Full disclosure: This actually took me a bit more than two hours to make and install. But, that included creating the design and taking all the photos. So, the 1-hour time frame is an estimate. But, it’s a fairly realistic estimate.
Plus, even if this required two whole hours to build, that’s still pretty quick for a trellis that can handle three indeterminate tomatoes. At least, I really hope it proves capable of handling three indeterminate tomatoes. It seems nice and sturdy, so I’m feeling pretty confident. But, uh… Ask me about it again in August.
Here’s why I’m building a trellis:
Oh. Can’t see the tomatoes? That’s because they’re still fairly small. Here they are again:
Three indeterminate cherry / salad tomatoes: ‘Amy’s Apricot,’ ‘Amy’s Sugar,’ and ‘Blush.’ I chose these three for right by the front door because they should produce an abundance of colorful — orange, yellow and red-blushed — fruits for summertime salads and snacks. Pretty + tasty = perfection. The two ‘Amy’s’ varieties are new to me, purchased from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. Their descriptions were too much to resist, so I’m giving them a try. As for the ‘Blush,’ I grew that last year, but didn’t plant it in a good spot. Trying again, because folks seem to rave about this variety.
Anyway, that’s the motivation. Here’s the plan: Build a simple and sturdy trellis that doesn’t require any digging, since I don’t want to disturb the tomatoes’ roots. [Note: A better organized gardener would have built and installed a trellis here BEFORE planting the tomatoes. Ah well.]
Of course, the trellis also needed to look nice. As always, gotta respect the neighbors. That eliminated the easiest solution: wire tomato cages (which really aren’t tall enough anyway):
Also, I wanted to avoid a trip to the hardware store. Because, meh, I just didn’t feel like it. So, I dug around in the garage and found a bunch of furring strips. Perfect!
And, here’s how the whole project turned out. I’m pretty pleased:
As for that DIY promise, here’s how to build your own 1-hour, 3-tomato, no-dig trellis. Of course, you can easily modify this to hold more tomatoes, or to incorporate set-in-the-ground posts (which would probably be sturdier). So, fiddle around with this plan, if you like.
First off, you will need:
- five 8-foot furring strips (rough-hewn 1x2s), cut to:
- two 8-foot furring strips
- three 36-inch furring strips
- one 60-inch furring strip
- one approximately 5-foot 2×4, cut to:
- one 30-inch 2×4
- two roughly 1-foot 2x4s (length isn’t terribly important)
- #6 wood screws, at both 1-inch and 1.5-inch lengths
- Use the 1-inch screws whenever attaching furring strips to furring strips
- Use the 1.5-inch screws whenever working with 2x4s
- 2-inch or 2.5-inch wood screws.
- screw gun and bits
- drill and bits
- measuring tape
- carpenter’s triangle (aka. speed square)
- saw (I used a powered mitre saw, but you can easily make these cuts with a hand saw)
And, here’s the plan. Click on the photo (or, click right here!) to download a pdf that’s much easier to read:
Got everything you need? Excellent. Let’s get building!
Step 1: Cut wood to size
Let’s start with the furring strips. You want five lengths of furring strips, cut to 36 inches each. That will use up two-and-a-half of your 8-foot furring strips, leaving you with two 8-foot furring strips, one 60-inch furring strip, five 36-inch furring strips, and two scrap pieces that should measure about 24 inches.
Then, cut that 2×4 down to 30 inches. That will leave you with a piece of 2×4 that measures approximately 24 to 30 inches, depending on the length of your initial piece. Cut that piece in half.
That’s it. We’re done cutting.
Step 2: Measure and mark the trellis pieces
Let’s start with those two 8-foot furring strips. Those are our verticals. You will want to measure and mark where the cross pieces go. So, grab your measuring tape, and (measuring from the bottom to the top), mark the wood at the 3-, 4-, 5-, 6-, and 7-foot marks. Do this with both of the 8-foot furring strips.
Then, grab those 36-inch cross pieces. The verticals will be only 30 inches apart, which means we will have 3 inches of overhang at either side. So, let’s mark these strips at 3 inches in on either side.
Done with all that? Fantastic. Now we start the assembly!
Step 3: Attach the top piece
Simple but important step. Set one of the 36-inch cross pieces under the two 8-foot pieces, so that it lines up with the 7-foot mark. This will be your top-most cross piece.
Now, wait. Don’t screw anything together yet. Two important things to do before we get there.
First, grab your carpenter’s triangle, and make sure those pieces are square to one another. Simply align the lip of the triangle over the edge of the cross piece, and match up the other side with the vertical. There should be no gap. If there is, adjust the pieces until they meet the triangle perfectly. This ensures that you’re working with a 90° angle, and are building a trellis that won’t look lop-sided.
This is bad:
This is good:
Now, grab your drill and pre-drill a hole for the screw. Trust me. Furring strips are fickle things. They split easily. Pre-drilling is a necessity. Just, ah, make sure the bit you use isn’t too large. Otherwise, you’ll end up needing to pre-drill a second hole:
I settled on a 5/64-inch drill bit for the #6 wood screws, and that worked great. No splitting.
