Learn how to build your own Tomato Taj Mahal to protect your tomatoes from hungry critters.
The author decided to quit messing around and to build a fully enclosed and impenetrable fortress of wood and steel mesh.
The Taj Mahal stands about 9 feet tall by over 20 feet long by over five feet wide. It took two weekends to complete the project. It accommodates eight tomato plants, six pepper plants and 70 stalks of corn.
Victory! The main purpose of the structure is to keep local tree rats at bay. It seems to be working.
The Taj Mahal was a project for the whole family. Pictured are the author’s son Ross and his grandfather and namesake, John Ross.
Put the outside of your structure to good use. A forest of gourds engulfs the the author’s Taj Mahal later in the growing season. Just make certain that you’ve not skimped on building materials.
If your Taj’s roof was of nylon netting, there’s no way the gourd setup will work.
For small gardens, build the structure on top of your raised bed box and lift it off to enter. Construction is easier without doors.
The frame went on an existing raised bed.
Keep it simple. Create a latch by nailing a scrap piece of wood to the door frame. Rotate it to open or shut the door.
Use 1- by 1-inch wire mesh. Denser mesh pat- terns block out sun and pollinators like bees.
Setting wood in concrete is a no-no. Moisture seeps in through the cracks, gets trapped and causes rotting.
Back in 1902, Mr. McGregor caught Peter Rabbit raiding his vegetable garden. Peter managed to escape, but not before losing his jacket and shoes, which Mr. McGregor used to dress a scarecrow. Over a century later, we gardeners are still chasing rabbits and making scarecrows.
Gardeners have to battle against more than just insects, weeds and weather. Sometimes hungry critters like squirrels, birds, raccoons, deer, rabbits, possums and many others can be even bigger problems. In my own garden, I struggled with the unlikeliest of outlaws.
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My old Chesapeake Bay Retriever did a bang-up job of protecting my veggie patch from the rabbits, so I was baffled when I had nothing to show for it. I finally caught her pacing the rows of tomatoes, nudging only the pinkish fruits with her nose so the ripest specimens would drop to the ground for her to eat. She was only chasing the bunnies away to protect her dinner.
The blue jays and crows dug up the kernels of corn just after they germinated, but the squirrels were the cruelest of the crooks. The tree rats gnawed through the stalks of my pole beans just for sport and often pilfered my tomatoes only to take one bite and leave them rotting in the scorching summer sun.
I tried various countermeasures to no avail. The 2-foot fence erected around the garden kept out the rabbits and dogs, but it had no effect on the more nimble critters. The lotions and potions and fake owls and spinning pie plates elicited a lot of neighborhood giggles, mostly from the animals themselves. Motion-activated scare sprinklers and shock wires nailed me more often than their intended targets.
A friend who had problems with hungry deer instructed me to use “me pee” (use your imagination) to keep the critters at bay. Yes, she actually traveled the perimeter of her garden squatting to mark her territory. As an avid deer hunter, I knew she had been wasting her fluids because human urine is actually a curiosity scent that can attract deer.
Finally, I decided to quit messing around and to build a fully enclosed and impenetrable fortress of wood and steel mesh. We dubbed it the Taj Mahal because it’s big and gaudy and surely worthy of recognition as one of the wonders of the world.
Since almost no two projects are exactly alike, I’ll share some general recommendations you can use to build your own garden enclosure. Obviously, if you just want to keep out deer or dogs, there’s no need for a roof. If it’s just raccoons or possums causing you troubles, you can get away with fencing having much bigger openings than those needed to fend off the smaller critters. But the most notorious looters in urban areas are squirrels, so the Taj Mahal was erected primarily to outwit tree rats.
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First of all, go the extra mile and weatherproof your project so it will last a long time. Choose treated wood and hardware. With naturally decayed/bug-resistant woods like bald cypress, California redwood and white and red cedars being either rare or costly, most outdoor projects today are built with “PT”—common softwood lumber that’s been pressure treated with rot-proofing chemicals. If using non-treated lumber, you can still extend the life of your project by treating the wood with the latest exterior wood preservatives and waterproofing compounds. These days, the PT wood and the products for treating wood are environmentally friendly.
Whether you choose screws or nails (and this topic is almost as hotly debated as Ford versus Chevy), use mechanically galvanized hardware. It is highly resistant to rust and corrosion and won’t “weep,” or make those dark streaks you sometimes see streaming down the wood. I opted to use screws because I don’t have a nail gun but do own a cordless drill/screw gun.
The Frame Up
Framing is easier if you already have a raised bed garden. If you have a small garden (maybe 4 by 4 feet), you can even build your enclosure on top of the raised-bed and just lift the cage off of the garden when you need to enter. With no doors in the design, construction is much simpler.
For a bigger and taller garden, construction is still easier in conjunction with a raised bed because you just affix (screw or nail) lumber onto the outside of your raised-bed frame, rather than having to set posts in the ground. I framed my project with pressure-treated 2x4s because they would support the weight of the steel mesh used to enclose the structure. Cut or purchase your lumber 6 inches longer than the desired height. With the wood hanging 6 inches over the outside of the raised-bed frame, screw a 2×4 to the outside of each corner of your raised bed. To protect your wood from moisture, make sure the bottoms of the studs don’t touch the ground.
