Pagan Gardening, Part Three-- Vertical Gardening for fun, food, and privacy

This dissertation is about Vertical Gardening. Nearly all my information in this dissertation comes from "Square Foot Gardening" by Mel Bartholomew. This book is not the only source for square foot gardening techniques, but it is what I have that you can get right now. :)

We will be starting with vertical gardening because it is a technique not exclusive to square foot gardening and is therefore more familiar. Everyone is familiar with tomato cages and staking, if they have done any gardening at all.

We will be going beyond those simplistic techniques and into more elaborate uses of the vertical space in your garden. You will find that you begin to think in 3-D after a certain point.

There are many vegetables and flowers that benefit from vertical gardening. Tomatoes are just the most famous. Pole beans, peas, summer squash, melons, and cucumbers can be grown this way too. All benefit from being off the ground and in the air where disease and pests are less prevalent.

After we have discussed vertical gardening, you might feel better about the next section, gardening structures. There are many things you can make with minimal materials and skills that will benefit your garden.

I will freely admit that if you give me anything more dangerous than a simple hand tool, I will hurt myself! However, in a single afternoon, I made two vertical structures for my garden and did not need an EMT afterwards.

This dissertation is going to be VERY long, about 12 sections. I am sorry to say I have not got the ability to diagram, and my drawings on Paint are enough to make a cat laugh. Please put up with my descriptions, I beg.

Vertical Growing Plants

Tomatoes have to be the top choice of gardeners. Basically, there are only two types of tomato plants: Vining (indeterminate) and bush (determinate). For the purposes of vertical gardening, Indeterminate tomatoes are what you want.

Tomatoes are easy to train to vertical growing. Just wind them as they grow around your material (netting, string, whatever) and pinch off the suckers so it grows straight up.

Suckers are easy to spot if you know what to look for. They appear in the V between the main stem and the leaf stem and should be pinched off when small. However, should you miss one, don't fret. You can cut it off without much harm.

Cucumbers are ideally suited to vertical growing. They train just as easily up the string or net, and can be pruned to one central (and very prolific) central stem.

Summer squash that vines, like yellow straightnecks, climb right up the strings with very little help, other than the occasional twist. The vine itself is normally one central stem and needs very little pruning.

Winter squashes are very heavy, and you would think they would not be suitable for vertical growing, but they are with extra support. In this case, use large mesh wire fencing as the support instead of string or netting.

That includes Pumpkins, BTW. Bet you thought you'd never have room for a "real pumpkin patch". Vertically, you do. Just be aware that large mesh wire is the support and a pantyhose "sling" is required. It can be done. (And no "funny" sides from their being on the ground either!)

Pole beans are the "plant and stand back" thing for those who want results that are truly spectacular. Just twist the vines up as they grow. You will soon have a green wall of beans! I chose "Scarlet runner", because of the added benefit of gorgeous red flowers.

Again, melons are a very heavy "fruit" and need the extra support of wire fencing instead of string or net. They get trained up just like anything else, but must be watched more closely.

Melons are ripe when they slip off the vine! For an extra measure of protection in case you miss a ripe one, spread a thick layer of straw below them. Even better, also support each melon with its own pantyhose sling! Dollar store pantyhose will do for this application.

The benefits of growing vertically mean that your produce is up in the air where air circulates. Mold can't grow. A cardboard collar around the trunk prevents slugs, and the pollinating insects have a heyday. You can see exactly what is there, so you don't end up with zucchini 3 feet long or overripe veggies. Cucumbers get bitter past a certain length, depending on variety.

What is more, vertical growing means a lovely garden "wall" of greenery. What better and more efficient way to ensure privacy?

Advantages of vertical growing.

Vining crops take up a huge amount of space in the traditional row garden. It doesn't make sense to condense your space and grow your carrots and lettuce in a small space, then take up ten feet of ground with one cucumber vine.

Studies have shown that vertically grown crops produce more and healthier fruit. The fruit/veggies are not lying on the ground and subject to rot, and they are up where you can see them for faster harvest.

On that note, let me remind you of your aching back. Do you really want to spend all summer bent over, searching for that elusive zucchini, cucumber or melon? Grow vertically and save your back!

Prompt harvesting is a must for many vegetables, and critical for cukes and beans. Don't give them a chance to turn hard or bitter. Put them up where you can see them.

