I’m gardening in a small area but that doesn’t mean I can’t get creative, unconventional even, to get higher yields from my garden, and make it look interesting, too. On top of being efficient, vertical gardening has some notable advantages that we are going to discuss here.
The best vegetables to grow vertically are beans, peas, tomatoes, cucumbers, melons, squash, and sweet potatoes. Heavy plants like melons and squash sometimes need additional support, while tomatoes need to be guided and tied to stakes or trellises as they don’t have tendrils to grab onto surfaces.
You may feel intimidated by the idea of building or purchasing trellises, but it can be as simple or as complicated as you plan them to be. Even if your vertical support systems are basic and inexpensive, it doesn’t mean they need to look cheap. And even if they aren’t very pretty to look at when they’re empty, you have to remember that they’ll soon be covered in lots of vegetation.
Before we dive deeper into how to grow plants vertically, let’s analyze the reasons why we should even bother with all the extra work it involves.
The advantages of growing plants vertically
Let’s admit it, endless rows of vegetables are boring. A small garden looks much better with walls of vegetation in between raised beds of various shapes and sizes. Not only is vertical gardening pretty, it also holds some advantages:
- Larger harvests from a small footprint
- Less upkeep like weeding and mulching
- More sun exposure
- Better ventilation
- Provides shade for shade-loving crops
- Easy to check for pests
- Easy access for harvesting
- Precise watering at the roots
Basic rules of growing vertically
The same rules of regular gardening still apply to vertical gardening. If you’re a fan of no-dig, organic gardening (which we promote on this site), then at the core of everything, you need to have good soil, amend it with compost and make sure it doesn’t dry out.
When going vertical with your plants, these are the practices to have in mind:
- Grow your vegetables in raised beds – they have the added advantage of fluffy soil and good drainage.
- Build your soil by adding compost at least once a year in spring or autumn, and twice a year if you’re practicing intensive, succession plantings.
- Mulch your soil either with compost, straw, wood chips, leaves, grass clippings, or wool. This helps retain moisture and curb the need for watering.
- Stay on top of weeding. Just because your plants are growing vertically, it doesn’t mean weeds won’t compete with your plants for nutrients.
- Water at the base of the plant, and keep water off of leaves to prevent mildew and disease.
- Place your trellis or climbing plants in a place that gets at least 6 hours of sunshine every day.
- Train your plants to climb early, and continue to train as they grow. If your plants get too big when sprawling on the ground, it may be too late to train them vertically, as you risk breaking them.
- Place stakes and install trellises either before or at the same time the seedlings go in the ground. Driving a stake through the roots of bigger plants might kill them or stunt their growth.
The main types of trellises and support you can use
Vertical structures can be made of wood, bamboo, plastic, or metal, meshed with strings, twine, rope, wire, plastic mesh, or heavy-duty cattle panels. You can get as creative as you want with these materials, and here are the most frequent ways you can use them:
STAKES. Stakes have been the most basic way of lifting plants off the ground, and the most accessible too. It works well because it’s not a permanent structure, and you can move the plants around if you decide to rotate your crops. The stakes can be wooden, bamboo, or metal. Metal spirals are a fun, creative way to train single stem tomatoes vertically.
CAGES. Cages are a great way to support plants that don’t grow too tall but produce fruits that are sometimes too heavy for the plant to handle, which can lead to breakage.
BAMBOO TEEPEES. Bamboo is an incredibly resistant natural material, as lightweight and as thin as it looks. Build teepees with the help of 5-7 bamboo posts secured at the top. Optionally, you can use twine to lash the poles together and give the plant vines more surface to hang on to. Bamboo lasts for a long time and looks great in the garden.
FENCE-TYPE TRELLIS. Your trellis can be as simple as sturdy posts connected with wire panels or plastic netting. You can grow vegetables vertically on a wire fence or on a decorative wood trellis, especially if you already have those structures at the border of your small garden.
A-FRAME TRELLIS. You can build a wooden frame for this type of trellis and secure it with wire mesh panels, or you can build it entirely out of wood. This type of trellis is better suited for heavy plants like squash.
ARCH TRELLIS. You can buy or build this trellis as decorative as you like, but a popular option among gardeners is using heavy-duty long cattle panels. Arch them in between two raised beds and secure them with stakes in the ground. They may look flexible, but they are very sturdy.
CLOTHESLINE TRELLIS. This type of trellis works best for tall perennials like raspberries or blueberries. Connect posts with wire on both sides of the bush and train them to grow inside and upwards. This lifts the stems and helps to ensure better ventilation.
Vegetables and perennials that can be trained to grow vertically:
Beans come in many varieties that either grow to a bush height or need to be trained on poles and trellises. Beans are frost-tender annuals that don’t like to be crowded or have their roots disturbed.