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I used five 3-inch galvanized screws to connect the 2×4 studs at the base and spaced them 40 inches apart. I chose this dimension because it seems to be a good width for doors. You can even fit a good-sized tiller through such an opening. Because my project was particularly long (over 20 feet) and a bit wider than some raised-bed gardens (over 5 feet), I had three doors running the length of each side and no doors on the ends. The number of doors in your design will depend on how much access you need and how crowded your plants are. For instance, two doors might better fit the bill for an 8-by-4 foot garden. To frame the top around the entire perimeter, cut 1x4s to length and screw them to the tops of the 2x4s.
The height of the structure depends on the height of the plants growing in it. Of all the vegetables I grow, the tallest plants the squirrels eat are tomatoes, so my design was just tall enough to enclose them. Because I prune or “sucker” all but one branch of my tomato plants, they grow very tall and thin. Even though the Taj Mahal is almost 10 feet tall including the raised bed, I still have tomato plants poking through the top. Most folks grow tomato plants that are shorter and bushier, so a 6- to 8-foot-tall structure might be more apropos and certainly much more manageable.
There are plenty of quality wire products that can keep the critters at bay, but I chose galvanized and welded steel mesh for its durability and resistance to corrosion. I recommend against using chicken wire because squirrels and raccoons can chew through it.
One way to save time and energy is to choose a roll of mesh that is the same width as the width of your garden bed frame. If you have an 8-by-4-foot or 12-by-4-foot garden bed, you can use a 4-foot-wide roll of mesh to cover the entire length of the garden without ever having to trim the wire. Just start at one end and roll the mesh from the ground to the top, then the length of the top frame and all the way back to the ground, stapling to your frame as you go.
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The next step is to use wire cutters to cut the rest of the mesh to fit each side panel or section between the 2×4 studs. Don’t worry about precision here. If the distance between the edges of your studs is 38 inches, you can cut the mesh an inch or more wider to give it ample room to overlap the 2×4. Hold the mesh down and staple the wire from top to bottom using a staple gun. If the mesh ends up too long or wide, you can always trim it with wire cutters after you have attached it. I used regular stainless steel staples and have had no problems, but I later found out about rustproof staples called Monels.
Another important consideration is the size of the holes or openings in your wire mesh. I would choose 1 by 1 inches or wider, however wide you can get away with without letting animals in. Opting for small openings like 1/4 by 1/4 inches has major drawbacks. Denser patterns are much heavier, which makes the material harder to work with, harder to support and easier to blow over in the wind. A denser mesh also blocks sunlight and insects like bees that are essential pollinators.
The next step is making doors, and there’s no need to get fancy. Use the same steel mesh cut to fit in between 2x4s about 40 inches apart. Loosely hammer the length of the left edge of the mesh door to the inside of the left 2×4 door frame using galvanized fence staples (sometimes called U-nails). These U-nails placed every few inches from top to bottom become the hinges to your door. Nail these in loosely because wire expands and contracts with temperature changes and needs to be free to move under the staple for the hinge to work properly.
On the right side of your door, trim the wire so that it is almost flush with the left edge of the right 2×4 door frame. Stabilize your mesh door by stapling a strip of thin, flat wood trim about a centimeter thick by an inch or two wide the length of the right side of the mesh. Make sure the strip of wood is perfectly flush with the inside of your right 2×4 door frame.
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To make a door latch, cut a 6-inch piece of the same flat trim material or scrap wood of similar dimensions. Loosely nail the wood strip onto the middle of your right door frame. The wood strip keeps the door closed behind it when horizontal but rotates to vertical to allow the door to be opened. You may need two or more latches spaced a few feet apart on your stud if you have a tall door. Otherwise, a squirrel might be able to pry the door open and squeeze through.
You now have your own Taj Mahal, a weatherproof world wonder that will last for years. It will keep the squirrels out and may even prevent Peter Rabbit from wreaking havoc.
Setting Wood Posts
If you don’t build your structure on top of a raised garden bed, you’re going to need to frame your structure by putting posts in the ground. In most cases, 4×4 posts will do, but 6x6s will give you even more support.
First of all, do not set wooden posts in concrete. Inevitably, a small space develops around the post because materials expand and contract. Moisture seeps in and gets trapped, which causes the wood to rot.
Here’s how to do it correctly. Using a posthole digger or hand auger, dig a hole very close in diameter to the size of your post. Place a rock in the hole to give the post something to stand on instead of damp soil. To protect the cut ends of your post from moisture, you can buy wooden or metal post caps or make your own caps from shop scrap. Affix the caps to the ends and bury about a third of the post in the hole. This means your post needs to be a third longer than the height of your structure.
Shovel in equal parts crushed rock or gravel and soil, tamping between layers with a shovel or piece of wood until you have formed a small hill above ground level, which will help rain flow away from the post.
This article was originally published in The NEW PIONEER™ Spring 2016 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.
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