Tower Power: Vertical Garden

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Photo by Unsplash/Roman Kraft

The way to better cukes, tomatoes and a host of other
veggies — is up.

It wasn’t just the cucumbers that had him surprised. A good
percentage of my garden grows upward, instead of outward.
Indeed, my vegetable patch is a virtual forest of stakes,
wire towers, trellises and other supports. In fact, it’s
always a shock to me to see gardens that do not use
vertical supports. Toward the end of this season, for
instance, I visited a friend who was very proud of his
garden, especially his tomato patch. “I’ve got five
varieties growing,” he exclaimed, “each a different color.
What a beautiful display they make.”

When I got there, however, I found his tomatoes running
wild, with no supports. The ground was a jungle of vines,
with a lot of half-rotted fruit lying on the damp ground.
Nearby, where he’d grown his tomatoes a previous year,
there was a mass of volunteer plants choking out his wife’s
flowers.

Of the many reasons to grow crops vertically, the biggest
is space. By training vegetables upward, you can plant more
in the same area. This method also frees up ground for
other crops.

Keep in mind that most plant spacing recommendations are
based on the use of mechanical cultivators, but in a
vertical garden, you can grow veggies surprisingly close to
one another.

Take those cukes Pat admired so much. I grew them on a
plastic mesh trellis, 8′ long and 6′ high. Seeds were
planted in rows four inches outwards on both sides of the
fencing, and the plants were thinned to 4″ apart — that’s
right, only 4″. The end result is a wall of cucumber vines
whose flowers are fully exposed to bees and other
pollinators, which results in a higher crop yield.

When you grow vertically, each plant gets more sunlight
than if it were sprawling on the ground, which in turn
produces stronger plants with exuberant foliage growth.
These leaves provide enough shade to prevent sunscald, even
though the fruits appear to be more exposed. In fact, the
leaves provide so much coverage that I’ll often find
veggies my wife and I missed while harvesting.

What’s more, by growing vertically you avoid the unsightly
mess vining plants form when allowed to run helter-skelter
along the ground. If you use standard 30″ or 36″ beds,
sprawl can extend across beds, limiting what you can plant.
Tomato vines, for instance easily pull downward and smother
neighboring crops.

Pest control is simpler as well. Because each plant and
leaf is fully exposed, you can easily see any problem
developing and take the steps to correct it. Once you
discover the ease of picking squash bugs off a climbing
vine, you’ll never again want to face the chore of chasing
them through a ground-level jungle.

Greater visibility and accessibility make a vertical
harvest much easier as well. Also, with none of the
vegetables lying on the damp ground, you reduce the chances
of losing your crop to rot.

Virtually any vining plant can be grown vertically. Some
will need help in the form of ties or mesh supports, and
you will often have to take time to train the vine onto the
support. This can be a problem with cucumbers and legumes,
which want to sprawl on the ground.

With large-fruited vines, such as melons and squashes,
you’ll have to support the individual fruits to keep their
weight from pulling the whole plant down. The easiest way
to do this is with recycled pantyhose. Just encase the
young fruit inside the toe of the pantyhose leg then tie
the hose to the support structure. The stocking is soft and
stretchy, so there’s plenty of room as the fruit grows and
expands. Or, you can merely create a sling that supports
the melon or squash.

A lady friend has suggested that old brassieres work for
this purpose. This might be whimsical, but I’m not sure
it’s practical.

Vying for Support

Support structures range from simple stakes to elaborate
trellises, tipis and A-frame structures. Here’s a rundown
of options:

Mother Nature: Tall, thick-stemmed plants
can be used as supports for other crops. The most typical
example of this are pole beans growing up corn stalks — an
idea that predates European contact with the New World.
Other plants, work nicely for this purpose; sunflowers, for
instance, also make ideal stakes for beans.

In colonial days, gardeners used pea sticks, made by
recycling brush and branch trimmings. A strong central
staff with holes bored through

Growing upward instead of outward results in greater space
economy, easier harvests, and a feast that’s easy on the
eyes.

it every inch or two was pushed into the ground, and thin
branches pushed through the holes. Peas were then trained
to grow on this ladder.

Stakes: Everything from cut lumber to
bamboo has been used as a support stake for vegetable
plants. When choosing a stake, make sure it will be strong
enough and tall enough to support the plant. Many bean
poles, for instance, have vines extending 8′ to 12′. Don’t
forget, too, that tendril-less plants, like tomatoes, will
need to be tied to stakes.

My favorite stake material is standard one-inch lumber. I
rip boards into strips the same width as the board’s
thickness. This gives me stakes that are 3/4″square, a good
size for most plants. Plus, these stakes are just the right
size for building other support structures.

Tipis and A-frames: These are a good way to
maximize limited space, especially for peas and beans.
What’s more, the ground inside the tipi, being shaded by
the vines, stays cooler and moister. You can extend cool
weather crops, such as lettuce, several weeks by growing
them inside the tipi. These can be made from the same 3/4″
stakes described above. Simply lean five or six of them
against each other and tie them together at the point where
they cross.

A-frames can be a bit more elaborate than tipis. To make
them, create off-centered X’s at one end by bolting two
stakes together. You can join as many of these together as
you want by attaching them across the top with a cross
stake. I find that four X’s extending 36″ gives me a nicely
sized A-frame that just fits over a standard bed. Anything
longer than that makes it difficult to tend the secondary
crop inside.

Towers: A tower will provide ample support
for a single plant, such as a tomato vine. Commercial wire
cones, for instance, are actually towers, but most of them
are too skimpy. It’s better to make your own; you can use
woven wire fencing to create a cylinder 18″ to 24″ in
diameter. Be sure to use wire with openings large enough to
let you reach in and harvest the fruit. The smallest
practical size for these openings is 4″ x 4″, and 6″ x 6″
is really none too large.

Trellises: A trellis is nothing more than a
short fence with a frame around it. Materials range from
netting and plastic mesh to lattice and woven wire. When
choosing materials, consider whether it’s strong enough to
support the crop. Will it be easy to clean up at the end of
the season? Is it nontoxic? Is it portable?

I’ve concluded that woven wire is the best all-around
material. It requires no top frame, can support just about
any plant, allows for easy removal of dead vines at
season’s end, and is easy to relocate.

If you are growing a major crop then woven wire can also be
used to create a full fence, built to any length. Add an
interesting twist to your garden by building walk-in
spirals and mazes with woven wire. Imagine, for instance,
beans growing on a spiral fence with a quiet, secluded
garden bench at its center.

Arbors: Typically thought of as supports
for flowers and vining fruits, there’s no reason arbors
can’t be used for vegetables as well — they are the
ultimate in trellises.

High on my wish list is a trellis with a computer station inside. I could write while out in the garden, snacking on
the beans available at arm’s length. Just another benefit
of vertical growing.