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
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
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
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
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”).
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