Growing Up: Trellises as Functional Art

Growing Up: Trellises as Functional Art

The garden trellis, the structure of a beloved and well-tended veggie patch, the architecture that ties together even the smallest of spaces, is not only a utilitarian and necessary strategy for square foot challenged garden spaces, growing vertically adds that unspoken yet coveted visual interest to your landscape.

The eastern bluebirds perch atop our espalier orchard as they fly through our yard, as do the ruby-throated hummingbirds, finches, wrens with their sweet songs, and other wonderful winged friends. Last summer, we grew winter squash (kabocha!) vertically. Yes, a 4-pound winter squash held fast to its vine while dangling 3+ feet off the ground. Imagine sturdy stems that hold fast to the vine while the several pounded fruits drooped elegantly from mid-air. It was such fun to see, yet a bit of a challenge to photodocument.


Even though space abounds in our home garden, we continue to enjoy the visual interest growing vertically invites into our garden, and each year find new ways and new foods to grow up. Vertical trellising anchors your space while increasing your overall growing space, saving all that ground where the butternuts or cantaloupes once roamed for other crops. So whether you are short on space or not, trellising benefits every gardener. 


The following vegetables are vining and absolutely need some type of structure to grow up in our opinion, though not very heavy, so you can get away with sturdy twine for these crops:

  • cucumbers
  • pole beans 
  • cucamelon
  • snow and snap peas
  • tomatoes (except determinate varieties)

Food we like to grow on trellises to save space:

  • winter squash
  • cantaloupe
  • watermelon

This year we are growing watermelon and cantaloupe vertically, a new challenge to us. Last year we grew them in the same space we are currently using for our sweet corn, but this year they are taking up, collectively, half the space they did last year. This is all due to their trellises. Their tendrils are much more tender than a winter squash, so panty hose are at the ready for fruit hammocks. If the need arises, I will tie up a sling for the fruit that looks like it needs support, but I am a believer in my plants who set fruit dangling in midair, so I think they know what their growing conditions are and don't anticipate needing to intervene. 

I really pushed our luck with this watermelon by marveling at its growth throughout July and not giving it one ounce of extra support. I let it grow and grow and it held fast. It was equal parts benign neglect and curiosity. Then, one morning I noticed it was on the ground. Luckily, it was pretty close to fully ripe so we enjoyed it over the course of last week. 

There are bush varieties of string beans, snow, snap, and other sweet peas that don’t require trellising. However, we find that even the bush varieties of snow and snap peas benefit from a little support. To that end, we install a 3’ high trellis for them to latch onto - and they always take us up on the offer. 

Additionally, you can purchase bush type varieties of winter squash. Personally, we enjoy the look of a butternut or kabocha squash dangling effortlessly off a sturdy trellis in early September. It never ceases to amaze me how a single flower in summer grows into this sturdy, food stable food source in the waning days of the season.

Choose Your Materials to Your Liking

Trellises can be made from whatever is around, piecing together your resources to a custom cedar design - or as simple as metal panels. Whatever you dream up within your budget are the right materials for the project. The only rules are to create a structure tall enough and strong enough to accommodate the crop’s ultimate height and fruit-bearing weight. 


We have built trellises that span the full gamut, from bamboo stakes and twine to custom-built cedar panels with intricate, geometric patterns. Over the past few years, we have transitioned to using cattle panels, due in large part to their affordability and versatility. Not to mention they go together in a matter of minutes with zip-ties as fasteners and u-posts as anchors. And because they are light on the eyes, the foliage and plants will climb and cover them and the panels practically disappear on the landscape, which I really love. It's like magic, plant magic. 

We purchase 16-foot panels from our local farm supply store (roughly $24/panel) and cut them in half with our metal crimper before bringing them home. Generally, the base panels for our trellising is 50” x 8’. We put these both horizontally and vertically in the garden depending on the vining crop. 

For cucumbers and peas, the panels go horizontally. For melons, winter squash, cucamelons and pole peans, they go vertically. We have been using U-posts at an angle to make a teepee with the panels, then zip tying the panel at the top and in one or two places along the U-post for added sturdiness.

I highly recommend growing any and all vines vertically; it looks beautiful and increases your growing space. And even for us, where you might think space isn't at a premium we both love the look of vertical growth but we also appreciate the added flexibility of having a bit more growing room to explore last minute ideas to max the space out. 

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