Whichever trellis you choose – whether it’s a teepee, a vertical trellis, or an a-frame – make sure that it’s sturdy and that it can withstand strong winds. Install the trellis beforehand, so as not to disturb these tender plants, and weed carefully around them.
Suggested bean varieties for vertical growing:
- Snap beans: Kentucky Wonder, Kentucky Blue, Purple Pod Pole
- French beans: Fortex, Emerite
- Runner beans: Painted Lady, Scarlet Runner Beans
- Italian Rampicante: Romano Italian, Golden of Bacau
Whether you’re growing standard or dwarf varieties, peas will need some sort of support. Their tendrils will grab onto anything provided to them and they don’t require a lot of training to grow up.
The best trellises for tall varieties are fence-type trellises with wire or nylon mesh, but you can grow them just as well on an a-frame, or a teepee interlaced with string.
Peas are cold-hardy plants that thrive in cool weather, aren’t fussy about the quality of the soil, tolerate partial shade, and withstand frosts. What they don’t like is warm weather, so starting them early is a must.
Pre-soak the seeds the night before sowing, and sow them in the ground to germinate in 7-14 days, or start them in peat cups indoors or undercover to get a head start.
Suggested pea varieties:
- Shelling peas: Alderman, Lincoln
- Snap peas: Super Sugar Snap, Cascadia
- Snow peas: Oregon Sugar Pod II, Goliath
The cucumber is another frost-tender plant that is very prolific and climbs fast on trellises. Supposedly, they don’t like being transplanted, but I’ve had great success with transplanting them outdoors in late spring-early summer, once the soil temperature reaches 70°F (21°C).
Cucumbers are thirsty plants. A thorough watering once or twice a week, and mulching the roots so they stay cool and humid are a must. As their roots are shallow, be careful not to harm them by weeding or hoeing too aggressively around the plant.
You can choose between slicing and pickling varieties, as well as opt for growing your cucumbers inside a greenhouse/polytunnel or outdoors. I’ve had grown a fantastic slicing variety outdoors called Marketmore. It produces an abundance of dark green fruits, and the plant is resistant to pests and disease.
Train the cucumber up a trellis by weaving the tops of the plant through the mesh of the trellis as they grow. Even dwarf varieties can benefit from being raised off the ground, as it improves air circulation and decreases the probability of powdery mildew. Fence-type trellises work well for cucumbers, but so do a-frame trellises and wooden lattice.
Suggested cucumber varieties:
- Slicing varieties: Marketmore, Burpless, Diva, Sweet Success
- Pickling varieties: Boston Pickling, National Pickling, Calypso
- Novelty varieties: Lemon, Pearl
Tomatoes are a staple in our diet. But for the beginner gardener, all the varieties and information out there can get confusing. They can be open-pollinated or hybrid, indeterminate or determinate, early, mid, or late fruiting.
Tomato fruit can range from small and sweet to large, thick and meaty, not to mention they come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors. Tomatoes are susceptible to blight and all kinds of diseases so do your research and try to choose a hybrid variety that is more resistant.
Tomatoes don’t climb, rather, they sprawl and lean over whatever surface they have nearby. That’s why they need to be trained to go up by tying them to a supporting frame and pruning them thoroughly as they grow. Understand, however, that not all varieties can be trained to grow tall stems. Determinate varieties and dwarf varieties should not be pruned, rather, supported with metal cages or small stakes.
Tall wooden stakes are the traditional varieties for supporting tomatoes and have been for the longest time. Make sure your stakes are sturdy enough, and at least 6 ft (2m) tall. You can also use metal spiral stakes to train your tomatoes on for an interesting look.
You can also set up two sturdy posts at both ends of a raised bed, connect them with another post or metal pipe on top, and tie strings or raffia in place, to hang all the way down to your tomato seedlings. When planting your tomatoes, bury the raffia and tomato roots together and gently train the plant to grow upwards.
Fence-type trellises with mesh and heavy-duty arched cattle panels work well, especially for tall cherry tomato varieties.
Suggested tomato varieties:
- Grape tomatoes: Riesentraube, Juliet
- Cherry tomatoes: Supersweet 100, Black Pearl, Sungold
- Plum tomatoes: Roma VFA, Super Marzano, Black Plum
- Slicer tomatoes: Celebrity, Brandywine, Cherokee Purple
Melons are notoriously difficult to grow in some climates because the growing season is short and they won’t have enough time to ripen. They need at least 70 to 90 frost-free, sunny days to ripen, so if your climate can’t ensure that, start them indoors a few weeks earlier and choose an early variety.
Melons need full sun, and trellising them is a big advantage for providing them with sunlight. They’re also heavy feeders, prefer nutrient-rich soil, and can be affected by a boron deficiency.
