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Growing up: How to create vertical structures in your veggie patch

Winter is a good time to make structural changes in the garden — such as installing tripods, trellises and other vertical supports

31 July 2022 - 00:00 By Jane Griffiths
A variety of vertical structures in the vegetable garden.
A variety of vertical structures in the vegetable garden.
Image: Jane Griffiths and Keith Knowlton

When I ran out of space in my garden for real-estate-hungry plants such as gem squash and butternut, I began experimenting with growing them up tripods and trellises. And it worked — they grew happily up their tall supports. Maximising the vertical space is one of the most successful methods of increasing yield from small gardens.

Growing vertically has other advantages:

  • Vegetables are raised off the ground, reducing bug attacks and assisting all-round ripening.
  • Increased airflow helps to prevent disease.
  • The ground around the base can be used for non-climbing plants.
  • The shadier side of a vertical is ideal for plants such as coriander and lettuce, that appreciate some shade in summer.
Beans are natural climbers and perfect for growing on a garden trellis.
Beans are natural climbers and perfect for growing on a garden trellis.
Image: Jane Griffiths and Keith Knowlton
Gem squash growing on wooden tripod structure.
Gem squash growing on wooden tripod structure.
Image: Jane Griffiths and KeithKnowlton

WHAT TO GROW

Plants such as beans, peas and cucumbers are natural climbers. Vining squash (butternut, gem squash and miniature pumpkins) and melons (baby watermelon and cantaloupe), which normally sprawl across metres of ground, can be trained to grow up sturdy supports. With bigger-fruited varieties create a sling (using old stockings or T-shirts) to prevent them breaking off as they ripen. Indeterminate tomato varieties (where the main stem continues growing) are best for vertical growing.

Other plants also benefit from vertical supports. Eggplant, chillies, peppers and bush beans become heavy when bearing fruit. Their stems can break easily (especially if it's windy). Attaching them to a sturdy vertical structure prevents this.

Tomatoes growing up vertical twine.
Tomatoes growing up vertical twine.
Image: Jane Griffiths and Keith Knowlton

DESIGN

You don't need to spend a fortune. Vertical supports can be made from recycled objects, such as old ladders or abandoned burglar bars. A recycled wooden fence converted into an arbour doesn't look nearly as beautiful as a cedar gazebo, but it costs next to nothing, and once covered in plants you can’t see it. My most recent addition is an old pool net, reversioned to create a pergola over a pathway for beans and cucumbers.

For some plants simplest is best. Cucumbers will climb up twine and tomatoes can be pruned and trained to grow up a single vertical line that is well anchored.

Supports made from natural materials are ideal for a vegetable garden. Trees such as bay or willow, and creepers like wisteria and jasmine have long flexible stems which, when trimmed in late spring after a growth spurt, can be woven around bamboo wigwams. Once dry, they provide stable frameworks for climbing plants.

Sturdier long-lasting supports can be made by using rebar, gum poles or metal.

Bicycle wheel recycled into a vertical tomato support.
Bicycle wheel recycled into a vertical tomato support.
Image: Jane Griffiths and Keith Knowlton
Squash growing vertically on bamboo support structure.
Squash growing vertically on bamboo support structure.
Image: Jane Griffiths and Keith Knowlton

VERTICAL TIPS

  • Install supports before planting. If you put a stake next to a tomato plant once it's already flourishing, you can damage its roots.
  • Put vertical supports on the southern side of the garden so they don't block the sun.
  • To prevent compacting the soil while building a vertical support, use a wide plank to stand on and distribute your weight.
  • When attaching plants to a vertical support, use stretchy ties to prevent the stem being constricted. Tie them using a figure of eight, with one loop around the stem and the other around the support.
  • Start training plants early on. The growing tip is the most flexible part of the plant, and can be manipulated quite easily, but be gentle and don’t bend it too far or it will break. Check often to see if plants need to be twisted around a pole, tucked into netting or woven back into a tripod. Tomato and squash stems are very fragile and if you try to corral them once they've started sprawling, the chances of damaging them are high.

• Source: Jane's Delicious Garden by Jane Griffiths. Published by Sunbird


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