Save Space and Increase Garden Yields by Growing Crops Vertically

Growing crops vertically can double or triple your yield of better produce, in less space, with less work, using trellises, bins, and tepees.
By John Vivian
April/May 1996
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Growing crops vertically using tepees for peas and cucumber racks.
ILLUSTRATION: BELLA HOLLINGWORTH
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Growing crops vertically can make improvements on garden space and increase yields, all with less work involved. (See the gardening illustrations in the image gallery.)

"To Jack's amazement, the magic beans he got in trade for his mother's cow had sprouted. And, a giant beanstalk was growing up . . . and up . . . and up some more . . . till it vanished ht the bright blue sky."
—Jack the Giant Killer . . . old tale
 

Save Space and Increase Garden Yields by Growing Crops Vertically

I don't know if vegetables experience contentment; they don't express it in an animate, warm-blooded way... can't smile or wag their tails or gallop around the pasture. But I do know from over a quarter century of garden experimentation that such natural climbers as Kentucky Wonder pole beans and Heavenly Blue morning glories will act as close to happy as I can perceive—will grow vigorously, offering double or triple the production—if simply allowed to climb as high as they want. The flower vines will go 25 feet or more, and the beans do best if planted at the base of 12-feet strings.

In Nature, plants have help in growing up. They can scale established vegetation, top hills and rocks, or twine up dead and downed trees and brush piles. But the typical garden is dinner-plate flat. There is no natural up to be had, so gardeners must fashion poles, cages, tents, and garden structures to guide plants in claiming the air rights over the garden plot.

In my trials, identical varieties grown without support wandered aimlessly, twisting their stems into futile knots. The morning glories produced no more than a half dozen flowers and seed pods—while each string-supported vine made a delightful new garland of heavenly blue flowers each day from June till frost. The unsupported bean vines baled up on themselves the same way, maturing only two or three twisted, rust-blighted seedpods. But, given support to grow as they preferred—straight up—the bean vines produced clusters of succulent pods from about 60 days after planting till frost.

Bean production continued only so long as vines were kept picked . . . as if grazing animals were harvesting the lower pods, as must happen in Nature. But as soon as several pods were permitted to mature (in Nature presumably, the first that developed well above standing-graze level for such browsers as deer or goats) the vine quit climbing and flowering. Picking partly mature pods restored growth to a degree, but the vine never regained its original vigor.

However, in their three square feet of garden space, each string supporting three or four well-picked vines produced as much as or more than a 20-feet-long (40 square feet) row containing 15 or so plants of a comparable bush variety planted right alongside. Plus, the naturally grown pole beans had half the bug damage and twice the flavor of their inbred bush-sized cousins. And beans are just the beginning.

Heirloom Varieties

To locate varieties that haven't been deprived of all their natural vim, vigor, and vitality, try heirloom seeds from MOTHER'S "Seed Swap." In seed catalogs or back-of-seed-packet descriptions, look for varietal names like "Tall Telephone" green pea and descriptive terms suggesting aggressive growth habit such as "indeterminate;" "vigorous grower," "needs staking," or "pole." Avoid varieties described as "compact," "bush," "low," or "determinate:'

In assigning garden location and locating vertical-growth supports, you should also differentiate between vines that grow straight up and as high as they can, those that grow out flat and expand laterally, and those that leapfrog. Then, erect support systems appropriate to the plant. Those that produce a single stalk such as peas and beans and that climb without help do best on vertical string supports.

Those that grow several lateral stems such as squash vines and yams must be manually lifted and woven through strands of a mesh support. The "leapfroggers" need to be tied up or contained in a crib or bin. Lastly, be aware of which varieties will grow how high. It is always better to give climbers a little too much room to grow than too little.

Highest-climbing garden vegetables should be arrayed at the northern downsun end of the garden so as not to shade out lower growers placed behind them. At the very top of the garden, I maintain a planting of perennial Jerusalem artichoke, a small-flowered but tall-growing sunflower that produces ample, self-perpetuating crops of edible tubers that are delicious raw or in salads—or cooked as a substitute for water chestnuts or potatoes. Then just below it, at the top of the cultivated garden, I plant a row of giant sunflowers, thinning them to two feet in the row. Growing up to ten feet high with huge seed heads, just a few can provide a winter's supply of high-protein snacks ...plus a great contribution to the compost heap. Next comes seed of varieties that produce single stems (peas and beans) and that should be planted close together in narrow rows.

