Climbing vegetables will be happiest if allowed to grow vertically, but did you know that different vines climb or spread in different ways? Here is the best way to choose a trellis or support structure to match the needs and habits of of your climbing or vining vegetables.
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Growing climbing vegetables vertically allows them to grow the way they naturally desire, so you’re not fighting against them in the garden. But there are other benefits, too. Growing vertically saves space, can produce higher yields, and can reduce susceptibility to many plant diseases.
Types of Climbing Vegetables
There are three major types of climbing vegetables. Some have tendrils (tendrilers?), some are twiners, and some are scramblers. Knowing the difference in their growing tendencies can help you choose the right support structure.
Cucumbers, squash, peas, pole beans, tomatoes and sweet potatoes are some of the most common vining vegetables. I used to assume all trellising structures were created equal, until I noticed that certain climbing vegetables just didn’t seem to take to the structure I was providing for it.
Let’s look at the three common types of climbing vegetables and what kinds of trellis would best meet their needs.
Tendrils: Cucumbers, Peas, and Many Squash Varieties
Cucumbers, peas, and many squash varieties have tendrils that reach out from the plant’s stem in search of something to grab onto and climb. The tendrils can go upwards and sideways. Tendrils prefer to grab onto something organic and non-metallic, such as a twine trellis or wood lattice (I like this one).
I use twine to create a grid-like structure between two posts. Grid squares should be less than 4 inches in width/diameter.
You can make a metal trellis friendly to the tendril climber by wrapping twine around the metal supports and creating a twine grid in open spaces. I found this out the hard way! I ran out of stakes this year but I needed support for a cucumber plant. So I used a metal trellis with the plan to wrap it with twine and make a twine grid in the open spaces.
Unfortunately I got busy, and now it’s too late. The cucumber plant is too big and has flopped over, so I will have to manually tie it up while it grows because it can’t latch on to the metal with its tendrils.
Read more about growing your best cucumbers here.
A teepee or A-frame trellis made with bamboo stakes (like these) and garden twine is sturdy enough to support the heavier weight of winter squash.
A note on squash: There are many varieties, but if the variety you are growing is a vine/climber, then it will follow the tendril rule.
Would you like to learn more about growing vegetables efficiently to reduce maintenance and increase yield?
You’ll find loads of information just like this in my book, The Suburban Micro-Farm.
Twiners: Pole Beans
Pole beans are twiners, meaning that as the vining stem grows upward, it will wrap itself around anything it can touch. Twiners are not picky about what they climb, therefore you can grow them on any type of trellis, support structure, or fence that you want. Just be sure it is tall, as they can reach almost indefinitely.
Many gardeners pinch off the ends of the vines when they reach the top of the trellis.
One interesting thing to note is that pole beans twine in a counterclockwise habit. If you are training it to grow up a certain support, observe your vine’s pattern and be sure to twine it in the direction that would be natural for the vine.
Below, you’ll notice my beans growing on the privacy fence using a trellis made of galvanized wire fence.
Scramblers: Tomatoes and Sweet Potatoes
Tomatoes and sweet potatoes are not in the same family, but they are both non-climbing, scrambling vines. If left to their own devices, they’ll scramble happily along the ground, rooting in the ground from nodes along the vine.
Supporting tomatoes with cages or ladders (I have these cages from Gardener’s Supply Company), or tying them to a trellis is common practice. If the plant falls over for some reason, it may root itself sideways and keep going, as running along the ground is its natural tendency. Encouraging the plant to grow straight up means that it will put more energy into making tomatoes than it will into rooting itself.
Sweet potatoes are probably the most low-maintenance vegetable in my garden. If you’d like to grow them vertically to save space, they will have to be trained, since–as a scrambler–they do not have tendrils nor do they twine. Again, I like the stake-and-twine structures, so that I can weave the vines in and out of the twine grid for support.
Since it is a prolific vine, an A-frame trellis or teepee will provide sturdy support. Or you can periodically tie the sweet potato vine to grow up a metal trellis, just make sure it is sturdy.
Read more about harvesting, curing, and storing sweet potatoes here.
Enjoy adding vegetable climbers to your garden for a beautiful vertical dimension, efficient use of space, and disease prevention.
What kinds of trellises do you use in your garden?