Think vertical!

Winter is coming! And the months when we’re less active planting and harvesting are a great time to strategize for next year’s garden. One of the tasks you might plan over the winter (or actually complete, if the weather is forgiving enough) is improving the vertical structures in your vegetable garden.

Growing vertically has a number of advantages, including:

  • Saving horizontal space, allowing you to grow more in a limited area;
  • Keeping plants off the ground, helping to prevent diseases transmitted via soil;
  • Allowing for better air circulation, limiting fungal disease;
  • Keeping the harvest out of reach of animals;
  • Making the harvest easier for humans to reach without bending.

It can also add visual interest to your garden. Many plants benefit from (or can be persuaded to appreciate) vertical support, including pole beans, cucumbers, melons, squash, tomatoes, and any other crop that has a vine or floppy stem.

The size of the fruit can be a limiting factor, though people do get around this:

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Vertical structures can be built out of wood, as in the above example. Depending on the type of wood used, they may last several seasons. Another short-term material is bamboo, which we enjoy using in the Derwood demo garden – here’s a beautiful spiderweb trellis from a couple of years ago, which was used for pole beans:

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And some of the MGs putting together a cucumber trellis:

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Photo by Robin Ritterhoff

If you want to learn more about building with bamboo, check out our YouTube video featuring MG Joel Warren.

Another structure we’ve used with great success is the cattle panel arch. This is a 16-foot long, 4-foot wide piece of fencing sold at farm supply stores, which can be bent into an arch and secured to metal stakes, then used for any vining crop. We grow our mouse melons (Mexican sour gherkins) on cattle panels.

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Metal is a good material for vertical structures you want to keep in place for many years. Here’s a sturdy structure made by some of my fellow community gardeners:

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This can be used to support multiple crops (tomatoes, beans, cucurbits, etc.), which facilitates crop rotation, insofar as that can be managed in a small plot.

And yes, you may think a structure like this is over-engineered – but the rule is always “Stronger is better.” We see this every year as gardeners set out their tomato plants, insert those flimsy wire cones over them, and then are surprised when the little seedlings grow huge and bring the cones down. A lot of desperate staking happens in July – but if you’re prepared ahead of time, this won’t happen to you. There are lots of excellent methods for staking and caging tomatoes successfully – watch our video with MG Larry Kloze for one great technique.

If you’re gardening in your backyard, you may want to consider using structures you already have, like fences.

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I spotted these cucurbit vines just across the street! In fact I see this all over town, so probably I should make a photo collection of Hidden Suburban Vegetables. Just remember that they will try to escape, and that your fence needs to be strong enough to support heavy plants.

Eva Baker, a Chevy Chase gardener I met recently, grows winter squash on the roof of her shed! Here are her photos:

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If it works for you, go for it! This would only work for crops harvested all at once, unless you want to climb a ladder every day. But it’s very cool.

Keep vertical growing in mind as you plan next year’s garden! I will be thinking about the trellis I need in my community garden plot for Tromboncino squash (a great summer squash that’s resistant to vine borers). It will have to accommodate long and aggressive vines but not be excessively tall, since I don’t want to shade out my neighbors or have squash growing out of reach. I’m thinking a sort of short pergola, or perhaps a series of arches or peaks. I know from experience that squash vines will head toward the sun, so I’ll be planting on the north side of the plot. And I have the winter ahead to design the perfect structure.

By Erica Smith, UME Master Gardener

One Comment on “Think vertical!

  1. When I lived in town, we had a lot of fences, all around the back yard! They were not pretty, but seemed like the obvious place to put pole beans. On the north side of the south fence, we put cucumbers on bamboo slanted a bit outward at the base so that they got a bit more sunlight. (They would not have gotten enough if they grew directly against the shaded northern surface of the fence.)

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