Those that branch out (tomatoes, cucumbers, and melons) need wider spacing but are lower growing, so come third in height order. Next come the taller unsupported varieties such as brussels sprouts, and finally the greens and low root crops. Seasonality as well as growth height determine planting order and timing. I like to start tall-growing, cold-tolerant peas at the back of the garden in early spring (often before the last snow showers in April). Peas are one of the few vegetables that freeze well for me, so I plant a lot. First to go in are tall-growing, edible-pod snow peas, sugar snaps, and "Frosty"-type cold-tolerant sweet peas.

Reluctantly, and for these super-early plantings only, I have compromised my organic principles and bought seed treated against the soil-borne rots that consume virtually all seed planted before they emerge and the June sun warms and dries out our cold, wet New England spring soil. But I am experimenting with a way to avoid those ugly red-poison coatings—by planting early peas in three-inch-deep trenches filled with State of Maine ocean-beach sand. (I can't see why a clean inland sand from a sandpit, lake beach, or river bend wouldn't work as well.)

Sand contains few plant nutrients, but it is also free of inland soil and its seed-rotting organisms. Peas and beans have more than enough food stored in their first cotyledonary leaves to fuel root growth down into nutrient-bearing soil and greenery up to the sun.

Succession Planting

In late spring, I plant a main crop of tall-growing peas on the same supports that hold the picked-over vines of the early varieties. Then, when the soil warms in late June, I follow the peas with green and yellow pole beans and pole limas. Both peas and beans are vining, seedpodproducing legumes but are different enough that they don't share diseases. So they can share the same soil. Peas do best in cool weather, so they can be planted six weeks or a month before heat-loving beans. By the time beans are reaching for the sky, picked-clean pea vines will be drying out and happy to offer their stalks to give the beans added purchase.

These days I grow the tall legume vines on line suspended from horizontal poles supported by 12- to 15-feet-tall tepee Aframes (see page of this issue 24). Years ago I let vines climb up cotton fishnet scavenged in rolled-up snarls from the beach after winter storms. During the late winter, I'd unsnarl it and cut it free of kelp, fish line, broken lobster traps, and starfish—sitting with feet up in front of the woodstove. Old-time cotton-cord fishing nets were moderately supple when soaking wet but became board-stiff when dry and could support pea and bean vines about as well as a chain-link fence.

I found that old pea and bean vines dried quickly in the fall, could be ignited with a match, and would burn off rapidly, destroying mold spores, disease organisms, and bug eggs. But the tight-wound, hard-cord fishnet wouldn't even singe if it was still rain-damp. I'd roll the fire-cleaned net for reuse, and if it wasn't too old when I found it, it lasted for years before rotting away naturally. But we live in a plastic age ... and cotton has been replaced by much cheaper, longer-living nylon, styrenes, and other monofilaments. Exposed to vine-clearing flame, "monos" will slump or melt and make a noxious smoke.

And, burned or not, it takes years of exposure to sunlight for the plastic to degrade. Buried in garden or landfill, it can last forever. Plus, the fishnet is so fine it cuts my fingers and gets dry seawater salt in the cuts, and I dislike handling it. I doubt that pea or bean vines much like it either. I know for sure that the fish don't. So I make my own vertical supports from hard cotton cord from the hardware store. It is looped between parallel poles (bamboo fishing poles are best for the top horizontals; bottom poles are scrap lumber). Top poles are supported by 12- to 15- feet-high tepees and A-frames made of saplings or scrap lumber, and bottom poles weighted with rocks or staked to the ground (see illustration). Lines are spaced an easy-harvesting six or seven inches apart, and the line is secured with a double half hitch—passed in back of itself twice each time around the poles.

Hard cotton twine lasts for several years, so if it looks strong in the fall, I burn the dry old vines and wind the line up on the poles in the fall and store it inside for use next year. (If it's rolled up with a lot of old vine still on, it snags so badly I find it nigh impossible to unroll next spring.)

