GROW VERTICAL VEGETABLES
Dr. Leonard P. Perry, Extension Professor
Many gardeners now have smaller gardens, either from lack of space or from lack of time to tend larger areas. If you're one of these, or if you just want to try something novel, the National Garden Bureau has some suggestions for gardening vertically.
Growing vegetables upright not only saves space, but makes harvesting easier. You don't have to stoop to cut fruit from the vines. This could be quite a saving for older gardeners or ones with back problems.
Upright vegetables also add an architectural interest. The garden ceases to be just ordinary and utilitarian, and becomes aesthetic as a well-planned perennial border might. They can also be grown on fences to hide ugly chain link ones, or to screen undesirable views.
Pole beans (make sure you don't get the bush varieties) will climb up just about anything, even other plants. Native Americans used these in their traditional "three sisters" plantings of beans, corn, and pumpkins. The corn stalks provided support for the beans, and the pumpkins (or other squash) provided a groundcover or living mulch below. Just make sure if using this method to give the corn a head start, or the fast-growing beans wont have anything to climb!
Pole beans can also be grown on bamboo teepees, trellises, or over an arbor. The scarlet runner bean is old-fashioned, and has attractive red flowers. There is even a variety of this now with yellow leaves-- a nice contrast with the red flowers. Pole beans don't just add a vertical accent, but they keep producing longer than bush beans. They continue to grow, flower, and fruit as long as you keep picking the pods.
Gourds and winter squash are cousins from the same family, with very long vines-- up to 25 feet for the gourds and up to 10 feet for the squash. Both take a long season to mature, so in the colder northern gardens, give these a head start indoors in peat pots that can then be planted out. Heavy fruits of winter squash, such as butternut, should be individually supported by cloth twine (strips of used panty hose works great too) tied to the trellis or fence on which the vines are trained. For tying these and other vertical crops to their supports, avoid string which can cut into stems. Use a soft rope or cord such as cotton clothesline, or one of the thick and soft gardening ropes made just for this purpose.
Melons can be grown similar to winter squash, and their fruit similarly supported with cloth twine or even slings made of old towels, sheets, or rags. Use old-fashioned or patterned fabric for an additional decorative touch to the vertical garden.
Cucumbers (the traditional vining types, not the newer bush types) can also be grown up a trellis or A-frame structure. You can also make a cage of the heavy wire used to reinforce concrete. This will be quite strong, stand up on its own, and support the weight of the vines. You can also use cages of wide-mesh fencing, only this will need additional support such as wooden stakes or iron rods. I prefer the latter as they don't rot and will last outdoors almost forever. They can be found, and cut to your size needed, at many complete hardware stores.
If using stakes of bamboo, decorative rods, or the rusty-colored iron rods, make sure and purchase "cane toppers". These can be plastic or ceramic, just a ball or a decorative structure. They don't just add to the aesthetics, but also function to protect your eyes when working around them.
Peas of course are a favorite early season, upright crop suitable for the vertical garden. Choose the edible-pod or snow peas that produce longer vines than most shelling, or English peas. And since they produce early in the season during cooler weather, combine them with later maturing vines such as beans or cucumbers. Or you may sow peas again in late summer for a fall harvest.
Tomatoes that have stems that keep growing-- the indeterminate varieties (check the seed packet or description for this feature)-- perform much better grown upright than sprawling over the ground where the fruits can be damaged by disease and insects. You'll need a sturdy stake for them, and tie them to it at intervals with soft twine. There are also many types of sturdy wire or metal supports you can buy to support tomatoes.