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
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
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.