to become tall, heavy, and floppy? This past week they started becoming more or less flattened under their own weight, so it was time to finish the job I'd started.

I could have just bought a bunch of tomato cages and called it a day. But good grief, they're expensive! I'd have dropped upwards of $200 for a full complement. Sure, I could use them year after year, but it still seemed a bit of a large investment.

Following the tips from the Square Foot Gardening book, I decided instead to build a frame from which I could hang netting, into which the plants could them be trained. Their suggestion for how to build this frame: electrical conduit. This is non-structural pipe that is strung together in just about every type of building except for residential, through which electrical and networking cables get strung. Because a couple hundred thousand miles of it are extruded each year, it is relatively inexpensive: about $0.25 / ft. To make a frame from it the suggested method is to bend it into a long U-shape, much like a soccer goal.

That's all well and good - electrical conduit is made to be bent. The only problem is that one usually needs a conduit bender of the correct pipe diameter to do a proper job of it, otherwise it'll likely just kink. A 1" conduit bender goes for $50-75 from any hardware store. That seemed a little excessive for a tool I'd use only a handful of times. I brought the conduit to my workplace, figuring that in an engineering company spanning several rennovated buildings, there's sure to be a conduit bender on hand. Turns out there isn't: all the bending gets done by electricians when they're brought on site for a specific job.

So I decided to make one myself. It wasn't too difficult, though it took a few hours of work to do it properly. Some might point out that I was trading my time, which is very costly, against out-of-pocket money. And in truth, I would have to value my time very little to say I came out ahead on that one. But it was a chance to do some woodworking, for which I grant myself a substantial discount. The most time consuming part was using my router to carve out the quarter-rounds from some scrap plywood. I have a circle-cutting jig for my router - almost like a draftsman's compass - but it does take a little time to set up a proper cut. The 2x4 was also some scrap material that would give me proper leverage when making the bend.

A 1/4" bolt restrains the conduit in place at the start of the bend. After that, it is a simple matter of gradually rolling the bender until the conduit has a nice smooth 90-degree bend in it.

Were I to follow the square-foot gardening plan, I would then get some lightweight netting with coarse spacing and string it across this frame, creating a plane of support down the middle of the planter box that I could then train the plants into. Such netting turns out to be surprisingly difficult to track down. Yesterday, in desperation, I instead bought a pair of replacement soccer goal nets. These happen to be just the right size to allow me, without any cutting, to drape across the conduit in an A-frame arrangement: the least sheltering pup tent ever. Rather than stake out the bottom edge, I added some screw eyes to the boxes, and just pulled the netting tight under them. This also served to stabilize the conduit frame by guy-ing it out to either side.

I admit, the netting stands out rather a lot, but it functions quite well and should hold up well in the weather. I should also be able to break this all down for storage in the fall without a lot of trouble.

And to prove that all of this effort is showing some payoff, behold our first two tomatillos of the year!

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