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Milberger's Nursery and Landscaping
3920 North Loop 1604 E.
San Antonio, TX 78247

Three exits east of 281, inside of 1604
Next to the Diamond Shamrock station
Please click map for more detailed map and driving directions.

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Intercropping—Caging and Staking

Vegetable crops that can still be planted from seed with a reasonable chance of harvest occurring this fall include beets, carrots, chard, collards, garlic, kohlrabi, lettuce, mustard, onion, parsley, radishes, spinach and turnips. All of these crops have at least 2 characteristics in common -- they tolerate cold temperatures and they produce optimum growth and quality at monthly temperatures that average 60-65 degrees F. Of course, this is the ideal time to transplant broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower.

Two additional characteristics of these cool-loving vegetables is their small height (except collards) when mature and their ability to produce quality produce when plants are growing only 3 inches apart. Only lettuce, chard and collards need 12 inches between plants to grow properly.

The short growth habit and dense population potential of these crops make them ideal for intercropping. Intercropping means planting plants between plants. Such plants as tomatoes, pepper and eggplant require at least 24 inches between transplants. Most gardeners plant them 30 to 36 inches apart rather than having to use a machete to hack a path through a jungle of foliage at harvest time. The 30- or more inches of soil between transplants will be barren and non-productive unless small, fast maturing crops are planted. Such "barren" space can become a nuisance because of the necessity for weed control. Mulching with compost or organic matter will prevent weed problems but why not use edible mulch- Beets, lettuce, radishes, turnips, kohlrabi and mustard will be ready to harvest within 2 months, will have performed the function of edible mulch, yet will not interfere with the growth of larger growing plants.

Efficiency and economics should be 2 prime considerations of the backyard gardener. Since most gardeners spread fertilizer over the entire growing area and till or spade it into the soil, growers are wasting "prepared" soil if intercropping is not utilized. Also, most gardeners water the entire planting bed when irrigating so the most efficient use of that water is to grow additional fresh vegetables.

Some of these low growing, fast maturing crops that are ideally suited for intercropping, such as lettuce, onion, parsley and spinach, germinate best when soil temperatures are 70 degrees F. (germinate refers to sprouting of seeds). During a hot fall, seeding of these cool-soil loving crops can occur earlier with greater success if they are inter-planted in the partial shade of taller growing, longer maturing vegetables such as tomatoes and peppers. Partial shading will not greatly decrease the production of the leafy crops and since vegetables between which these small growing, frost tolerant intercrops are growing will be killed by frost, plenty of sunlight will be available after the first cold weather necessitates the removal of the taller growing plants.

There are many advantages of intercropping vegetable crops. Gardeners should realize that the same precaution must be taken when seeding fast maturing vegetables in an intercrop system, as when planting a regular bed—don’t plant too much area at one time. If you seed fast growing vegetables such as radishes, turnips, kohlrabi and lettuce throughout the entire growing area on a single day, chances are the crop will mature simultaneously. Then you will have to harvest all of it on a single day to insure optimum quality. To avoid this, stagger plantings using intervals of 10 to 14 days. Also, remember that intercropped vegetables must be thinned appropriately.

To allow for intercropping space, you must keep tall-growing, long-maturing plants from sprawling all over the ground. One form of “sprawl” control involves either staking or caging. If tomato, pepper, or eggplant fruit come in contact with the Texas soil, fungus will cause rotting to occur. Most gardeners will agree that after all of the toil and trouble of keeping plants alive during this less-than-desirable weather, rotting produce will not be tolerated!

Staking and Trellising

One method of physically supporting tomato plants is to stake or trellis them. Staking or trellising tomatoes offers gardeners many advantages over allowing plants to "grow wild" and take up too much garden space. Some of these advantages include saving of space, more tomatoes produced, earlier harvest (which is important if you plant late in the fall), keeping the vines and fruit off the ground for easier picking and less problems with insects and disease because of better access to foliage and fruit with pesticide applications.

For best results, prune plants to 1 or 2 main growing stems. To direct growing energy to these main stems, tomato plants need to be pruned. Basically, pruning means pinching off the shoots or suckers that grow out from the stem right above a leaf branch. (If a sucker is allowed to grow, it becomes another big stem with its own blossoms and fruit.) Fasten these stems to stout stakes as the plants grow. Soft but strong twine, strips of cloth, or old nylon stockings make good ties. Don't constrict the stems but the plants should be fastened firmly enough not to get knocked loose during bad weather.

Since most of the tomato varieties recommended for fall planting are determinate types which are small plants, suckering and trellising can be tricky. Most gardeners support plants with concrete reinforcing wire cages.


Supporting tomatoes with cages is a very simple and easy method of growing plants without taking up too much garden space. Unlike staking or trellising, tomato plants require less time for pruning and removing suckers. To make a cage, purchase 6-inch, 10-gauge concrete reinforcing wire, available at building supply stores or lumberyards. Purchase a 5 ½-foot length for each 18-inch diameter cylinder to be made. By cutting the cage in half, you can make 2 cages rather than one. Half cages are ideal and more than adequate for most early-maturing, determinate varieties. Apply rust-proof paint, let dry, then bend and hook the wire to make the cylinder. Center the cylinder over the plant and push the ends into the ground. If you use a tall cage, it is wise to secure it firmly with a couple of short stakes supporting the cylinder at the bottom. This will avoid the cage being tipped over by winds when the plant is fully grown and loaded with fruit. Caging makes fruit easy to reach and harvest through the mesh. The fruit will be of good quality since they have never gotten dirty or moldy from touching the ground. Cucumbers also grow great in cages, but be sure to use the tall cages.

Although no pruning is required to insure a strong-growing main stem when cages are used, I recommend the following growing method. Once tomatoes are planted and beginning to grow, prune all auxiliary shoots or suckers up to the stem where the first cluster of fruit begins to form. At this time, the wire cage can be put around tomato plant, leaving all other stems to grow naturally.

The question always arises, "Which method is best?" Neither is "best." Both have certain advantages. Caging offers more tomatoes of a somewhat smaller size. Suckering and staking offers larger tomatoes earlier. I recommend that you try one system on some plants and the other system on some other plants so that you may enjoy the benefits of both.

Support plants now and intercrop cold-tolerant, low-growing, shade-tolerant crops to insure a fall full of delicious edibles.