Trellising melons is best done on a sturdy A-frame or slanted fence that’s strong and tall enough to sustain the weight of the melons. Once the fruits get heavy, you can support them with individual slings. Cut pieces of a strong fabric like tightly woven cotton, long and wide enough to fit the bottom of the fruit and have some material left to tie the ends to the frame or mesh of the trellis.
Suggested melon varieties:
There are dozens of melon varieties, most of which you’ve probably never seen before because supermarkets don’t carry them: their shelf life is too short, and they’re too fragile to transport. But if you give these seeds a try, you’ll end up with melons that are better tasting than anything you’ve tried before:
- Cantaloupe melons: Chanterais, French orange
- American cantaloupes: Ambrosia, Hale’s Best
- Honeydews: Earlidew, Orange Flesh
- Casabas: Sungold Melon
- Crenshaws: Lilly
- Watermelons: Blacktail mountain, Little Baby Flower
5. Squash & Pumpkins
Many gardeners feel like this category is not worth growing in a small garden. With vines trailing everywhere, these plants from the cucurbit family need a lot of space, sun, and good drainage.
On top of occupying a lot of space when left to their own devices, they get plagued with powdery mildew late in the season, as they approach the end of their lifespan.
But there are plenty of varieties to choose from that can even fit into the smallest gardens. And trellising squash and certain pumpkins is a great way to take advantage of this summer crop.
Squash is divided into summer squash and winter squash and subdivided into numerous other categories. Most gardeners are familiar with zucchini, which is a summer squash that grows as a bush and can’t be trained up a trellis, but there are several summer squashes that produce true vines and can be grown vertically.
Summer squash keeps producing all summer long, and the fruits are picked while they’re still small. Winter squash spreads its vines everywhere and their fruits mature slowly and are only picked at the end of the season. To help winter squash develop faster, pick any flowers that develop after midsummer.
Like most cucurbits, squash doesn’t like to have its roots disturbed and it needs a long warm season to mature. If your summers are short, start them indoors as many weeks before the frost as necessary.
Smaller varieties are suitable for growing vertically, but you can grow large pumpkins as well if the structure is sturdy enough. Teepees work well for small-fruit squash like Delicata, while larger squash needs a solid A-frame or half A-frame trellis to thrive.
Suggested squash and pumpkin varieties:
- Summer squash: Zuchetta Rampicante Tromboncino, Gem Squash, Long Green Trailing
- Winter squash: Table Queen (acorn squash), Early Butternut, Sugar Hubbard, Spaghetti squash
- Pumpkins: Jack Be Little, Autumn Gold, Fortuna White
6. Sweet potatoes
When thinking about the sweet, delicious tubers of sweet potatoes, you’re probably not imagining them up on trellises. But unlike our classic Irish spuds, sweet potatoes grow long vines that sprawl on the ground and can easily be trained to grow upwards.
Traditionally, this crop has been a staple in southern climates, but with a lot of care and choosing the right variety, many gardeners have managed to grow sweet potatoes in the North.
Start your sweet potatoes from slips 6 to 8 weeks before the last frost, but make sure not to transplant them outside until the soil has sufficiently warmed up. These plants are incredibly tender and sensitive to frost, and they need a soil temperature of 70°F (21°C) to do well.
If not trained up on supports, the sweet potato vines will mat together and send shoots into the ground, making it difficult to walk around them or harvest them. The new roots will create tiny new sweet potatoes that will sap the energy out of the tubers that are already developing, that’s why guiding the vines up a trellis is beneficial.
You can use a fence-type or A-frame trellis with heavy-duty wire mesh to support the vines, as well as a teepee that’s secured with additional string. Even though the trellis will only hold the vines and not the fruit, it will make caring for the plants easier.
Suggested sweet potato varieties:
- Beauregard, Georgia Jet, Centennial, Southern Delite, White Yam, Frazier White
These seven categories of vegetables have hundreds and hundreds of varieties combined. There’s no way you will ever get bored with growing food vertically. But apart from growing plants with climbing vines or training the stems to go up, you can also plant a whole array of small vegetables and herbs inside grow towers or stacked containers.
Container growing is still vertical gardening, but not quite the same thing, and for the purposes of this article, I haven’t elaborated on the topic here. So is trellising bushes like certain berries (blackberries and raspberries) or training trees to grow up on espaliers, but those categories deserve our full attention.
You may have noticed that all the vegetables described above, except for peas, are frost-tender vegetables. They might go in the ground late in the season, but their growth in a short amount of time is fantastic. That’s why sturdy trellises are a must to support these fast-climbing, heavy plants.
Experiment with your own version of growing vertically and you’ll save space in your garden, not to mention have a lot of fun.