“Think Outside. No box needed.” – Unknown

When I think of a garden, I think of a plot of land set aside for plants of whatever type of your choosing (although not always in the case of weeds). You think of bending down to sniff a rose, or stooping over to pick the dark green zucchini with the morning dew still glistening on it. Perhaps kneeling in a row of carrots makes you happy.

But I dare you.

Look up.

It’s free real estate.

At Glenwood Gardens, in the Highfield Discovery Garden, we have a beautiful green trellis. I love this trellis, it’s sturdy and I have many a happy memory of being up on a ladder looking down on children as I drop beans or gourds into their hands. You probably don’t have such a trellis at home, but that shouldn’t stop you from thinking up and out of the box.

Now, I will say the first thing you will need to do is have a place to put your trellis (or bamboo stakes, or tomato cage, or old fencing – you get the idea). As much fun as it is to grow up in the air, you will need to start in the ground. The good news is that you don’t need much! Climbing plants are great for small places or tiny sections that are just too miniscule to fit that tomato plant in. For example, a bean plant only needs about 3–4 inches on each side, while your average bush squash needs about 1 foot on each side and the bean is up, up and away, while the zucchini can get bushy and spread onto the sidewalk.

Vigorous climbing plants we have planted include pole beans, vining squashes, mini watermelons (yes, really), Dipper and spinning gourds, and yardlong beans, to name a few. Now, let’s take a closer look at some of these trellis climbers.  

Bright red scarlet runner beans.
Scarlet Runner Beans: A hummingbird’s delight!

I think the best thing about climbing vegetables is they often have some very showy flowers. Take scarlet runner beans, for example. When we planted this beautiful bean, we had hummingbirds every day for months and it’s a view you can end up eating!

Luffa gourds hang from a tree-covered trellis.
Luffa Gourds: Nature’s dishcloth or bathtub companion. Photo by Ivan Lian/Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The next veggie is the Luffa Gourd, also known as Dishcloth Gourd. When you buy an all-natural luffa to scrub-a-dub-dub, you are basically buying a peeled gourd. The outside skin is peeled off as the mature fruit dries to reveal a sponge-like inner matrix, which works great at scrubbing those hard-to-reach places. If your little ones are not into taking baths, the good news is that gourds can be eaten while they are still young in stir-fries and other preparations.

A basket holds small, green-striped watermelons.
Watermelons: Probably the last plant you would think to grow up a trellis! Photo by Nichelle Stephens/Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Watermelons. Yup. You can train them to climb a trellis. But don’t be planting those big “fridge buster” varieties. Try something small for small hands like Sugar Baby or a similar variety. Now these will take a little extra work on your part, as they may need a sling to support the maturing fruit, but hey, who would have thought of growing watermelons over your head?

Now, you don’t have to grow veggies on this trellis either. Many a climbing vine would be happy to take up residence, like wisteria or clematis. But what if you don’t have a trellis or can’t make one?

Why not grow one?

You may have heard of the three sisters garden of corn, beans and squash, but corn has its downsides. Corn is wind pollinated, meaning that it relies on the wind to produce ears. The problem can happen when you have a small amount of corn, like 10–15 stalks. You’re not going to get many good ears because what if the wind blows the wrong way or it’s sheltered and there is no wind? What if your neighbor has a different variety and some of that pollen ends up on your corn? Or on the big corn field down the road? You end up with mix-matched ears and very small ones at that. No, corn in a small space (if you’re having to think vertical) just isn’t really worth it.

Now here’s my twist. 

A bright yellow sunflower is fully open.
Sunflowers: Solar powered, not wind powered.

I love sunflowers. They are big and happy and cheery. They are, to me, like looking at a warm hug. Grow sunflowers instead of corn! You can get some very tall varieties and grow some taller climbing plants on them! Plus when you’re done, you can save the stalks for next year to use to make a trellis! Free trellis two years in a row!

Let me challenge you to think outside the garden square, to get up and out of the flower box. To let the beans soar with the hummingbirds, your dishcloths grow on vines, your watermelons to defy gravity, and your sunflowers to turn heads and reach for the sun. So look up, my friend, instead of down, and save your back in the process.

Allyson Ernst
Nature Interpreter, Glenwood Gardens