02 May, 2018

May: Growing Up In Your Garden

A good number of summer vegetables are largish plants and can easily eat up a lot more than their share of the square footage of your garden. For gardeners without a lot of space – or gardeners growing in containers – growing plants up is the best solution.

Many of us are familiar with the tomato cages for sale right now – these are an attempt to “grow things up.” Sadly most of them are not constructed with enough oomph to even last through one whole tomato season. There are better choices.

There are a number of plants that will NOT grow up no matter what you do, but just looking at the plant are there clues that show us which plants can be grown up? Yes!

Summer Plants That Can Be Trellised

  • Climbing beans – the seed package will tell you they are “climbing,” or, if you got them without a package, when the second pair of true leaves show up, the space between the pairs of leaves will be much longer than you'd expect. That part of the stem should be a couple of inches – if it's closer to a foot, you have a climber! Beans that are called “Runner Beans” are climbers.
  • Almost ALL melons – there are very few that are not abler to climb and those few are most likely a modern day hybrid and will be noted on the packet.
  • Most squashes – the exception will be the summer squashes – the winter squashes have long rambling vines that can be tied up easily. They need a sturdy trellis.
  • And while it may not be obvious, almost all tomatoes. When shopping for tomatoes, you often see them labeled “Determinate (or D)” and Indeterminate(or I). They are just what the words describe – Determinate tomatoes grow to a determinated height and no farther. Indeterminates don't have an “off” button – they keep growing as long as the weather suits them. The Indeterminate plants are really vines that we try to make stand up.

The tomato cages on the left, fold flat in the winter (or can do time as pea cages) while the “tomato ladders” below are more compact and seem to be a lot more sturdy. Cages are $55 for four, while the ladders are $50 for three (both plus shipping, so they end up being an investment). In my experience both of these are a better investment than the measly round things that are available locally. The circle cages do not actually work unless you help them with a sturdy pole helping them stay upright

Both of these structures - plus a bunch of other alternatives are available from Gardener's Supply - I have the ladders and I think they are about 20 plus years old. They are problem free and however much they cost, if they hang around for 20 plus years, that's what I would call a deal.

Concrete Reinforcing Wire is a real champ at this trellising thing! I have several pieces that came to me via a garage sale - I forget how much they cost, but with hunk of this stuff and some garden stakes (about 6' tall) to secure them, you have a deal!  

The large openings thru the mesh are big enough to get a hand thru easily – and said hand back out while holding a tomato. These can be used a number of ways. Just using it as a grid pattern, and stake it with some robust stakes, tomatoes or other climbing plants – even ones of some size like squashes and pumpkins, cucumbers, melons and almost any other climbing plant, will not conquer this wire! It is sturdy enough to bend it into shapes – you can even make a covered walkway with this stuff. Done right, you can walk under the leaves of your squash plant with the fruits hanging down around your head! It is magical.

Using them this way, storage is a cinch! One small space where they can be pushed out of the way against the wall and you're in like Flynn. Or, leave them in the garden and grow peas up them over the winter!

The First Nations of America had this trellis thing totally figured out. They grew corn and planted beans at the base of their corn. The beans used the corn to climb on while the beans “fixed” nitrogen in the soil for the corn (a high nitrogen user). Finally they planted squash at the base of the plants and the large leaves of the squashes shielded the soil from the rays of the sun, as living mulch, preventing water loss from evaporation and keeping the roots of the garden cooler in these very hot, dry southwestern climates. This type of garden is often times called the “Three Sisters Garden” and is a masterful example of using plants together in a symbiotic arrangement.

Looking at the plant – even a young plant – look for spaces between the leaves. Most food plants conform to a couple of growing patterns. Put on your “Botany Hat” cause here we go!

Each leaf comes off the stem at a place called a “node.” Nodes are important in many ways, but for today, we will consider them as important growth centers for the plant. If these nodes are close together, it indicates a plant that is not a good climber. If they are far apart, it is a good candidate. The space between the nodes is called the “internode” - how hard can that be? Long internodes mean good climber. If you understand this, then the one or two summer squashes that you can grow on a trellis will be easy to spot while the other summer squashes, all bunched up on the ground will be obviously a plant to leave on the ground.

