By Skip Richter, Contributing Editor
Texas is the land of wide-open spaces where huge ranches and farms are commonplace. However, despite the magnitude of our sprawling state, many gardeners lack suitable spots for a vegetable garden. Perhaps they live in an apartment or townhouse, or a very small lot where space is limited. Maybe theirs is an older neighborhood where towering shade trees leave little space with good sun exposure.
If you are one of those complaining about a lack of space I have two words of advice for you: “Grow Up!” I mean it. Forget the sprawling gardens where melons and vining squashes take over a land area equivalent to one of those scrawny New England states. Turn that garden on end and go vertical. We can get more into a small space by taking the garden to a higher level.
Vertical gardening has other advantages, too. It is easier on the back and can make gardening more accessible for gardeners with physical disabilities. Fruit and foliage diseases are often reduced when vegetables are grown vertically. Air circulation is increased so fruit and foliage dry off faster after a rain or irrigation. Fruit does not lie on the soil surface, which reduces some fruit rot problems and damage from some pests that live in the mulch and soil surface.
Trellises are the most common way to garden vertically. Livestock panels are one of my favorite trellis materials. They are very durable, lasting virtually forever, and can be cut into sections with a bolt cutter, making them easier to handle. They store neatly against a fence or behind an outbuilding and are rigid enough to carry a heavy load with very few support posts.
Wire mesh fencing is another good trellis material. Mesh fence wire makes a lightweight trellis but may require wood or metal posts every 6 to 8 feet to provide support. Tomato cages are not just for tomatoes. They make excellent supports for a crop of cucumbers or pole beans, or a Malabar spinach vine. Provide a stake to anchor them or a wind will turn your vertical garden horizontal.
Lattice panels make a very attractive trellis material. They are well suited for decks, balconies or other areas near the home where appearance is more important. The main drawbacks to lattice panels are their higher initial expense, the tendency for the lattice to partially shade vegetables for half of the day when oriented north and south, and the fact that you cannot reach through the trellis to harvest veggies.
I love the appearance and durability of natural plant materials for trellis construction. Saplings and branches from young trees make a superb choice for constructing a long lasting trellis that blends into the garden well. In East Texas, red cedar and in Central and West Texas, Ashe juniper (also called “cedar” locally) are two good choices for making a trellis that lasts for years. Willow and young saplings of other species are well suited to forming bentwood trellises. Bamboo poles are another great trellis material especially when wired into a diagonal crosshatch pattern. However, almost any readily available material can be used.
Some gardeners prefer to use heavy twine to make a temporary trellis. Sections of twine can be dropped from a horizontal overhead support or woven into a diagonal crosshatch pattern, tying them off tightly to nails or boards. At the end of the year, the twine can be discarded along with any intertwined vine growth. If you use natural fiber twine, such as jute, it can be included in the compost pile.
Finally, do not forget those structures you already have in the landscape that may make a good trellis support. Nothing hides a chain link fence better that a crop of pole beans, cucumbers or other vining cucurbits. That balcony railing outside your apartment or townhouse is just yearning for something to grow on it. The porch posts or ornate metalwork eave supports are also a great plant support.
Where To Place Trellises
Keep in mind that sun exposure is important for good vegetable production. Locate your trellis where the foliage will receive good sunlight, but without shading other areas of the garden. A back fence or the north side of the garden works well. Much has been written about which way rows and trellises should be oriented. Most of the fuss is made by Yankee writers who deal with a sun angle that is a bit lower in the sky (and most likely suffer from intense neurotic introspection brought on by long, bitter cold, gray winters).
Whether their concern is valid or not, here in the South we just do not worry over such things. I find that, with the exception of a dense trellis material that shades the foliage, it does not matter if your trellis rows run north-south or east-west. I once even asked some tomatoes and pole beans and both agreed it does not matter – so there.
Creative Spots for A Minigarden
Space is at a premium in many of our homescapes. In order to have a productive garden you may need to break free of the mindset that a garden is a rectangular plot in the backyard and look for nooks and crannies where veggies can be grown. Perhaps there is a place along the south or west side of your home where a planting bed can be constructed and twine or wire mesh attached to the eaves and dropped down to support a crop of vining veggies.
An attractive container can be set by a porch post and planted with an indeterminate tomato to grow up the post into a tower of foliage and fruit. Use jute twine or sections of hosiery to tie the vine to the post. I find that if you have to walk by a container every day you are much more likely to provide adequate water and regular care. Look for other good, sunny locations for a container or minigarden bed.
Remember too that vertical gardening can go up or down. For example, an apartment dweller might grow a crop of sweet potatoes in a large balcony container, allowing the vines to hang down over the ledge in a curtain of attractive foliage. Just make sure the pot is secured by a railing or tied to a post or a strong wind could bring on a disaster. Indeterminate tomatoes can also be allowed to cascade down from a container.
Some creative gardeners have used a tall stump in the middle of the yard as a support for a large container of cascading veggies or used large hanging baskets to grow vegetables above a turf area or on a sunny porch. Garden centers sell attractive pot hangers from which a terra cotta pot can be hung from a post, wall or fence. It is not difficult to imagine a multi-tiered garden of radishes, kohlrabi, lettuce or other small greens using these hangers.
Some Final Thoughts
When considering crops for vertical gardening, do not neglect the large-fruited squashes and melons. The weight of these fruits can pull the vines off of a trellis or cause the fruit to break off, but this can be easily remedied by a simple support. Cut old hosiery into sections about 8 to 12 inches long and tie a knot into one end. When fruits are about the size of a baseball, slip the fruit into a section of hosiery and attach to the trellis about 6 to 8 inches above the fruit. It is a good idea to tie it so that the fruit is lifted a little higher than it was originally hanging since it will drop down much lower as it grows in size and weight. Sections of mesh bags or burlap can also be used to form “hammocks” for this same purpose. These have the advantage of not sagging as much under the weight of heavy fruit. With a little creativity, you can have a wall of watermelon or cantaloupe alongside a deck, pool or Jacuzzi.
Vertical gardening allows us to get the most out of our gardening space. So take advantage of the space below a vertical trellis. Plant a row of lettuce on the south side of a trellis of climbing cool-season peas. Use the space near the base of a pole bean or cucumber row to grow some bush squash, peppers or Swiss chard.
Give some vertical gardening a try this season. Even gardeners with room to roam will find it worthwhile – saving the ol’ back, reducing diseases and creating some great conversation pieces around your home landscape. .