Fruiting vines, like grapes, can feed your family and add to an eye-pleasing landscape.
In 1896, American architect Louis Sullivan changed the field of architecture with the concept of “form follows function.” Sullivan designed his buildings with the philosophy that the physical attributes of each structure should be based primarily on its use. His apprentice, Frank Lloyd Wright, took the idea even further by adopting his own philosophy: “form and function are one.” His view combines the architecture of the building itself with both its environment and the people it houses. Wright called it “organic architecture.” Take a look at Fallingwater or either of his Taliesin homes to get a good idea of what he was talking about. According to Wright, nature itself combines form and function in every design.
For hobby farmers, Wright’s mantra couldn’t be more advantageous; especially when it comes to plants. More often than not, we tend to select plants for our landscape simply for form (they’re pretty) or for function (they taste good). Why, then, don’t we follow Wright’s philosophy more often and select plants that are not only lovely, but also useful? We tend to see our plants as either one or the other. Seldom do we consider the host of plants able to serve our landscape with both form and function.
If ever there were a group of plants with the ability to satisfy both desires, it would be vines. They are beautiful, welcoming souls willing to be trained this way and that to screen out a neighbor, cover a naked wall, envelop a trellis, shade a patio, buffer road noise or contain children (not by wrapping them up, mind you, but by creating a living fence to keep them corralled). But when we add to this list of functions their ability to produce fruits, we are suddenly blessed with the opportunity to maximize not only our farm’s beauty but also its productivity.
Multifunctional fruit-bearing vines are the perfect fit for hobby farms. Using these vines to fill vertical spaces generates more edibles while taking up less acreage. Clematis and morning glories are pretty plants, indeed, but you can’t eat them (or you shouldn’t, at any rate). Instead, choose from one of these deliciously useful vines to bring Wright’s philosophy to fruition on your farm.
With a sturdy frame to support them, perennial fruiting vines can produce for decades. The key to their success is twofold. First and foremost, note the word “sturdy.” According to Stella Otto, author of both The Backyard Berry Book: A Hands-on Guide to Growing Berries, Brambles, and Vine Fruit in the Home Garden (Ottographics, 1995) and The Backyard Orchardist: A Complete Guide to Growing Fruit Trees in the Home Garden (Ottographics, Revised ed. 1995), “Perennial vines can grow extensively in a single season, so they need strong support. A good, solid trellis or pergola should do the job. Also, since these fruits are perennial, you’ll want the structure to be long-lasting, not something, like a lightweight mesh, that you will constantly have to replace.”
Perennial vines are also a good choice for covering permanent fences. Split-rail fencing makes a perfect support for many of these plants, as the tendrils can be readily trained to grow along the cross-slats. The empty lateral spaces allow for plenty of air circulation, reducing the likelihood of fungal issues and making for an easy harvest.
The second contributing factor to the success of a perennial fruiting vine is its location. Otto stresses the importance of growing conditions.
“Be aware of how much sun your site receives—at least 6 hours daily is generally required to produce a good fruit crop, so make note of your sun exposure,” she says. Knowledge of your soil fertility and pH is critical, as well. Your local cooperative extension agency can help provide this information via a soil-test kit.
Otto also suggests avoiding “frost pockets,” places in the landscape where frosts tend to settle.
“Choose plant types and varieties that are generally known to do well in the conditions you have,” she says. “My best advice is to ask another local gardener what has done well for them. Also, you can experiment with a few that seem suitable, and eventually you will find your own personal favorites.”
Here are some perennial vines you can grow in your garden:
Requiring a less-brawny support system, fruitful annual vines are great choices for gardeners using simple arbors, trellises or tepees. Plus, it can be exciting to alter annual selections each season, changing color schemes, textures and fruits on a yearly basis.
Annual vines still require a minimum of six hours full sun per day for maximum production but will be more tolerant of slightly shady conditions than perennial vines. And if they don’t perform well, they’re easy enough to replace. Like perennials, you need to check for proper soil conditions, but hardiness considerations are negated here. Take the days to maturity into consideration, as some annual vines take several months to bear fruit. Northern gardeners need to look for faster-maturing types so the season is long enough to realize the plant’s full potential.
Here are some annual vines you can grow in your garden:
“Covering existing vertical structures with fruiting vines is an extremely efficient use of space,” Otto says. “It allows gardeners with limited space to grow crops they might otherwise not consider.” So head to the garden with form and function in mind and prepare to reap the benefits.
About the Author: Horticulturist Jessica Walliser dreams of growing Eastern Prince, a fruit-bearing magnolia vine, in her zone-6 garden. She is co-host of KDKA radio’s The Organic Gardeners in Pittsburgh and author of several gardening books, including Grow Organic (St. Lynn’s Press, 2007) and Good Bug Bad Bug (St. Lynn’s Press, 2008).
This article first appeared in the March/April 2012 issue of Hobby Farm Home.