Scarlet runner beans grown on a pyramid-shaped bamboo frame.

Oh, Grow Up

Vining Vegetables Reach for the Sky

Many summer vegetable plants tend to be on the big side, with each individual plant claiming a good-sized footprint on the earth. But if you’re cramped for space, consider going up instead. A number of summer veggies will vine, which provides an opportunity to train them to reach for the sky, rather than giving way to urban sprawl.

Guiding your vegetables up offers a slew of benefits:

• It conserves space, maximizing precious garden capacity.

• It improves air flow, which helps to combat foliar diseases.

• Flattening out the plants and bringing them to eye level makes it easier to control pests and affords multiple vantage points to watch hummingbirds, butterflies and beneficial insects work their magic.

• Crops are easier to harvest.

• The plants themselves will create pretty, temporary shade and screening.

Whether you’ll conserve water is debatable. Lifting the foliage will reveal where to irrigate, rather than leaving you to guess where the stems and roots are, which can lead to indiscriminately showering a mass of vines. But with that improved air flow, the plants may dry out faster. Be sure to apply 2 to 3 inches of loose, organic mulch as a counterbalance.

What to Grow

Anything that you can string along a trellis is a good candidate. For starters, look for vining—rather than bush—varieties. Many of these will be heirlooms. With beans, for instance, pole and runner types produce vigorous vines from five to 10 feet tall and include such old-timers as Kentucky Wonder, French Fortex and Scarlet Runner. There are (who knew?) heirloom vining lima beans as well, including Christmas and King of the Garden.

Cucumbers, too, come as both bushes and vines. Vining types, such as Orient Express, Homemade Pickles and Suyo Long, generally grow five to six feet tall.

Climbing summer squash and zucchini may be another surprise. But there they are: Odessa, Tatume, Zucchino Rampicante and Tromboncino, heirlooms all. On the ground, the fruits may twist and turn. But hung on a trellis, they’re likely to straighten out.

Melons are naturally inclined to vine. But they’ll require sturdier supports. Select daintier varieties such as two- to three-pound Charentais melons, rather than 25-pound Moon and Stars watermelons.

That applies to pumpkins, too. Cute, a 10-pound Sugar Baby is about as hefty as is practical to go.

Both ornamental and edible gourds thrive on trellises. However, be warned that their vines may grow 20 feet long, so be prepared to snake them hither and yon through your trellising system.

Technically, indeterminate tomatoes fall in the vining category as well. However, given their propensity for sending out bulk in every direction, they’re best contained in cages or grown outward from poles, rather than flattened against trellises.

How to Grow

Training your summer vegetables to grow up is not nearly as complicated as establishing an espalier, which is often a multi-year project to grow long-lived plants along an extremely narrow plane. Nor is this the über-stylish method of vertical gardening used to display ornamental succulents in frames or hanging pockets, or to grow leafy greens in hydroponic towers.

Instead, this is a straightforward, old-school technique to lift your seasonal veggies so you can grow more plants—still connected to the earth—in a limited space.

For starters, you’ll need to set up a support system, typically consisting of some combination of trellises, poles or posts.

Pre-made wood trellises are long-lasting and can serve more than one purpose. I have on hand several four- by eight-foot redwood trellises that I set on edge horizontally to support clambering summer beans and winter peas. I also lay the trellises flat over fallow beds to prevent our cats from using the exposed soil as a litter box.

For a custom design to fit a specific space, poles or posts may be strung with twine, wire, heavy-duty fishing line, netting or lightweight wood lath. Designs abound on the internet for various permutations, including hinged, free-standing pieces that form a high, two-sided inverted ‘V’ over a bed, or more decorative or permanent trellises that cover a blank wall or attach to a fence.

If you do grow against a wall or fence, leave a gap at least six to 12 inches wide to allow access for weaving the vines through the trellis and harvesting any fruit that dangles behind.

Or, if you have kids, create a summer teepee out of eight-foot-tall bamboo poles. Splay the poles far enough apart that there’s room for the little ones to crawl in and play inside.

Whatever your design, place the trellis in a spot that receives at least six to eight hours of direct sunlight. That’s the daily dose that most summer vegetables require.

As Your Vines Grow

Depending on your particular veggies, you’ll need to train the vines as they grow. Cucumbers, for instance, are largely self-reliant, as they produce curling tendrils that they then use to hoist themselves toward the sun. But other summer vegetables require help. Once or twice a week, guide their branches through the openings of larger trellises, or use green stretchy tape or twine to tie them to whatever you’ve designated as supports. The goal is to keep the vines flat and growing both horizontally and upward.

As your heavier veggies appear and begin to gain weight, attach flexible slings to the trellis to prevent the fruit from tumbling off. The slings may be composed of netting, green stretchy tape or even torn pieces of old T-shirts, if you like the look.

At the end of the season, strip the foliage, yank out the plants and save whatever components you can for the following year.


Joan S. Bolton is a freelance writer, garden coach and garden designer who confesses to a lifelong love affair with plants. She and her husband, Tom, have filled their four-acre property in western Goleta with natives and other colorful, water-conserving plants. They also maintain avocado, citrus and fruit trees and grow vegetables and herbs year-round. SantaBarbaraGardens.com
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