Monday, July 21, 2008

Growing Up

When I first started growing vegetables four seasons ago, I set out to experiment with vertical gardening: growing stuff up things. Here's what I have learned so far.

I purchased two trellised arches from a local nursery and a 25-foot roll of four-foot tall wire fencing from a home store. The arches were fairly expensive, but the fencing was moderately priced. I set the ends of the arches as sturdily into the ground as I could and anchored the wire cages with a reinforcing rod (rebar). I used tin snips to cut two sections of fencing about 6 feet long and rolled each into a cylinder about 23 inches in diameter to create a planting cage. I attached the remaining section to a wooden fence with southern exposure at my house. Then I scoured seed catalogs for twining or vining vegetables.

The first year, pole beans were an obvious place to start. I also found Alderman shelling peas, sugar snap peas, and Marketmore 97 cucumber vines that grew six to eight feet long. I densely sowed the peas directly in the ground at the base of the arches. I started the beans and cucumbers in pots, then planted the beans in a circle around the wire cages and the cukes along the bottom of my fence. The pole beans were of course a success, though disentangling the vines from the cages at the end of the season was a challenge. The peas also produced well, but I should have added support as they grew by occasionally tying the whole mass to the arches. Our high southerly winds blew the whole mass off the arches into my garden path. What a tangle of peas I had to deal with! I used twist ties to attach the cucumber vines to the wire fencing as they grew, and ended up with far more than I could ever eat.

The second year, I decided to get a little adventurous and try winter squash. I started Waltham butternut and delicata squash in pots, then transplanted them to the base of my arches. I had great success with the butternut, but not the delicata. I had to frequently weave the butternut vine tips into the trellis as they grew. If I waited too long, weaving the hollow vines caused them to kink and drastically reduced their vigor. The delicata vines were simply too stiff to weave without severe damage and the connection between the developing fruits and the vine was so delicate that the slightest nudge caused the unripe fruit to fall off within a day. A co-gardener also successfully grows summer squash up structures right along with her pole beans. I also decided to try the same pea varieties on my cages rather than on the arches. I direct sowed the peas around the outside perimeter of the cages. Again winds blew the entire pea mass to the ground.

Last year a co-gardener gave me some Marion berry starts. I decided to dedicate my arches to this long trailing bramble. By the end of the first season, the thorny stems had grown over the top and were trailing down the other side of the arches. I also decided to give up on my vertical peas. I purchased shorter varieties and supported them with a half-unrolled wire cylinder laid low to the ground. What a disaster! Though the peas didn't blow over, rats made a fine meal of the low hanging pods.

This year the Marion berries continue their takeover of my arches, and I decided to try peas vertically one more time. I filled a round area of ground the same diameter as my wire cages with pea seeds then installed the cages. Success! This year the vines mostly grew up the inside the cylinders and out over the top. Though I did start calling the masses my "pea monsters," the winds were not able to tumble the vines to the ground as in previous years.

There are more vertical growing techniques I want to try. A south-facing wall or fence can double the square footage of growing area, leaving level ground free for low growing plants. Tomatoes can be grown upside down from a hanging pot by pushing a seedling through the bottom hole before filling the pot with soil. A flat trellis supported horizontally a few feet above the ground can be a platform for trailing squash or melons while growing shade-loving plants like lettuce below. Exploring these and other space-saving possibilities will keep me growing up for years to come!

Copyright © 2007, Brian Ballard. All rights reserved.

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Growing Up by Brian Ballard is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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