September 2003

Reach for the Sky with Vertical Plants

National Garden Bureau

Support muskmelons at this stage of growth

Growing plants vertically makes good use of space in the smaller gardens people tend nowadays. Vertical plants also make harvesting easier - no stooping to cut the fruits from the vines. And the architectural interest that these plants add to the vegetable garden brings a design out of the ordinary and utilitarian into the sphere of the well-thought-out perennial border. Why shouldn't your edible garden be as attractive as the rest of your efforts?

Vertical Veggies

Combining vining plants, such as beans and cucumbers or peas and gourds, on the same A-frame trellis gives you double the harvest for the space.

Beans - Pole beans will climb up just about anything, including other plants. Witness the traditional "Three Sisters" method employed by native Americans, who planted beans with corn and pumpkins. The corn stalks provide support for the beans to climb while the pumpkins (or other squash) sprawl on the ground beneath as a living mulch. Sow pole bean seeds around bamboo tepees, along a netted trellis, or on an arbor. For an old-fashioned change of pace, try scarlet runner beans (in cooler parts of Texas) with their red flowers, on a fence or arbor. In very small gardens, try spacing single poles in a row at the rear of the garden or even bordering a back alk. Pole beans produce longer than bush beans; they continue to grow, flower and fruit as long as you keep picking the pods.

Gourds & Winter Squash - Members of the same family, these cousins form very long vines, as long as 25 to 30 feet in the case of gourds; winter squash is less overpowering, with vines up to 9 or 10 feet long. Both take a long growing season to mature. Gourds, in particular, look really attractive growing on a trellis, where the tendrils carry the vines up while the fruits hang down, showing off their interesting shapes. Support the heavy fruits of winter squash, such as butternut, with individual cloth slings tied to the trellis or fence.

Cucumbers - Cucumbers, in containers or in the ground, produce straighter, cleaner fruit when you grow them vertically. Sow seeds along a cage, netted A-frame or flat trellis and guidethe plants up onto the netting in the beginning; the plants' tendrils will naturally curl around on their own when they get going.

Melons - Relatives of cucumbers, melons also climb by means of tendrils, but their heavier fruit requires some buttressing when yougrow the plants vertically to prevent the weight from pulling the vines down. Use the same kind of slings you use for winter squash.

Peas - Although most shelling, or English, peas produce short vines, which need no support, many of the edible-podded and snow peas produce longer vines that readily climb string or netted trellises by means of tendrils. Training them vertically definitely makes harvesting easier. Because peas grow best in cool weather, combine them with later maturing vegetables, such as beans or cucumbers, or with a flowering vine to take their place during the hot, midsummer months; resow peas fora fall harvest, if you want.

Tomatoes - Tomatoes that sprawl on the ground tend to range widely over a garden bed and the fruits get marred by dampness or insects. Trained on stakes, they bear cleaner fruit and, of course, take up much less space.

Look for indeterminate varieties, those with stems that keep growing through the season and, therefore, produce a larger crop (seed packets and plant labels tell you whether a tomato is determinate or indeterminate). You need to help tomato plants grow vertically; tie them at intervals to a support with soft ties. If you prefer more decorative supports than simple bamboo poles, check out the offerings at garden centers and mail-order companies for attractive alternatives. No matter what kind of fence encloses your garden, you can train tomato plants to grow up it by using hooks (for wooden fences) or ties (for wire fences). Staked tomatoes grow as well in a large container as they do in the ground.

Placement and Planting Techniques


When you grow vegetables on trellises and other supports, set them on the north side of your plot and towards the back of a row or bed so they do not block the sun from other low-growing plants. Most A-frame trellises take up a space about 5 feet in length and 3 feet wide; tepees require a 3- to 5-foot-diameter space; single stakes and cages need 2 to 3 feet.

Make your own trellises with bamboo poles and netting. Use 2 poles for each end, tilt them towards each other and tie together about 6 inches from the top; then lay a fifth pole across the top and tie it securely to the trellis legs with twine. Insert legs about 9 foot into the soil, separating them at an angle for stability. Drape netting over the top and tie it to the legs in a few places. Sow seeds of plants, such as cucumbers and pole beans, along the length of both sides of the trellis; guide stems up onto the netting as the begin to grow.

Create tepees by tying 5 bamboo poles together at the top with twine. Spread the legs out and set in the ground about 1 foot deep. Sow 3 to 5 seeds of pole beans around each leg.

In small, fenced gardens, sow seeds for vining crops, such as cucumbers, melons, and winter squash in rows near the fence, particularly if your fence is chicken wire or cyclone fencing. Guide the vines up onto the fence as they grow.

Cages are the easiest method to grow plants vertically. Place them around tomato plants soon after planting. Cages save time because you do not need to pinch off the tomato suckers that form on plants where the leaf stem joins the main stem. Suckers grow quickly into full-fledged flower- and fruit-producing stems, not a problem when a cage surrounds the plant, but a potential jungle if you stake plants.

If you choose to stake tomatoes do so when you plant them, so you avoid harming roots. Use two stakes per plant, 1 to 2 feet apart. Leave the first (lowest) sucker that forms and remove all the rest as they appear during the season. Tie the main stem to one pole and the sucker (when it is large enough) to the other, using strips of soft cloth or coated wire. Use a figure-8 configuration and tie stems loosely to the poles so growth can proceed unrestricted. As the stems grow, continue tying at intervals.

Flowering Plants Grow Up from Seed


Enhance your vegetable garden with one or more flowering vines to scramble over fences or up arbors, alone or in combination with climbing vegetables.