Gardening (Almost) Naturally

You won't want to start the garden completely wild by scattering seeds and started seedlings at random and letting them compete to the death with one another and with even more vigorous weeds for sun, water, and root space. Rather, plant and nurture the way plants are arranged in nature once the initial culling is over—maximum number of strongest plants in the available space. Then, enrich soil and help all suitable varieties to get some altitude.

By adding compost and natural conditioners early, you will increase water retention as you enrich your garden soil to the dark and crumbly tilth of a natural forest loam. Growth of desirables will be vigorous enough to provide all the good eating you could hope for as well as make shade to reduce water loss and kill or stunt most weeds. One or two hoeings will keep weeds down till the crops are up.

Peas and beans are legumes that fix nitrogen in the soil even as they consume it in their own growth. Tall, late-season corn is a heavy feeder, and when planted out in front of the pea/bean row, it benefits from all that energy. Corn doesn't replace nitrogen, however ... so I interplant leftover pole bean seed in the corn rows. I let the beans mature and harvest the pods for dry beans.

Beans don't replace all the nitrogen that corn uses, so if I get to it in late summer, I plant oats, winter wheat, or another vigorous green manure crop on the plot and let it grow up and around the corn. (If I don't find the time to plant oats, I let weeds grow up.) Then, oats or weeds are tilled in (mowed down if they threaten to go to seed before tilling time) to add their fiber and nutrients to the soil.

Over the season, pea pods, bean-pod ends, stalks and shuckings and cobs of the sweet corn, stalks and deseeded heads of sunflowers, and stalks of Jerusalem artichoke are shredded and composted ...and the finished compost returned to the garden plot. That way, nearly everything the plants produce during the year but a few edible seeds and kernels is returned to the land almost as efficiently as the way Nature builds forest and meadow loam.

By burying meat scraps and fish leavings, tilling in nitrogen-rich green manures and compost (plus a share of each winter's wood ashes, and lime every third year) to contribute phosphorus and potassium, I am actually putting more major plant nutrients into the soil than I take out.

Semiclimbers

Next in the height sequence, and next south in the garden plan, are the vigorous ground vines such as cucumbers and summer squash that can extend runners to twenty feet from their roots but need coaxing to grow up. I leave a good yard of footpath out front of the rows (indeed, I will lay planks or flat-rock pavers to create a semi-permanent path) to give myself plenty of room to fasten both vines and heavy fruit to the supports.

After trying and rejecting support frames using thin-wire poultry netting and wood lattice (that sag and deteriorate quickly), I've settled on lightweight welded-wire stock fencing with a 4 inches by 6 inches or larger mesh so I can get a hand through to harvest the back. I bend end wires of 4 foot by 4 foot panels of the (semistiff) fence over 3-1/2 foot by 4 foot frames made from recycled building lumber or inexpensive 2 inch by 2 inch by 8 foot partition studs. (You can build eight-feetlong frames, but I find them wobbly unless reinforced with angle-braces and plywood cleats at corners—making them heavier than I like to horse around the garden.) As the illustration shows, I fasten a vertical support down the middle of the frame, notching it into the top and bottom horizontals.

In the garden, I lean the frame back so it looks up at the high summer sun, supporting it with a pair of boards hinged from the top (on nothing but nails) so the frame can be adjusted to angle back at 45 degrees or more.

Kept off the soil (on brick or stones) during the growing season and stored under a tarp over winter, untreated wood will last for five years or more. You can prolong its life by painting with pine tar or other relatively benign organic preservative. Pressure-treated wood would last longer, but who wants arsenate of copper in the garden soil?

I find that (with daily attention) the flexible growing tips of even the thickest vines of summer squash, small Delicata winter squash, cucumbers, and melons can be guided up and wound in and out the mesh and will stay on the frame with few twine-loop ties. The more flexible vines of sweet potatoes, New Zealand spinach, and finer-stemmed cukes can be twisted around the wires.

Some varieties are especially wellsuited to vertical growth. In general, the smaller the fruit, the better they can be coaxed to grow "up." Early Cluster or Russian cucumber sold exclusively by South Carolina seedsman R. H. Shumway is ideal for high-altitude growing, but like most old-fashioned cucumber varieties, it gets "gourdy" with age so is best when picked very young. It is highly productive and makes wonderful small pickles.

