By Mary Perkins, CCE Master Gardener
An excellent way to double or triple yields, conserve space, and decrease work in your garden is to grow vertically. Vining crops ordinarily sprawl on the ground, taking up so much space you might decide not to grow them. Vertical growing is simply getting those plants up off the ground and trained or tied to some kind of support.
The support used for your vertical garden can be just about anything — cages, fencing, a teepee of poles or strings tied to a building’s side. This method of growing is ideal for tomatoes, pole beans, peas, cucumbers, melons, winter squash and other vine type crops.
A good metal cage is a simple cost and time effective way to grow tomatoes. You can buy cages, or make them yourself. Concrete reinforcing wire is sturdy, has large holes for easy harvest, and does not seem to wear out. When the ground is prepared, planting done, and cage staked down, the intensive labor is finished. All that is left to do is water weekly, poke any foliage back into the cage if it grows out, fertilize monthly and harvest.
The use of a fence can concentrate your vining plants into a single small area and create a living wall to highlight your garden. A living wall on the north side of your garden will not interfere with the light needs of the other garden plants.
To prepare for vertical growing of individual plants, dig a hole the size of a bushel basket — about 1 foot deep and 16 inches across. For a straight line of plants, dig a trench 1 foot deep, 1 foot wide, and as long as your fence. Spread the soil around your yard. Fill the space you have emptied with the best mixture of topsoil, compost, aged manure, peat moss and vermiculite you can find. Equal portions of these ingredients are ideal. Leaving a slight depression will prevent run-off so future watering will sink right into the root area of your plants.
The space between plants in your living fence should be 3 feet for tomatoes, 3 inches for pole beans and peas, 1 foot for cucumbers, and 2 feet for melons and squash. Once the plants are established, add 6–8 inches of organic mulch and weeding becomes a thing of the past. Watering, occasionally tucking some stray foliage back into the fencing, and harvest are the only necessities.
With vertical growing, more foliage is exposed to sunlight, there is better air circulation, and the fruit is much less vulnerable to ground rot, slug and insect invasion. Harvesting is much easier, because the fruit is easier to see and does not require bending. Space in your garden is saved and increased fruit set allows this system to produce double or triple normal yields. A friend grew six tomato plants in cages providing fresh and canned tomatoes for a family of five. She even had some to share with friends and neighbors.
Here are some rules of thumb for a most productive, easy care vertical growing system.
1. Harvest daily.
2. Water and prune weekly.
3. Fertilize monthly.
4. Stake cages securely.
5. Install fences 6 inches off the ground.
6. Firm soil around fence posts.
7. Stay off plant growing soil.
8. Use disease resistant varieties.
Follow these tips, make the most of your garden space, time and energy, and you will have a very rewarding and abundant harvest. Give vertical gardening a try!