Grow Up!

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Build your own garden, for crops that grow up, up, and away.

STORY BY BILL THORNESS
ILLUSTRATIONS BY KATIE EBERTS

“Oh, grow up!” I’ve certainly heard that, and perhaps you have too. If you’re an edible gardener, accept the admonition cheerily. It’s good advice.

Growing crops vertically has become a trend, as our urban neighborhoods have gotten denser and our gardens smaller. Grow your cucumbers and squash up an A-frame trellis, send peas up a temporary wall, try beans on a tunnel or a teepee, and, of course, corral your tomatoes in sturdy cages. Think intensively grown veggies on apartment-building decks and rooftops.

Benefits to vertical growing include:

  • adding air circulation to minimize moisture-loving fungus
  • elevating produce to avoid ground-dwelling pests
  • exposing crops to more sun for better ripening
  • making care and harvest easier
  • encouraging larger fruit and/or higher yields

A bonus with many trellis styles is that you have an open bed underneath, where you can grow lettuce or another tender crop that would benefit from the overhead shading of the growing vines.

There are many vertical-growing supports available commercially. But with a roll of welded-wire mesh (heavy-coated wire, typically in a 1” x 2” grid), bamboo poles, wooden stakes, twine, and a screw gun, you can build your own temporary structures.

THE A-FRAME

Cucumbers and vining squash really love an A-frame trellis. The plants send out tendrils that grab thin wires or twine, at most 1/4” in diameter. A typical A-frame trellis is the width of your garden bed and four to six feet tall, with two supports that swing out and prop it up over the bed. Or just build two frames and prop them against each other, lashing them together at the top. The trellis contains a grid of welded wire or string stretched within the frame.

Plant the seeds at the base of the trellis. After the vines reach for the sky, the fruit or seed pods hang down through the trellis.

Growing on an A-frame trellis can enhance results. The tan, gourd-shaped tromboncino squash, for instance, unfurls from its flower and gets much longer when hanging. While growing it at might result in a trumpet, letting it hang from a trellis might yield a trombone!

THE WALL

Peas do great on an A-frame, but they can also just be planted at the base of a vertical trellis “wall.” I build a wall frame out of bamboo (many types of stakes would work) stuck in the soil at two-foot intervals along the row, then twined together with horizontals top and bottom. Twine stretched from those cross-pieces provides the infill and gives the vines a ladder.

Cherry tomatoes also perform well on a wall trellis, although they benefit from a stronger infill. Set uprights, one foot apart, tie in more cross-pieces, and skip the twine. Because tomatoes don’t have tendrils to grab onto the trellis, you’ll need to tie their vining shoots to the trellis at intervals. I also thread the supple vines back and forth through the bamboo.

THE TEEPEE

For plants that want to go higher, try a teepee. Beans do especially well on a trellis, as they can keep heading for the stars. A teepee shape has natural strength, important for a heavy-yielding crop like beans. Beans wrap around a larger-diameter support, which makes bamboo the perfect material. My scarlet runner beans go up bamboo as tall as I can find, easily topping 15 feet.

The teepee is even easier to build, requiring no hardware. Gather a few cut and dried bamboo culms, preferably an odd number like 3 or 5. They don’t need to be exactly the same length, but within two feet is good. Group the poles and line up the bottoms. Move to the top of the group and, using a three-foot piece of twine, begin to wrap the poles together about a foot from the top of the shortest one. Weave the twine in and around all the pieces, cinching it fairly tight as you go. When it’s well woven, tie it off. Stand the bamboo on end and spread the poles out over your garden bed in a teepee shape. You can plunge the bamboo ends directly into the soil, but I like to take extra three-foot-long pieces and stick them straight into the ground at the base of each pole, then use more twine to bind stake and pole. This adds support so the trellis doesn’t tip over when burdened with producing vines. If your garden is in an especially windy area, this step is essential.

THE CAGE

Most tomatoes are vining plants (called “indeterminate” varieties), so they benefit from some support, too. If you’ve ever seen a dense, fully grown tomato plant laden with big beefsteak fruit crush one of those wimpy circular wire cages, you know the plant needs something sturdier. Here’s an easy, make-at-home version, again with the handy welded-wire mesh. Set four, six-foot-long stakes into the soil in a circle around your young tomato plant, perhaps a foot from the plant. Drive the stakes two feet into the soil. Unroll four-foot welded wire mesh around the outside of the stakes, overlapping a bit after circling the plant. Cut the mesh and attach it to each stake with twine, zip ties, or staples. Train four or five main tomato vines to grow at intervals around the circle, tying them to the trellis as needed.

FINALLY, THE TUNNEL

The bean teepee makes a great fort for kids, by the way, but there’s another bean support that also provides a fun garden hiding place: the tunnel. This too is very simple to make.

Simply stretch welded wire mesh in a half- circle shape over your garden bed and hold down the edges with stakes sunk into the soil every two feet and tied with twine onto the mesh. If you want more stability, erect the mesh over a cloche frame made of bendable PVC pipe, heavy-gauge wire, or permanently bent galvanized conduit. The cloche frame method adds a benefit: You can first cover it with plastic to warm and dry the soil, so you can get those warm- season crops planted earlier.

Plant the beans along the edges of the tunnel, and by mid-summer, you’ll have a cool, shady place for a garden nap. Don’t cede it entirely to the kids.

Getting vertical with these techniques gives you another way of getting more use out of limited space, corralling messy plants, keeping the plants healthier, and possibly increasing your yields.

So, grow up already! Your plants will thank you for it.

Bill Thorness researched and developed designs for some of these trellises for his book Cool Season Gardener.

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