Small summer and winter squash and melons—even icebox-type mini water-melons—will do well on a trellis, but once the fruit begins to put on weight, it needs support. All fruit , need continual exposure to the sun, however, and I've hung them in string-mesh onion bags and rested them on shelves made by running a plank through a pair of coat hangers bent into a triangle and hooked to the wire a foot apart.

Tomato Stakes, Bins, and Cages

Next in order of height are tomatoes and small hot peppers that make huge bushes; but, being dry-country natives, they aren't designed to stand up to strong Yankee summer downpours.

You can make or buy any number of wire or plastic "tomato towers" yard-high cylinders that enclose the plant. Most I've seen are too rickety or have mesh that is too small for my hands to reach inside for harvest or pruning. The best I've seen are shaped like giant ice-cream cones placed open end down over young plants. They will contain the central leader, but fruiting stems grow out of the mesh so they don't interfere with harvest. In my experience, they are demons to get woody old vine out of.

Old-fashioned maybe, but better and cheaper is to tie tomato's central stem to four-feet lengths of sapling or rough-wood stakes with the lower 12 inches sunk beside the plant.

In the old days we tied up tomatoes with strips of old cotton undershirt, but they frayed and bleached and made the garden look ratty. Then garden-supply companies introduced wire-and-greenpaper twist-ties. The paper would dissolve and wire-twist connections would rust together and snag on stake or vine but could be left to corrode away to available-iron plant food in the compost. But now all you can buy are plastic strips with a stiffener in the middle that will last forever and must be removed and disposed of when they've lost their spring or you'll have a garden full of plastic. I like to burn old tomato vines on the compost heap at season's end to kill pest eggs and disease, but put the nutrients concentrated in the ash back into the garden. But burning twist-tie plastic, like plastic-mesh plant supports, makes a smoke that I wouldn't want a cinch bug to breathe.

Better is to stake tomatoes with loops of jute, hemp, or cotton twine that will hold for the summer but can be snipped away from the stake to burn or rot away along with the old vines. To tie vines to stakes, cut string into easy-to-handle footlengths ... pass around tomato stem and stake .... make a simple overhand knot ... tighten to a loose loop ...and secure with another overhand to make a granny knot. For best production from determinates, mulch and remove all "suckers"—small stems that sprout in the Y made where each fruiting stem grows out from the central leader.

Real Tomatoes

In my view, plant breeders removed most of the flavor and aroma from tomatoes when they reselected and hybridized out the rank-growth habit. When I have the space, I prefer to grow old-fashioned open-pollinated standard (nonhybrid) varieties that retain the natural, indeterminate growth.

They put out suckers and suckers on the suckers—each one yearning to become a new plant and would produce flowers and fruit year-round if they could. This makes sense in their cool but hard-frost-free Andes highland home where the plant is a perennial. But not up north, where runner-grown plants can't hope for the four or five months' warm weather needed to develop the root structure to produce fruit. Besides, once runners find soil and are able to take root, the mother plants revert to their aggressive ground cover-type vining nature. One or two really vigorous plants can take over your whole garden—but without producing many fruit.

I have tried staking indeterminates but ended up sinking a half dozen additional stakes in a circle around each plant ... then having to wade through a sea of sticky-snaggy, easily-broken foliage to locate ripening fruit. Better is to make tall wide bins or cages and guide stems up and out for support ...but be sure to turn back or lop off runners that get out of bounds before they reach the soil. A set of interlocking panels can be fashioned into any size or shape "modular" cage for tomatoes, as well as cucumbers, peppers, or other rangy vine or bush. The illustration shows one pattern that can be made from inexpensive wood lath or lattice and common pine lumber. With a simple hook-and-eye hinge, homefashioned from stiff wire at each edge, the 1-1/2 foot by 3 foot panels with six-inch-spaced lattice work in-fill can be connected into triangles, squares, or larger shapes to accommodate any size plant. If you garden is in the high-rent district where appearance can be important, even in the veggie garden, the cages can be built artfully, hinged with brass hardware and painted or stained to match the gazebo.

