We upcycled pvc pipe and old yard fencing for this striking homemade flower arch, a focal point in the garden. Doesn't hurt that pollinators find it inviting, too. Photo by Ron Wynn.
Gardening is fulfilling work, especially when you garden organically. It’s good exercise, it guarantees a good strong dose of vitamin D, it provides green goodness all season long—and maybe even all year. But every gardener knows gardening is also hard work. Who wouldn’t want to make it easier?
I’m all about making things easy, and over the years I’ve learned a few diy and other tricks to make gardening not only easier, but neater and more visually appealing in the process. This article is the first in a series of easy gardening tips I've picked up by trial and error.
Today’s tip happens to be my personal favorite. Grow up! As in vertical. My preferred vegetable for this purpose is beans. My husband and I tried growing bush beans one year. We thought that would be the easy way—no wasting time building tepees or other structures. Well, anyone who’s ever spent a day hunched over picking beans knows it can be backbreaking work. It only took one year for us to decide we’d grow only pole beans from then on. At the time, we had no idea what a good decision we'd made.
Our first attempt at keeping bean plants upright was to wind twine around them, attaching the twine to poles at each end of the rows. Pretty ineffective. The twine was no match for the tall, heavy-laden plants. Then we discovered the idea of arches. Again, with our penchant for making gardening easier, we wanted ours to be sturdy enough to hold their own for years. (Bonus tip: make things to last, even if it takes a little longer the first time. It’s worth it to not have to keep repairing and replacing.)
We opted for cattle panels, that robust fencing that comes in a 16 foot x 50 inch size with the wires spaced perfectly for sticking hands through to pick on the other side of the panel. (Don't be discouraged if you don't have a super big trailer. The panels were much longer than our small utility trailer, so we arched them right then and there. With a few tie-downs, they traveled just fine.) Cattle panels can be found at any farmers’ supply center.
Our twenty-four-foot-long raised beds hold six panels, each arched from the outside of one three-foot-wide bed across a two-foot-wide walking path to the outside of the adjacent bed. That makes the arch about eight feet wide with a middle height of about six and a half feet, perfect for us. Just by reaching our arms to the side and over our heads, we can pick baskets full of beans with no strain at all. Our happy backs thank us every gardening day.
Our six-panel cattle arch is ready. All that's left to do is plant the beans. The space we save by growing vertically can be used to grow other vegetables. Here, we have a few kale plants under row cover. Photo by Carole Coates
To make our arch even sturdier, we attached each panel to its neighbors with cable ties every few feet. Unlike more flimsy supports, our secure arch easily stands up to both the weight of mature plants and the high winds so common in our neck of the woods.
Beans are filling in the arch. Photo by Carole Coates.
In season, Christmas limas, Fortex (stringless, so that’s nice), Trail of Tears (our favorite heirloom), and scarlet runners create a magical, shady garden arbor, full of pretty bean flowers that give off a lovely aroma. A real treat for the senses.
Easy pickings. Photo by Ron Wynn
We make full use of our bean arch by planting shade-tolerant vegetables in the remaining raised bed space, especially chard, kale, and salad greens. We’ve even had good luck with sun-loving radishes by planting them early in the season at the ends of the rows where they get more daylight. Their season is over well before the beans grow high enough to block the light.
As much as we love our cattle panel bean arches, we’ve used other kinds of supports to create arches and trellises for growing vertically. There are all sorts of possibilities out there. Be creative.
We got these ornamental wrought-iron shutters for a song at a local auction, wired them together, and Voila!, a year-round eye-appealing trellis. Photo by Carole Coates.
Covered with edible flowers, and sometimes gourds, our wrought-iron trellis is barely visible. Photo by Carole Coates
We turned this discarded A-frame store display unit into a portable arch for cucumbers. Perfect match. Photo by Carole Coates.
We even built a traditional tepee-style bean arch for showy scarlet runners, seen here through the cattle panel bean arch. Note the variety of shade-tolerant veggies filling in all the space we saved by growing our beans vertically. Photo by Carole Coates
Aside from the ease of gardening with arches, pole beans offer other benefits. Growing vertically is a big space-saver, very important if your gardening area is limited. Pole beans are also much more prolific than their bushy cousins. Not only do you get a higher yield per plant, but as long as you keep picking, they’ll keep producing—great for season-long fresh eating. Without even trying, we’ve been able to can and freeze enough beans to feed ourselves until the next year's bean harvest rolls around, to donate beans to our local food pantry, and to give plenty of fresh and home-canned beans to friends and family. And we still have enough to put up lots of jars of our favorite dilly beans.
Pole beans are less susceptible to soil-borne diseases than the bush variety, too. The birds and bees love our bean arch, and that’s just fine with me—anything to encourage pollinators and natural pest control gets a big thumbs up from this gardener.
If there’s a disadvantage to using cattle panels in the garden, it’s the very permanence that makes arches so desirable in the first place. It’s best to rotate garden crops from one year to the next, but you’re not going to want to move those heavy panels. The best option is to have two or three shorter lengths of arches. While you’re growing beans in one, plant other vertical-loving plants such as winter squash and cucumbers in the others. Then just move each one over to a different arch the next year.
I encourage you to give bean arches, especially the cattle panel variety, a try. I suspect you’ll fall in love. You may even want to bring a good book and a lawn chair to your arch. It makes a delightful little hideaway when you need to get away from it all.
A cool spot for a break from gardening work. Photo by Carole Coates.
Carole Coates is a gardener and food preservationist, family archivist, essayist, poet, photographer, modern homesteader. You can also find Carole at Living On the Diagonal, where she blogs about her take on life, including modern homesteading, gardening lore and how-to, food preparation and preservation, as well random thoughts and reflections, personal essays, poetry, and photography. Read all of Carole’s Mother Earth News posts here.
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