When it comes to growing tomatoes, cages made of concrete reinforcing wire usually play the role of supporting cast. But Vance Silknitter, getting into the 70-tomato-plant range, got plain sick of the space they took up. So he reached for a space-saving alternative, one that looks really cool and that allows him to walk through tunnels not only of tomatoes but any vining vegetable. Best of all, it can be stored flat when summer is over. He found the answer in cattle panels.
These are 16-foot-long flat galvanized-steel panels that have 6-by-4-inch openings.
"My cucumbers, cantaloupe, beans, squash, anything that vines I put on those cattle panels," says Vance, who works at Spirit and lives in Whitewater. "I've got 28, 30 panels now. When I lay out my garden, it looks like a construction site."
Vance will be at Tomato Day next weekend to give a talk on the technique. He shops at farm-supply stores for the few ingredients he uses to build his space-saving tomato supports.
"I got it to where now I go into Orscheln's or Atwoods and I cut a 16-footer in half right there and hog-ring the tops of 'em. That way I can put them right in my pickup truck," Vance said.
Back home, he uses bolt cutters to remove the lowest horizontal wire and then sticks the resulting vertical wires into the ground to anchor the panels. The panels then raised, he puts a section (how many inches) of PVC pipe between the panels near the top to create an arch.
"They're under tension to where they're not moving around. They're all rigid. And then what I do is take some wire ties and tie them together, and you've got a tunnel when I get done."
Vance's back used to kill him when he had to bend over to pick beans, and now he can stand upright to pick. He lays the panels on their side as a shorter, longer trellis for blackberries.
Every couple of days, Vance winds the growing vines of his crops through the openings of the cattle-pen trellis.
He tried to sell the panels for a while, but when people saw them, they realized they could make their own. So he started giving them away, including to Sedgwick County's master gardeners. They've now invited him to speak at their tomato celebration, which will be from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. July 24 at the Extension Education Center, 21st and Ridge Road.
Vance's talk will be from 9:15 to 9:45 a.m. In addition to talking about the cattle panels he'll talk about how he plans his garden in the winter on his computer.
"This is what is exciting is this," he says, showing me a binder of colorful plans.
"I garden all year whether it's freezing or not. I lay it all out on an Excel program so I rotate my crops and have companion planting.
"Oh it's fun. My wife says I'm over the top. You gotta have something to do."
Vance drives 45 minutes to and from his job at Spirit in Wichita each day. His wife, Judy, and he decided 30 years ago to move out to Whitewater and raise their children in the country. Their family eventually reached six kids, and Judy told Vance he'd better not give up on gardening. He grows the vegetables, and she cooks them up and cans them up to put on the table year-round.
"I put up at least 100 quarts of tomato sauce, then I put up picante, and I always like to cook the whole tomatoes and pepper and onions and eat them on a salad," Judy says. She uses a Victorio Food & Vegetable Strainer to process the tomatoes.
Vance combs mail-order seed catalogs in the off-season for the most disease-resistant tomatoes and never uses any pesticides on them. Judy likes Roma tomatoes because she can pop them in the Victorio without having to slice them, and Vance has found an indeterminate Roma variety — Super Marzano.
When Vance wanted to expand his garden, he looked over at his neighbor's property but was stymied by a hedge of trees on it.
"It was probably taking 8 feet of my garden," he declares.
So what happened?
"I've taken over my neighbor's yard. He let me cut all the trees down, and I took the fence down. My rototiller keeps inching its way over there every year." In payment, the neighbor gets to pick whatever food he wants — and doesn't have as much lawn to mow.
"I work in aluminum and titanium and steel all day," Vance says. "It's good to come out here and get my hands dirty."
One recent evening, when the family was gone, "I come home and took a couple of roasting ears out of the garden and popped 'em in the microwave. It doesn't get any better than that."
If your mouth is watering and you're not growing your own vegetables and fruits, you can buy them at farmers markets and at farms such as Beck's Farm just north of Newton.
"We've been picking tomatoes for a long time," Scott Beck says. "We have all kinds of fruits and vegetables all summer long, and we keep about 60 acres manicured into a park."
And of course, there will be a lot of tomatoes for sale at Tomato Day on July 24.