If your trellis is wimpy, be prepared to repair it. The lima bean “Christmas” pulled down two trellises before I built one out of pallet wood and when that came down, I gave up on Christmas Limas! And that was a bean, imagine a squash or a cucumber plant?

Climbers are not only a common-sense solution to a space problem, they can make a wonderful design statement in your garden that brings your garden to a whole other artistic development – not only do you get more food from the same space, but your upright pieces in the garden can be painted to add additional color and provide more interest. Instead of tying plants up with only twine – you can use colorful ribbon to tie plants up adding more color to feast your eyes on!

Eggplants, peppers, okra and corn are not good trellising projects.

Plants that climb often have their harvest over a longer period of time. Plants that are smaller, officially known as "determinate (because their size is determined by their genes), don't. If you want to eat all summer long, grow pole beans. If you want to pickle or can your beans, plant bush varieties so you get them all ripe about the same time for processing convenience. Keep these options in mind as you plant to control the food coming in from your garden. Keep a log of what went where so you can avoid planting tomatoes into a space that was planted in nitrogen fixing plants. Tomatoes, growing the presence of nitrogen will not set fruit until they have burnt it up. In our climate this is not that big of deal – unless the fruit set holds until cooler weather had set in.

Take a moment and assess your summer garden. If you are in a very hot place with adequate water, consider planting your summer veggies a little closer together for complementary shade. Try not to shade the leaves, those need sun. But if you can keep the sun from the soil and the roots, you might find you have a better, longer harvest. Mind you, this would be in addition to mulching, which you already do, right?

Remember the adage: The best fertilizer is the farmer's shadow and enjoy your moments just looking at your plants and all you have done!

May is the last really good month to get your summer garden in, after this it gets hotter and drier and it's tougher on you and the plants. It's lovely outside – you want to be outside anyway – get out there and get busy! Waiting will make your job harder and the plants less happy. The time is now! Carpe diem!

Start These In Containers
Start These In The Ground
Move to the Ground from Containers
Winter squash
More basil
More summer squash
Eggplant, peppers, okra,
squashes, summer first,
then winter later in the month


Zucchini and winter squash

David's Greek Salad

It might be a bit early to think of the tomato harvest, and my admonition is to not 'count your tomatoes until they are on the plate;' oh what the hell... It's so close we can almost taste it, right?

Close to equal amounts of fresh tomatoes and fresh cucumbers. Do not slice neatly, but quickly and crudely chunk them into more or less bite sized pieces. I will be using San Marzano tomatoes and Armenian cucumbers for most of these this year. I love it! Greek salad with Italian tomatoes and Armenian cukes! Life in America.
Olive oil – enough to generously coat each bite, not so much as to float anything
Pepper to taste
Small slices of red onion for a some zing (the Italian 'Torpedo,' or Tropea onions are one of my favorites) – we're just doing some 'zing' here. The onions should not be the main attraction.
Crushed dried oregano (I like the Greek oregano, remember?)
Homemade or a really good store bought feta cheese also cut into chunks.
Mix them all together with laughter; the actual order things are placed in the bowl is not all that important, it's a forgetful, or disorderly, cook's dream!

Serve with:
Homemade bread, herb tea or lemonade and good friends... outside dining if you can!

Change it up as availability of ingredients dictates.
Eat till you're full and take a nap in dappled sunshine!
*In a protected, shaded, location.

Just stay outta my hammock.  


1 comment:

  1. Hi David,
    I’m a newbie to gardening in Long Beach. I gardened for years in suburban Philadelphia where the seasons were more of a challenge than availability of water. I now have some raised beds at my house and a 10x10 plot in a local organic community garden. I stumbled upon your blog and really appreciate all the information shared about when to plant. I’m learning! I’m hoping one Saturday to get to your class and meet you. Regards, Mark