Mick Telkamp

I've run out of yard. I’d like to blame the power of a mighty green thumb, but the fact is, my yard is of modest size and mature trees leave about half of it in full shade all summer long, so it didn’t take much. My deck has become home to numerous pots and planting boxes, but that only gets me so far. What is the intrepid vegetable gardener to do? Go vertical.

Not only will taking my garden skyward make the most out of limited space, but plants will have greater access to precious sunshine, the risk of disease is reduced and weeding and watering becomes a snap. If you’ve ever staked a tomato plant, you've already done a little vertical gardening. By choosing my crops carefully and using a variety of methods, I can still make the most of a challenging space.

Twining plants, such as pole beans or hops, climb by growing the primary stem in a corkscrew fashion around a slender support. Tightly coiling, they can choke the life out of other unsuspecting crops if not trained to an appropriate host. A single pole will do the job, but tether three poles together into a teepee structure and they can reach spectacular heights, increasing yield without giving up square footage. Trellises will also work, but they need a strong support. Twining plants can be bullies and will tear down an unstable structure.

Other climbers do so by using tendrils, finger-like stems that grow from the stalk and wrap around a host to pull the plant toward sunlight. Peas, cucumbers, some summer squash, gourds and melons are great climbers, and will scale anything slender enough for it to grab. Fences, netting, trellises, pergolas or even nylon string stretched between secure posts all make great anchors. And the greenery is much prettier than the chain link hiding below.

With a some attention and training, many plants can reap vertical benefits without the luxury of natural climbing ability. Left to their own devices, tomato plants will stay low, taking up valuable real estate and making its fruit easy prey resting on the ground. Caged or tethered to stakes, they will routinely grow to six to eight feet or beyond with minimal ground coverage. At Walt Disney's Epcot in Orlando, a single tomato plant was grown to a canopy of over 600 square feet, yielding tens of thousands of tomatoes in a single year.

All these climbers do a great job of scaling back the necessary garden space, but with some preparation and a trip to the hardware store we can go a little further. Hanging planters for “top down” growth can take us beyond the cramped plot entirely. Find a little sunshine and a stable post, arbor or balcony and home grown produce is within your reach. Commercial planters like the “Topsy-Turvy” are readily available, but a five gallon bucket with a hole cut in the bottom will do just fine. Tomatoes, eggplants, peppers are all good inverted growers. Plant herbs in the top of the bucket for a space saving bonus.

I have a lot more options here than I realized. I may not harvest 30,000 tomatoes, but the vertical solution has me optimistic. I'll settle for half that.

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