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GardenSMART :: Growing Vertical Vegetables

Growing Vertical Vegetables

By Renee Shepherd for Renee’s Garden
Photographs courtesy of Renee’s Garden

One of the easiest ways to grow rambling or vining plants is to train them up trellises or supports. In a small garden, growing things upwards is a good solution because space is limited but you still want a lush appearance and lots of diversity in your plantings. In a bigger garden, vertical displays can become wonderful design features and focal points and provide much-needed visual screens or windbreaks. And, if you enjoy creating wildlife habitat in the garden, you'll find that having plants at eye level is the best way to see small creatures such as iridescent hummingbirds and hovering butterflies.

Start the spring garden off with snow peas or sugar snap peas on a trellis or strong net strung up between two poles. After you've harvested the succulent pea pods in early summer, plant pole beans in the same spot to finish up the season. Both peas and beans will naturally twine and cling, so they are among the easiest to train vertically. I especially like the pole varieties of these two kinds of vegetables, because it so much easier to find the pods when they are at eye level.

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I've found that scarlet runner beans, with their pretty coral and white or all red blossoms, are a surefire way to attract hungry hummingbirds. My favorite support for peas and beans is plastic netting with big three-inch square openings. Sometimes you can find garden netting made out of jute or some other natural fibers, so at the end of the season the whole vine and its support can be put in the compost pile. If you do use plastic netting, be sure to remove and store it for the winter, as cold and wet weather seem to make it degrade faster.

Tomatoes are one of the rambling vines that perform best when provided with strong stakes, sturdy trellises or sturdy cages. If left to spread on the ground, they would take up a great deal of room and the fruits would be hidden and more prone to disease. Cherry tomato plants, especially, can get huge and dense so be sure to provide them with extra strong vertical support, otherwise each plant makes such a jungle of foliage that it is hard to harvest the fruit by the end of the season!

How To Contain Your Tomatoes

GardenSMART Article Image To contain my tomatoes, I use cages made out of very heavy gauge wire, the kind that is used in reinforcing concrete. The holes between the wire squares are big enough for me to reach through to harvest red ripe tomatoes but the wire is stiff enough to support the heaviest vines. Don't purchase the flimsy vase shaped thin wire cages often sold for tomatoes, because they will fall over before most vigorous varieties are even half done growing. If you don't have the time or materials to make wire cages, use sturdy wood or metal stakes to tie up your vines to, or string strong wire between poles to support their growing branches. This year, we made some very nice looking tomato cages out of wooden 1x1's.They look like 4 ladders screwed together into a box shape; we used metal fasteners and wing nuts so they can be disassembled and put away for winter. Once you plant out your seedlings, you may have to encourage the young vines to attach themselves, but once they get going they'll climb right up without effort.

For growing vining summer squash or any kind of gourds, traditional teepees made from stakes or saplings are useful and handsome. I like to grow miniature pumpkins this way because the bright little orange fruit look like wonderful summer ornaments as they grow up their supports. Or make a long A-frame trellis with stout string between the wooden members. Plant four or five seeds about two inches from the base of your upright supports. Once strong seedlings have emerged, thin to the strongest plants for growing on, as well spaced and uncrowded seedlings always produce the most fruitful mature plants. Small melons and vining cucumbers can also be grown this way, although their vines will need help to climb upwards. Stretchy plastic ribbon, natural fiber twine or even strips of old pantyhose are good materials for tying your vertical vines. When growing plants with heavy fruits like winter squash or melons, it's a good idea to cradle the growing fruit in slings made of old T-shirts or plastic netting. Another great vining vegetable is the Italian heirloom Trombetta, a delicious climbing summer squash. Its luxuriant vines, with their lime-green, trumpet -shaped fruits are a true visual feast, whether you grow just a few plants on poles or whole fence of these tall climbers.

In planning for climbing varieties, don't forget the ornamental as well as the edible. Some of my favorite annual flowering vines, all easy to grow from seed, include: evening-flowering moonflowers, bright morning glories, lavender flowering hyacinth bean vines, climbing spicy nasturtiums, and of course all the beautiful hues of fragrant sweet peas for early spring and summer bloom. All of these beauties can grace your garden with walls of attractive foliage and glorious flowers to enjoy inside and out all season long.

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