If you are like me, privacy is a big issue. A living wall of greenery, like pole beans, can screen the rest of your garden from greedy eyes. Vertical growing supports can hide a multitude of things and provide great beauty in the bargain!

Vertical supports can also be put elsewhere in your garden, besides in the veggie patch. Sweet peas, planted in the fall, will happily climb up a support net and make your flower garden have a living wall of sweet smelling flowers in the spring!

Vertical supports also make great, cheap arbors!! Imagine an ivy arbor with a resin bench beneath it for a retreat from the hot summer sun. We'll talk more about this later.

Materials and Construction of Vertical Frames.

Your two side supports are the backbone of your structure. Make them out of very strong material, like steel posts, or treated 2x2's.

No matter what material you choose, get it in 6 or 7 foot lengths. You will be sinking this into the ground up to 1 foot deep.

There are several methods you can use to anchor your posts. For a permanent structure, pour concrete around it in the hole around the post.

For a less permanent structure, one you CAN take with you if you move, pour concrete around the pole in a large #10 can and then sink the can in the ground after it cures. It will be heavy, but you can dig it up and take it with you if you so choose.

For a temporary structure, one you can pull up and put in storage until next growing season, use a galvanized steel post. Yes, it is more expensive, but you are paying once for a convenience you will never have to buy again.

No matter what posts you use, your next purchase depends on what you want to grow, and how much you are willing to invest. Your support mechanism, ie, that which is stretched between the posts, can vary from string to netting, to wire fencing. Be aware that in extremely sunny conditions, wire fencing can get so hot that it burns your plants. Take care and think about what you’ll be planting in what location.

Your final purchase is a match for the first material, that which your posts are constructed with. If you are using treated wood 2x2's, get a third one and cut it so it fits across the top of your posts, about 4 feet in length.

How you attach it to your posts is up to you, and how permanent your frame is to be. In any case, do not nail or screw it down! You will want to remove your support mechanism every fall for storage. Use lag or carriage bolts and make it so you can take it apart with little effort, or even wrapped baling wire.

String is attached to a bottom piece of wood or steel, so be prepared to purchase extra if you intend to use string as your support mechanism.

Personally, I favor investing in the galvanized wire fencing. That way, no matter what you grow, it can handle the load, and then be rolled up for winter storage, but it can survive winter if you choose to leave it up. Only thing is, it gets hot and can burn some tender plants. Yes, that’s a repeat. It bears repeating.

Garden netting is the in-between "I have a limited budget" choice. It is cheap, reusable, and stores well in the off-season. Most economical, but not as strong as wire fencing. It can be purchased in large amounts too.

The Trench

Let us assume you want a vertical structure not attached to a normal 4x4' square-foot gardening plot. The ground still needs to be prepared, just as if it were, only now you are handling only a 4'x1' trench.

Dig out this trench, right in front of your frame, so that it fits in between the support poles. Make it about one foot deep. Unless your soil is perfect, scatter it elsewhere.

Fill your trench with a 6" of good stable manure, or purchased manure if you can't get it any other way.

Now fill another 4" worth of the trench with your best growing soil mix. Yes, you can use the formula I gave you in an earlier dissertation. Go back and get it if you have to.

You will note that the above is only a total of 10", not 12", and therefore doesn't fill the trench completely. There is a reason for this. The slight depression will hold water and any future fertilization (like doses of manure tea or compost) more efficiently with less waste.

Watering is one of the keys to successful vining crops, so water efficiently with less waste. Also, by watering in this trench, you confine the water and make less mud on your shoes to track indoors. (More xeriscaping)

If you wish, you can fill in that last 2" with mulch to further conserve water and moderate soil temperatures. (Xeriscaping again). Mulch also decomposes, adding more good soil. I use grass clippings and leaves. As they decompose, they warm the soil when it is cold and keep it cool when it is hot.

The best mulch is absolutely free. Just call up a tree service and ask if they have some chipped bark to get rid of. They’ll be happy to bring you a whole dump truck full. Share with the neighbors. There will be plenty.

Now, you can plant whatever it is you wish in your trench, whether it be cukes, tomatoes, climbing roses, sweet peas, or ivy. Your plants will have a better chance and you will have a better result. Remember that beans add nitrogen to the soil, so never pull them up at the end of the growing season. Just cut off the vines at soil level and add the vines to the compost heap. Everything else gets yanked up and tossed on the heap.

Next in Part 4, we’ll discuss more garden structures you can make yourself.

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