Varieties

R. H. Shumway's big catalog has the best selection of indeterminate tomato varieties I know of (more than I could locate in the 300-plus varieties offered in the "Totally Tomatoes" specialty catalog that they—and several other seedsmen—semi-customize and distribute under their name). I like to try the old varieties of slicing and paste/sauce tomatoes with names like Hillbilly from Amish country and the Appalachian Mountains. The oldest and most reliable indeterminate varieties are listed in the source list.

But for the greatest yields and best eating, I look for a packet of Tom Thumb red cherry tomatoes on seed racks in a grocery or hardware store. I start the whole packet and select the strongest seedlings. (Like all open-pollinated varieties, the seed varies greatly in seedling vigor). This old variety produces veritable bushes that are loaded with hundreds and hundreds of small, tasty salad tomatoes produced in clusters of three to nine. If kept picked, Tom Thumb will produce till after frost too—as the bushy outer leaves protect the fruit ripening inside through early chills.

Even with frost protection, the plants will succumb eventually, leaving quarts of green and semi-ripe fruit. Be sure to harvest before the fruit are frosted (and turn soft and translucent). Any unfrosted fruit with a blush of color will continue maturing if stored in a warm place and placed on a sunny window sill for final ripening. Even if grown to full size, hard green fruit won't ripen, but they do make grand pickles.

Tom Thumb is scarce in seed catalogs these days. It is overproductive if anything and too robust for most suburban gardens. Plus, if you grow it once, you have it forever, as the superhardy seed will make "volunteer" plants in the spring—even after spending winter on the compost pile or tilled into the garden soil.

Low-Lying Vegetables

Best with all open-pollinated varieties—not just tomatoes—is to save seed from the biggest fully ripened fruit from several of your most vigorous and productive plants. Dry seed on paper towels, let it chill—but not freeze—over winter, and start early the following spring.

Out in front of the "up"-trained plants in the garden come half-high varieties, which no amount of support can keep from spreading over two to nine square feet of garden area. First come brussels sprouts that can grow a yard and more high, then broccoli and cabbage, eggplant, and others that don't grow more than two feet high.

Next, toward the front of the garden, I plant greens, root vegetables, and all the other low-growing varieties—letting them grow as they will. Not much point in training carrot tops or Swiss chard.

But I do train sweet potatoes—a root crop that is normally planted in long ridges like elongated white-potato hills. A dainty but vigorous vine with bright green arrow-shaped leaves and purple stems, the foliage will cover the soil for a yard on each side of its mound. If you catch the vines as they emerge (and keep after them) they can be tied or looped around lattice or wire on a vertical support the same as squash and cukes. Indeed, I plant sweet potatoes and cucumbers or summer squash together ...along with New Zealand spinach (or Tetragoneria) that provides cooking greens through the hottest summer. Inside-started plants of the three varieties are alternated eight inches apart in front of the 4 foot by 4 foot wirefence frames.

Competition among these totally dissimilar plants seems to encourage vigorous growth and and confuse the predators of 'em all. It is satisfying to harvest ripe cucumbers or squash and "summer spinach" and know that sweets are developing in the soil underneath.

When trained to grow up, tall vines will shade the lower few inches of any plant growing less than two feet away from their north side. But well-supported pole beans, sweet corn, and caged tomatoes don't mind; their lower leaves dry and turn yellow by August in any event.

The tomatoes go at the front of the "up"—trained section of the garden, and I begin planting green onions, radishes, carrots, and beets practically at the foot of the bins.

Its advisable to replace any "up"—trained vine's ground-covering/moisture-retaining effect with a thick straw mulch over the exposed hills. Then, so long as each leaf gets full sun, the crops will thrive.

Yams can be grown up, but they are so vigorous you need to devote more support to them than they are worth—or so I have found. White-potato foliage is technically a vine, but it is too low and scrubby to attempt to grow up.

Growing "Short Greens"

Finally, at the very front of the garden, where it is convenient to water frequently with steeped compost "tea" or another nitrogen-rich concoction, I grow the flip side of "up": a foot-wide row of mixed greens, including leaf lettuces in several shapes and colors, mustards, peppery cress, spicy endives and escaroles interspersed with clumps of tangy chives and an occasional mini-clump of superspicy wild garlic transplanted from where it grows chive-style in the meadow.

