By Diane C. Kennedy.
Training vining plants up trellises is nothing new; using trellises and walls can at least double your growing space. Now as more people are concerned about growing their own food, making the most of usable space becomes important. For those with small growing areas, growing upwards may be the only option.
Permaculturalists combine plants that work well together in what is called a plant guild. Some plants fix nitrogen at their roots, some have deep taproots that mine nutrients and bring them to the soil surface, others shade the ground with large leaves, and so on. Fruit trees, particularly those that go dormant (citrus, avocado, and many other tropicals with shallow roots don’t like anything planted directly under them) are great candidates for enlarging your growing space vertically. If you have large established trees, then beans, peas, squash, pumpkins, luffa and gourds can all be grown up the trunk and into the canopy. Be conscious of the ultimate weight of the squash and how strong the branches of the trees are.
For younger trees that may also need some sun protection through their first year, creating vertical supports around the tree for vines not only helps shade the trunks from sun scald, but gives you extra crops as well. Try growing beans up a stick tower placed around a small tree. Beans are also nitrogen-fixers, so when the plant dies, cut it off at the soil rather than pulling up the roots so as to leave the nitrogen nodules in the ground. In the photo, Christmas Pole Lima Beans are thoroughly enjoying a teepee made of volunteer ash sticks. They help protect the young donut peach tree from the intense summer heat in its first year. Also around the base are Lorenziana gaillardia to bring in beneficial insects, a globe artichoke, and on the other side an Orangelo watermelon left to sprawl and help cool the ground as well as a sprouted onion left to flower. This guild will help build soil, protect the tree and bring in beneficial insects and pollinators.
Any wire fence is a candidate for vertical growing. Any container that can be lined enough to keep in dirt and still allow drainage is a candidate for plants, even if they don’t look like show pieces. In the first photo above, 15-gallon nursery containers are placed along the wire fence of a chicken coop. Amish paste tomatoes, Iran squash, Goat’s Eye beans and Boston pickling cucumbers scramble up the sides while Japanese eggplant, Swiss chard and sweet basil fill in the front. There is a bare area where the hens have a perch on the inside… they don’t mind the extra greens either. Also, milk crates lined with old plastic mulch bags, with holes punched in for drainage, are planted further down the line. Vertical growing keeps food off the ground and makes harvesting much easier.
Use your imagination and whatever you have on hand to expand your growing area upwards. You will be helping your existing plants as well as increasing your harvest. When the growing season is done, the trellises can all be composted!
Diane Kennedy is a permaculture landscape designer, consultant and educator. She and her daughter own Finch Frolic Garden Permaculture, a food forest in Fallbrook, CA through which they give educational tours. She volunteers with the Native Plant Restoration Team at the Fallbrook Land Conservancy. Diane blogs at www.vegetariat.com