Here’s an unfortunate idea most people who want to grow food for themselves live under: they think they don’t have the space to do so. In most cases, this simply isn’t true, but this mindset runs rampant in society, and in this writer’s opinion it needs to be changed.
One way we can change it is by rethinking how we look at gardening. Let’s start with steering away from horizontal and lean more towards vertical. So, what exactly is vertical gardening?
Vertical gardening is simply training your plants in your garden to grow upright rather than sprawl across the ground, and it's a blessing that goes unnoticed by a lot of folks. We want to grow more food but think we don’t have the space because our squash plants vine out and choke everything that they come in contact with. Our bush beans take up the entirety of that raised bed in the back corner, and don’t even get us started with the beefsteak tomatoes! This is where growing things vertically really shines.
Many vegetables don’t necessarily need to grow across the surface of our gardens and can be trained to grow upright. In these situations, a good trellis (which I’ll have you know, can be damn-near anything that a vining plant can wrap itself around) is absolutely key. Chances are you already have a makeshift trellis kicking around in the first place, and you just haven’t realized it yet. That chain link fence that surrounds your yard is a trellis in disguise. A deck with a railing that has spaces between each bar? Also a trellis.
So, now that you know the "what" and "why," let's take a look at the "how." As I mentioned prior, a trellis is essential to making this work. You can build one yourself out of garden netting, chicken wire, fencing, lattice, the list is pretty much limited to what your imagination comes up with. If you’d rather forgo the building process, there are plenty of options at most garden centers as well, though they can get fairly pricey.
It’s important to remember that your trellis system for vertical gardening needs to be strong enough to support what you’re planning on training up it. In the case of things like pole beans, cucumbers, and peas, I’ll often use bird netting or any other kind of cheap plastic netting. These plants don’t create massive, heavy crops, so I can go easy.
When we start getting into plants like pumpkins, melons, and squash, it’s a whole other ballgame entirely. In this situation, poultry fencing, chain-link fence, or standard livestock fencing with a solid wood frame is going to be your best friend. I’ve found that having the trellis supported on multiple sides will often stop heavy fruiting plants such as these from putting too much weight onto them.
In fact, livestock fencing, though expensive, might actually be your best bet. While the plants can vine freely up and across it, the space between the wire allows the melons or squash to hang suspended while they reach maturity and are ready to harvest. With that kind of accessibility, you don’t have to go digging around through head-sized leaves and prickly vines to find your bounty, and I consider that a win.
Once you’ve figured out what to use as a trellis, it’s time to really start saving space in smart ways. Positioning the trellis on the edge of the garden bed, whether it’s a raised bed or a garden at ground level, will allow those vining vegetables to grow without taking up any more space than the stem of the plant requires, leaving more surface space in your garden for plants that need it.
Additionally, when you position the trellis, you can do so in a manner that will create some afternoon shade for plants that may benefit from it. In fact, if you construct a trellis that leans over the top of your garden bed, and train plants like melons, cucumbers, or squash to vine out over it, the leaves will keep the bed shaded enough that plants such as lettuce, which doesn’t enjoy midsummer heat, cool temperatures to grow continuously throughout the hottest of summer days.
For the sake of argument, I’ll dive into plants that grow really well vertically. We already know tomatoes do great when grown vertically because most of us already use tomato cages (a trellis in disguise too) to keep our plants off the ground. But did you know that pumpkins, melons, winter squash, beans, peas, cucumbers, and even eggplants all flourish when allowed to grow vertically?
In fact, plants like cucumbers do even better when allowed to grow upright because the cukes aren’t as exposed to pests like snails, slugs, and in our case, curious Bluetick Coon Hounds with an appetite for pickling cucumbers. Slugs and snails are, generally speaking, lazy and don’t want to work any harder than they have to in order to find food. That includes having to climb three feet off the ground to feed on trellised vegetables
Some of the best perks about growing vegetables vertically are the tiny ones we don’t really think about. For example, I’ve already touched on the fact that no matter how you slice it, a tomato cage is, in fact, a trellis. Having said that, nobody looks at a fully established tomato plant as a possible trellis, and if someone were to plant six snap pea seeds at the base of a tomato plant, (or better yet, a tall corn stalk) that person would be pretty crafty, and they’d have saved that much more surface space for other plants.
Vertical gardening also has its wins when it comes to saving vegetables from rotting due to moisture. We used to lose a lot of food because of this. We’d go away for a couple of days, it would rain at home nonstop, and by the time we got back, this squash or that cucumber plant would be a haven of rotting food and a fruit fly paradise. It sucked, and it turned out that getting those kinds of plants up off the ground where good air circulation allows the vegetables to dry out quicker after a good rain is key to not losing as much.
Trellised planting also allows me to grow things like peas in a better method of succession planting. For example, let’s say I have a raised 6x6’ bed that I’m allocating specifically for my peas to be grown vertically on netting. I have four rows of netting running east to west, with enough space between each row to allow me to fit between them to harvest when the time comes.
Planting my first succession of seeds under the north side of the north trellised netting, I’ll then plant a new row every two weeks, allowing the newest seedlings access to sunlight without competing with the older pea plants.
In between each row, I’ll probably plant some lettuce, but spaced apart enough that I can step over each plant when picking the pea pods later on. If I didn’t trellis the peas and allowed them to grow across the ground, they’d outcompete the new plants and I would more than likely get a minimal harvest for my lack of effort.
Vertical gardening is one of a few great ways that you can maximize your harvest while saving the overall surface area of your gardens. We all wish we could grow more food, and more often than not, we can. We just need to rethink how we’re going to do so with the space we already have.