You can grow bigger, better cukes, beans, tomatoes and cantaloupes with simple, sturdy trellises

By Barbara Pleasant
December 2010/January 2011

 

 

Vertical Gardening Supports
Clockwise from top left: Rigid livestock panels do double duty as a fence and support for tomatoes, plus they can be bent to create an arched entry; saplings or bamboo poles are easy to use for pole bean tipis; pea tendrils love to cling to twiggy brush; and so-called “tomato” cages work better to support peppers and eggplants.

ILLUSTRATION: ELAYNE SEARS

Whether your garden is large or small, you can make better use of every square inch by using vertical gardening techniques to grow upright crops. Pole beans typically produce twice as many beans as bush varieties, and the right trellis can double cucumber yields. Then there are crops, such as tomatoes, that need some type of support to keep them above damp ground, where diseases have a heyday. All properly supported plants are easier to pick from and monitor for pests, plus you’ll get help from bug-eating birds that use trellises as hunting perches.

How Plants Climb

Plants that benefit from garden trellises use a variety of methods to cling to support, including curling tendrils, twining stems or, in the case of tomatoes, long, ropy branches that form roots in places that touch the ground.

Curling tendrils produced by peas and cucumber-family crops will twist around whatever is available, so you have plenty of versatility when supporting these crops. Tendrils cling to horizontal and vertical parts of a trellis, so netting woven from biodegradable string attached to posts often works well. Twining stems spiral around their support, growing steadily upward until they turn back on themselves — a growth habit seen in hops, pole beans, Malabar spinach and yard long beans.

Twining stems have little use for horizontal lines, so they do best with trellises composed mostly of poles or an upright fence. (See illustration in the Image Gallery.)

Tomatoes like to throw themselves over their support. They must be trained and tied to an upright trellis, which isn’t as easy as growing them in wire cages. The larger, more robust the tomato plant, the more you need a sturdy tomato cage that provides support on all sides.

Temporary or Permanent?

In my experience, a truly sturdy upright garden trellis must be anchored by T-stakes or vertical 4-by-4 posts (or 3-inch-diameter saplings from the woods), sunk 18 inches deep. Installing this semi-permanent garden structure takes time and muscle. In my garden, the most versatile trellises are about 8 feet wide, stand 4 to 5 feet high, and are made of woven wire fencing or a livestock panel attached to two posts. Allowing 4 inches of clearance between the bottom of the fencing and the ground makes the area easier to weed and cultivate. The advantages of such a trellis are the ready availability of the structure each spring and the option to make an attractive permanent feature in the garden.

The drawback of this or any other long-lasting vertical gardening supports (like an existing fence) is that it limits rotations to peas, beans, tomatoes and cucumber-family crops. Temporary trellises, such as bamboo tipis, give you more flexibility in terms of what you plant where, but they need to be taken down and stored in a dry place through winter to keep them from rotting. If you gather trellis parts and bind them together with string or strips of cloth in the fall and store them over the winter, they will go up quickly the following season.

 

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