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Vertical Gardening: The Beginners Guide to Trellising Plants

by Jordan Charbonneau, photos by Ira Wallace

Traditional wooden vegetable garden trellising at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello

In my dreams of a picturesque garden there are always trellises. They may bring to mind quaint little fairy tale cottages, but trellises aren’t just for their good looks. There are so many plants that can be grown on a trellis and so many reasons to grow them that way.

Why trellis?

Trellising saves resources.

Want to grow more vegetables in little spaces? Grow up! One of the easiest ways to make the best use of small garden spaces is by growing plants on trellises. Plants like pole beans are extremely productive and can be grown in narrow rows if trellised.

Trellised plants also use less water. Instead of watering an entire sprawling plant you can just water the base where the plants roots are located.

Trellises add structure.

Adding structure and height to a garden is often done to make gardens more beautiful. but there are other benefits too. Song birds will appreciate having places to land in your garden and they can help control insect populations.

Having the plants up off the ground also increases air flow and can help minimize plant diseases.

Trellises add shade.

Trellising plants can also help you add much needed summertime shade. A vining vegetable crop like cucumbers can be grown on a slanted trellis above a bed of a cool weather vegetable like lettuce, thereby helping you to grow a late season crop. Deciduous perennials (those that drop their leaves in the fall) can be grown on trellises on the southern side of houses to shade the home in the heat of summer and let the sun through in the winter. Some plants, like pole beans, gourds, and flowers like morning glories, have such long vines they can easily cover small structures (like teepees) making excellent summer forts for kids.

Trellised plants are easier to harvest.

Vegetables on trellises also tend to be easier to harvest. Instead of searching through a sprawling jungle of squash plants, you can easily spot them hanging from a trellis. Plus there’s little or no bending over. The fruits also tend to be cleaner and more uniform, perfect for market growers.

What can be trellised?

Decorative wrought iron trellis at Atlanta Botanical Garden

 

Many plants do well on a trellis and some require one. Below are some of the vegetables, flowers, and perennials that make ideal candidates for trellising.

Vegetables Flowers Perennials
Cucumbers Sweet Pea Hops
Pole Beans Morning Glory Hardy Kiwi
Peas Clematis Grapes
Melons Nasturtium
Gourds
Squash
Pumpkin
Indeterminate Tomatoes 

 

 

How do I make a trellis?

There are tons of trellis designs and it can be hard to choose. The major deciding factors will be your garden’s style, your budget, the materials you have on hand, and which plants you plan to trellis. Trellises can be whimsical, practical, or a mix of both. They can be shaped as arches, forts for children, or simple fences.

Use natural materials.

Many people choose to make simple teepees like these which can be made from bamboo, straight saplings, or branches, and held together with twine or wire. There are also many different shaped designs using the same materials.

Use fencing.

Cattle panel arch trellis at Heritage Farm

Hog panels or sections of wire fencing are another popular choice. Hog panels and sturdier fencing can be used two ways: as a fence or bent over as an arch.

Purchase or build trellises from lumber.

If you have money to purchase trellises or a knack for woodworking, there are designs for folding trellises that can be stored each season as well as more creative designs. You can also install large trellises in front houses or over patios.

Repurpose junk.

Some people also repurpose old junk into awesome trellises. Things like iron bed frames and gates, old umbrella frames, and old antennas are great for climbing plants.

When designing any trellis it’s important to think about what you’re growing. Is it a permanent trellis for a perennial that will be in the same spot for years or something you’ll want to rotate next year? You’ll also need to decide on the size. Obviously pea plants require smaller trellises than grape vines. Some plants, like pumpkins, melons, and larger squash varieties, will need sturdy trellises to support the immense weight of their fruit.

How do I trellis plants?

Some plants (including morning glories, beans, and cucumbers) are easy to trellis. Simply sew seeds next to a trellis and they’ll do the work. Some plants, like tomatoes, need a little help: they need to be manually trellised. You can use tomato-specific trellis methods like the “Florida Weave” which surrounds the plants with twine. Or use traditional trellises and attach plants with tomato clips or even old scraps of fabric. Just be sure that your method does not cut into the plant as it grows.

Tomato trellis of string weaving at Twin Oaks Community Farm

For some large-fruited plants like pumpkins, melons, and large squash varieties, you may need extra support. You can create small “hammocks” for each fruit from an old shirt or other stretchy material that can be tied off to the trellis as the vine cannot support the fruit’s mature weight.

If you’re ready for a super productive and beautiful garden this year it’s time to get some trellises ready! The best time to add trellises is before planting, not after, so don’t delay! It’s finally spring and setting up trellises is a great way to get out in the garden.

Want to know more about trellises? Check out these posts:

Ridge Gourds on Cattle Panel Trellising

Trellising with Bamboo

Easy Bamboo Bean Teepees

What plants have you grown on a trellis?

Pre-Sprouting Seeds: Sow with Confidence

pre-sprouting seeds with an overnight soak

Watch them grow! These Wando English (Shelling) Pea seeds change dramatically with just an overnight soaking, the first step in pre-sprouting. (Wando is a favorite variety for excellent production in hot weather.)

the final product, sprouted peas
The final product! These are VERY ready to sow — don’t let the rootlets get any longer! I kept them moist after soaking by laying a damp cloth over them.

Pre-sprouting your seeds is the ideal technique for the anxious gardener, because it lets you see how well your seeds are germinating before you sow. If your seeds are old or haven’t been stored properly, you can pre-sprout them to make sure they’re still viable.

We only recommend pre-sprouting for large seeds, like beans, peas, spinach, and corn. Smaller seeds become difficult to handle when wet.

You don’t have to go all the way to sprouts: soak your seeds for at least 4 hours, but not more than 12 hours, to get much of the benefit of pre-sprouting, but without the hassle.

To pre-sprout the seeds, drain them after soaking and keep them evenly moist until the tiny first rootlets just barely emerge. We keep our seeds moist by rinsing them at least twice a day and covering with a damp cloth.

Watch your seeds very carefully! You should sow them as soon as the tiny rootlets emerge: they should only be about a quarter inch long, and still mostly attached to the seed. Wait just one or two days longer and you’ll have long, delicate easily damaged roots and stems.

If the timing isn’t quite right (your garden isn’t ready for sowing, the weather is too wet, or you’re just busy) you can delay sprouting by keeping the seeds in the refrigerator.

On our farm in central Virginia, pre-sprouting is an important technique in the early spring and late summer. Our spring and fall cool seasons are quite short, so we like to give these crops the best possible start and get them started as soon as we can.