I scatter a mixture of seed on finely screened soil, cover lightly with fine compost, compress well, and keep moist till seedlings are up. When the plants are well-established at two or three inches high, I pull off the outer rosette of first true leaves (that tend to be tough and bitter). Then I begin harvesting the outer leaves of large plants and cutting smaller ones at ground level.

The young plants make lush new leaves for several weeks—so long as they are kept well watered, fertilized, and trimmed low. If I neglect the harvest for several days, I will trim the greens with the mower rather than let them grow tall enough to bolt and grow bitter. By culling and replanting small sections of the row every week, I can have greens through all but the hottest, driest summers and well into fall. Indeed, for many years now, when I've had more energy than extra grocery money, I've grown and harvested short greens from cold frames spring and fall ... for fresh garden salads eight to nine months out of the year.

I'd thought that this labor-intensive way of growing the youngest, tenderest salads imaginable was a close secret among us home organic gardeners. But, even in the sticks, the chain supermarkets are featuring big plastic bags of mixed baby greens being sold as mesclun.

I'm told that mesclun is European French (as opposed to honest homegrown Cajun or Canuck) for—you guessed it—"mixed baby greens." It is jetted in from California and sells for $7.50 a pound. That is 750% of the farmers market price for the self-same greens sold with a plain English label.

A change of name, especially into a furrin language, can do wonders in some quarters. But nothing like the wonders that Nature can perform in your own garden if given just a little help in following her own inclination to grow "up."


PS: The best commercial source I've located for old-time field varieties is R. H. Shumway's, Graniteville, SC. They've kept their 150-year-old motto, "Good Seed Cheap," and offer a free catalog with an old-timey look and many seeds for southern long-seasons, but they have a good mix of modern hybrids and old-fashioned open-pollinated varieties for all climates.


Best Varieties for Growing "Up"

The following old-time varieties retain their native growth habit and vigor—and oldtime natural flavor. However, they do lack the multiple disease resistance, tolerance of weather extremes, and exotic genetics that have been bred into modern varieties (in large part to suit commercial chemical-dependent mechanized farm monoculture). You can provide most of the advantages of modern breeding with natural-gardening techniques such as mulching against drought, feeding the soil with organic matter, and rotating crops.

But don't expect candy-sweet bicolor corn or lavender beans. Pick daily ...in late morning, when leaves are dry so's not to spread disease ...at the time most items of produce are at their peak ...before quality begins to decline during the heat of afternoon. Oldstyle sweet corns can go from marvelous to chewy to starchy in a single day. (But then, you make it into corn relish ...just as Great-great-grandmother did.) Peas and beans and summer squash can overmature quickly in hot weather. Remove all young pods, flowers, and flower buds if you will be unable to pick for more than two days. And expect slow and continuous production rather than big one-time harvests. Expect plenty of green, unripened tomatoes and half ripened beans or squash when cold weather stops growth in the fall. Then ... do as the old-timers did: use green tomatoes, small cukes, and squash for pickles.

Green Peas
Alderman (Tall Telephone)

Edible Pod Peas
Sugar Snap
Mammoth Melting Sugar

Pole Beans
Green Snap:
Blue Lake
Kentucky Wonder (Old Homestead),
Asparagus (Yard Long)
Yellow Snap: Kentucky Wonder Wax
Limas: King of the Garden
Shell Bean: Wren's Egg (Speckled Cranberry)

Sweet Corn
Golden Bantam
Howling Mob
Country Gentleman (White Shoepeg)
Stowell's Evergreen

Cucumbers
Early Cluster (Russian)
Boston Pickling (Green Prolific)

Melons
Honeydew: Rocky Ford
Muskmelon: Iroquois
Watermelon: Sugar Baby (Icebox)

Tomatoes
Tom Thumb Cherry
Amish Paste (for sauce)
Abraham Lincoln (for slicing)

Sweet Potato Centennial

Summer Squash
Yellow: Early Crookneck
Green: Black Zucchini

Winter Squash
Short-vining Delicata


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