Photo by Jessica Walliser
Earlier this month, we talked about space-saving techniques for small gardens. In that same vein, you can also save space by gardening vertically. Vertical gardening not only leaves room to grow more of the veggies you love, it helps improve plant health and vigor and facilitates harvesting.
Trellising, caging and staking plants—the three common methods of vertical gardening—are smart moves in the vegetable garden for many reasons. First and foremost, it prevents the plant’s foliage from contacting the soil. Many blights, as well as some types of bacterial and fungal diseases, dwell in the soil. By keeping the foliage and fruits off the soil surface, you’re helping to keep those issues at bay. Secondly, the air circulation around trellised and staked plants is greatly improved; reducing the occurrence of fungal diseases, like powdery and downy mildews. Staking also keeps fruits cleaner and makes harvesting a breeze. Plus, by growing vertically, you really can maximize production from even the smallest of gardens.
Here are some of my favorite methods of training plants in the veggie patch:
1. Natural Staking
Insert branched sticks and twigs into the soil at the base of twining plants, such as peas and beans. The tendrils quickly grasp the rough bark, and when it comes time to pull the plants at the end of the season, the stakes can go right in the compost pile with them. This type of staking is very discrete and my personal favorite.
2. Wire Fencing
Hammer in a 1×1 hardwood stake every 5 to 6 feet down the length of the garden row. Using a staple gun, fasten a 4-foot-high vinyl coated box wire or chicken wire fence to the wooden stakes. Plant a row of beans, peas or cucumbers down both sides of the fencing; this way, one fence will support two rows. Picking beans grown on such a support is easy on the back and production is enhanced as pollinating bees can readily find the blossoms.
My favorite tomato cage is made from concrete reinforcement wire. This heavy duty “fencing” has 6-by-6-inch, square openings that make it easy to simply reach in and harvest fruit—even Brandywine tomatoes can be picked right through the openings. Cut a piece of the wire about 8 feet long and bend it into a cylinder, overlapping the cut ends to close the circle. Place it over top of new transplants and secure it with a stake hammered firmly into the ground. Unlike the wimpy wire cages you can buy at the garden center, these cages will last for many, many years and they can support an incredible amount of weight.
4. Existing Fencing
For gardeners whose veggie patch is already enclosed in a fence, here’s an easy way to grow plants right on it. Cut a piece of vinyl coated box wire fence to the length of your row. Bend over the top 4 inches of the wire and hook it over the top of your existing fence. Plant seeds of vining veggies at the base of the wire fence. As the tendrils grasp it, their weight will hold it in place.
5. Hardwood Stakes
To support peppers, eggplants, tomatoes, tomatillos and the like, purchase plenty of 6 foot, 1-by-1-inch hardwood stakes. Don’t use treated lumber, as the chemicals used in the treatment process will leach into the soil. Hammer the stake in at planting time so you won’t harm newly formed roots, and fasten the plant to the stake using nylon stockings, jute or hemp twine, or strips of cotton sheets.
Use fallen branches to construct garden tepees. I use four branches about 1 to 2 inches in diameter and 6 or 7 feet tall fastened at the top with several go-rounds of jute twine. I then wrap the whole tent in a swirl of grapevines that I prune from the woods behind our house. (Make sure you’re using grapevines and not poison ivy!) If you don’t have access to grapevine, you could also make a webbing of twine between the legs of the tepee. Grow Kentucky Wonder pole beans, Sugar Daddy snap peas, sweet peas and cukes from seeds planted around the base of each of the four legs. An added bonus: The shady areas underneath the tepees are a great home for summer crops of cool season veggies like lettuce and cabbage.
7. Living Supports
Grow a row or two of sunflowers in the vegetable garden and don’t pull the plants out at the end of the growing season. The birds will enjoy the seeds through the winter and the following spring you can plant early peas at the base of the now dead stalks. The peas will twine up the sunflower stems and be finished bearing by the time any new sunflower seedlings grow tall enough to shade them.
Cantaloupe, winter squash, small melons and other vining crops will also perform well when grown vertically. Just be sure to choose extra sturdy trellis materials and build a sling made of cotton sheets or another breathable fabric to support the weight of each ripening fruit.
Get more of Jessica’s favorite gardening tips:
- Feed Hummingbirds with Homegrown Flowers
- Short on Space and Time? These Gardening Tips Are for You
- 13 Trees, Shrubs and Flowers to Turn a Muddy Yard into a Garden You’ll Love
- Prep Your Seedlings for Transplanting
- How to Stamp Out Mugwort in the Garden