Just use one screw for the moment. We’ll come back and add a second one later.
Next, repeat these steps on the other side. Done? Great! Let’s attach the bottom piece.
Step 4: Attach bottom cross piece
This is an important piece, and a super-important step. Make a mistake here, and your trellis could look more like a parallelogram than a perfectly right-angled rectangle. And, we want a perfect rectangle, right? Yep, that’s what I thought.
Remember your high school geometry? Well, we’re all about to get reacquainted.
But, first, let’s just place that 30-inch piece of 2×4 under the two 8-foot furring strips. Line up the edges so that the 2×4 meets the bottom and sides of the furring strips. Then, grab your carpenter’s triangle, and check to see if it’s square.
Looking good? Sweet.
Now it’s time to pre-drill your first screw hole, and install that screw. Just one screw for now, please. Then, repeat this process on the other side. You should have one screw installed on either side of the bottom.
Now, we double check to make sure we’re working with a true 90° right angle. So, let’s get reacquainted with Pythagoras and his Pythagorean theorem. Remember this? It says that, in a square triangle, the squares of the two perpendicular sides will equal the square of the diagonal. In other words, a2 + b2 = c2. In this case, we know that a is 96 inches and b is 30 inches. So, a2 + b2 = 9216 + 900 = 10116. That means c2 = 10116, which means c= 100.57832768544127. For our purposes, let’s just work with 100.5 inches, ok? Because, I don’t know about your measuring tape, but mine isn’t quite that refined.
[Note: No, I didn't do that math in my head. There are lots of square root calculators online. Like this one.]
[Update: Check out my Garden Geometry guest post, over at Math for Grownups, for more about the Pythagorean Theorem and other ways we see and use math in the garden.]
So, pull out your measuring tape, and measure the diagonal, from top to bottom. Do this for both sides. Readjust until you are just about exactly at 100.5 inches for both diagonals.
This is what you should do:
Got the right length for both diagonals? Great! Now’s the time to add the second screw to each side. This will stiffen the whole trellis, and will prevent it from sagging to either side.
Congratulations! You should have a nice, square trellis frame. The hard stuff is done. It’s all pretty easy from here on out.
Step 5: Install remaining four cross pieces
Remember how we installed that first cross piece? Well, we’re going to do that again. Just slide each cross piece under the two 8-foot furring strips, so that they line up with the marks you made in Step 2. You should have a cross piece now at the 3-, 4-, 5-, and 6-foot marks (that top piece should already be installed at the 7-foot mark).
Then, follow the directions outlined in Step 3. Don’t forget to check that they are square with your carpenter’s triangle. And, for stability, install two screws at each junction:
Step 6: Install center vertical post
Remember that 60-inch piece of scrap furring strip? Well, this is when we install it. Just measure between your two uprights to find the center point on your cross pieces. Then, align the scrap over the center line (the scrap goes on top of the cross pieces). I positioned mine so that 6 inches would extend above the top cross piece, but you can do whatever you think looks best here.
We’re nearly done! Looks like a trellis, doesn’t it?
Step 7: Install bottom supports
Most trellises are set solidly into the ground, built onto posts that are sunk a good foot or two into the soil. If you are building your trellis before you plant your tomatoes, you can certainly do that. Unfortunately, that’s not an option here, because I’m working around tomatoes that I already planted. So, this trellis needs to sit on the ground. I’ll pound a long metal stake into the ground for some support, but these bottom supports will help ensure the trellis won’t tip forward.
It’s a simple enough step. First, you want to flip the whole trellis over, so the 2×4 is on top of the furring strips. Then, just line the two short pieces of 2×4 up with the bottom cross piece. Then, attach them with the longer (2- or 2.5-inch) wood screws. Like this:
I’m using bottom supports that are only about 12 inches long. I can get away with that because I’ll be installing this trellis in a protected area, right up against the house. If you plan to install in a less protected area, you may want to use longer bottom supports. In fact, if you are installing this trellis in an open enough space, you could actually extend the bottom supports in both directions from the base. Then, if you really want to stiffen up the entire frame, you could run some diagonal braces from the outermost ends of the bottom supports to the vertical side posts.
Step 8: Install the trellis
Final step! Woo! two things to do here. First, we pound the metal stake as far as possible into the ground. You will line the center vertical piece up with this metal post, so position it where you want the middle of the trellis to go. In this case, I set the post directly behind the middle of the three tomato plants:
Then, we line the trellis up with the stake, so that it’s hidden (mostly) behind the center piece of the trellis. If you want to be extra careful, you can use a level to ensure the trellis is standing straight, without any lean to it. This might require a bit of soil movement. I had a very slight rise in this spot, which was easily resolved with a garden trowel.
Once you’re happy with the levelness of the trellis, simply tie it to the support stake. And, that’s it. You’re done!
Note: This particular trellis is in a fairly protected area. If you choose a more exposed spot for your trellis, you will probably want to use more than one support stake. Perhaps two, with one on either side. And, while I used an old green fence post, you could also use a 4- or 6-foot length of rebar here. Or, even a long piece of pipe. Whatever you have laying around in the garage, really.
I’m happy with the final results. So are the tomatoes: