University of Vermont
Department of Plant and Soil Science

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GROW VERTICAL VEGETABLES

Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor Emeritus
University of Vermont
  

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, grow some vegetables vertically.  

Growing vegetables upright not only saves space, but also 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. Such culture keeps the fruit away from the ground, and allows better air circulation, so you should see fewer diseases and more easily spot any pests.

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.  Vegetables grown upright hide ugly chain link fences, or 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 won’t have anything to climb.

Pole beans also can 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 then can 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 also can use cages of wide-mesh fencing, only this will need additional support such as from wooden stakes or iron rods.  I prefer the latter as they don't rot and will last 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. If you can’t find these, colorful pencil erasers work on thicker bamboo stakes.  For one-half inch wide stakes, such as metal rods, use short pieces of clear plastic tubing (available at hardware stores) as toppers.

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 also are many types of sturdy and colorful wire supports that you can buy to support these vining tomato varieties.

But don’t just think about growing vegetables upright, as some such as peppers and cherry tomatoes can be grown in hanging baskets.  Good compact cherry tomato varieties include the classic Patio, Tiny Tim, or the newer Micro Tom.  Cascading tomatoes good hanging include the popular Tumbling Tom or Cherry Falls.   

Another option for a vertical garden is to plant in containers or large window boxes which are hung from a wall, trellis, or placed on shelves.  Putting containers on shelves of an A-frame, similar to the rungs of a ladder, ensure that the top containers don’t shade those underneath or drip excess water on them and cause diseases. If growing in containers on a wall, choose one facing south or southwest for the most light. 

Many vegetables can be grown in containers arranged vertically.  Greens for such a planting include lettuce, spinach, or Swiss chard.  For microgreens—basically leafy seedlings harvested young—there are many choices including cabbage, beets, mustard, and basil.  Quite a few herbs can be grown in vertically-arranged containers, such as parsley, mint, sage, oregano, basil, and chives.  Such smaller plants lend themselves to modular vertical planting systems, which you can find in some complete garden stores and online.

Members of the brassica family such as cabbage, kale, broccoli and cauliflower need large containers.  Growing these off the ground minimizes many pests, including slugs.  If you’re growing root vegetables such as carrots, radishes, onions, leeks, or turnips, think about the container depth.  For some, such as radishes, this is not an issue.  For others, such as carrots, chose short ones such as Little Finger, Short ‘n Sweet, or Chantenay.  

Once you become familiar with vertical gardening, or if you’re doing this already, become creative.  There are many other ideas for growing systems, including hydroponic (growing in water, without soil) systems, or creating your own “living wall” with small plants growing between wooden slats or planted in wire mesh.  Try filling a large clay pot with soil, then placing a slightly smaller one on top, and so on. Or stack square-foot wooden boxes, such as one on the center of three lower ones.  If you like building, create a wooden planting pyramid.

Experiment with less common vining vegetables such as Malabar spinach, tomatillos, Mexican gherkins (“mouse melons”), asparagus (or Chinese long) beans, or the slender filet beans (known by the French and sometimes seen as “haricots verts”). 

If you really want a beautiful vertical garden, consider growing some plants for their edible flowers.  Among these are flowers of some vegetables such as zucchini or other squash, cucumber, fava bean, or garden pea (NOT sweet pea flowers which are toxic).  If growing in containers, consider herb flowers such as borage, basil, or chives.  One of the best edible flowers for growing vertically—best hanging down— is the colorful nasturtium.  

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