My family loves fresh vegetables from our garden. Whether it’s a cold cucumber salad, sweet tomato sandwich or side of green beans steamed just right, we enjoy the heck out of it. As our garden has grown to suit our increasing needs, we’ve been faced with a consistent problem: either we give up the quarter-acre suburban yard, or we find a better way of growing. We chose the latter.
If you’ve grown green beans in a small garden, you’ll probably agree that pole bean varieties help optimize your production within a given patch of ground. The downside is that without the advantage of 40-foot-long rows, it’s challenging to grow a lot of pole beans without bunching them together in a small area. Bunching works fine for growing beans, but it’s not easy to harvest the inside of that monster tangle of vines.
Let’s say you’ve worked out a great method for growing your beans. What about your cucumbers? Do you let them run around on the ground? They’ll grow fine that way, of course, but from my experience you’ll be stumbling over them by mid-July.
Perhaps tomatoes are your weakness? You plant your single-harvest canning tomatoes in those wonderful wire cages, just like your grandpa always did, and they work great, but your summer-long indeterminate plants just keep growing. They fall all over themselves, get blown over by the wind, and you can’t get to those perfect tomatoes in the middle no matter how hard you try.
That’s where I found myself, struggling with all the cages, strings and vines that I couldn’t seem to get coordinated. What worked for one plant wouldn’t work for another, so I had to keep re-engineering solutions every time I rotated my crops. The trellising system that I came up with to solve this problem was initially planned just for green beans, but in time I came to see that it was suitable for many crops.
A ‘square in the air’
The trellis frame that I built was designed to fit my raised bed gardens, which are 4 feet by 6 feet, but the frame could be made to fit almost any size beds, raised or not. By having the frame on the outside of the garden beds, you have the ability to modify the way the trellising is laid out, which in turn lets you control which plants are grown where. Best of all, you can change the layout every year without needing to rebuild the whole system.
To build the trellis frames on my raised beds, I started with eight 8-foot 2-by-2s. I cut the boards to the following: four 6-foot lengths, three 6-foot-3-inch lengths and two 4-foot lengths. For fasteners, I used 2.5-inch and 1-inch deck screws. You’ll need to decide if you want to strengthen the corners with triangles cut from scrap plywood or specialty metal brackets designed for joining three boards in a corner.
Once the lumber is cut to length, use 2.5-inch deck screws to attach 6-foot lengths to the four outside corners of the short sides of the garden beds. (It’s easier at this point to attach them with one screw so you can adjust them before adding a second.)
Now attach the two 4-foot lengths across the tops of the uprights with 2.5-inch screws. You should now have two rectangles sticking up from the ends of the garden beds. Join the two rectangles across the tops using the 6-foot-3-inch lengths of lumber. Locate one on each edge of the 4-foot cross members, and one centered between them to complete the rough framework. Add extra screws to the base of the uprights to strengthen while making sure to keep them square to the beds.
Finally, add the bracing to the upper corners of the framework using 1-inch screws.
That’s all there is to the basic framework. So now you have your “square in the air” (it’s really a rectangle), but how do you get the plants to grow up them?
Stringing the trellis
You can configure your trellis in several different ways. We’ll cover a couple of options here, but don’t be afraid to try something different.
I like to grow indeterminate tomatoes with the trellis in a straight configuration. I accomplished this by attaching a 6-foot furring strip (a 1-by-2 or 2-by-2 will work too) to the top of the garden bed frame just off center as a place to tie nylon mason string. Take the end of your nylon string, tie it to the furring strip, run it straight up and over the center 2-by-2 attached to the top of your square, tie it off and cut it, making sure to leave a good length for adjustments later if needed. For tomatoes, I’ll put one of these strings in the middle of each square foot right down the center of the garden. That’s six strings total. Each one can support a healthy, fully loaded tomato plant.
If beans or peas are your thing, you could use a “V” or a “Double V” configuration for the trellis. For the single V, you’ll need to attach the furring strip to the bed right in the center of the short sides of the bed frame. For the “Double V,” you’ll need to attach two strips approximately 6 inches to either side of center. This time, attach the nylon strings to the furring strips and the outside horizontals to form the V or double V shapes. The “Double V” configuration allows you to plant an early season root crop down the center of the raised bed. They’ll get a good start early and then hold on right through the hot summer in the shade of the beans that fill in the trellis.
What if you don’t have raised beds? You’ve probably spent a lot of time working your soil to get it “just so” and see no reason to add raised beds just to use a trellis. I wouldn’t either. However, there’s no reason you couldn’t build yourself a similar “square in the air” to be used as a mobile trellis to get your garden growing up.
When I added the risers to my raised bed frame I cut the 8-foot lengths of 2-by-2s down to 6-foot lengths. Without raised beds you’ll want them about 7.5 feet long with a 45-degree angle cut on one end to facilitate driving them into the ground. The rest of the frame is built exactly the same with one exception. Since there is no raised bed to attach the trellis to, you’ll need to cut and attach 2-by-4 braces (two 4-foot and two 6-foot -long pieces according to my raised bed dimensions) 18 inches from the angled end. After you’ve decided where to install the trellis, simply place the frame and step on the 2-by-4s while pushing the corners into the ground. Now you can add furring strips to the 2-by-4 braces and nylon string and get growing.
After each crop is finished, you can just pick up the frame and move it to the next spot or store it for the winter.
Instant end-of-season cold frame
If you’re like me, you try to extend your growing season in the fall by draping cloths or tarps over your prized tomato plants in hopes of getting those last few harvests. With the trellis in place, all you need do is drape plastic over the top of the center cross member and attach it to the sides of the raised bed or 2-by-4 braces. Your trellis converts to an instant cold frame that way, in, well, a few minutes.
Growing “UP” has long been known as one of the most effective ways to maximize garden yields in tight spaces. The main advantages of my system are its simplicity and versatility. I can think of many more ways to configure my trellis; don’t let my instructions limit your imagination. The important thing is to get growing this year, and a vegetable garden trellis like this one could make the experience extra rewarding.
Grit blogger Paul Gardener lives with his wife and three sons in the suburbs north of Salt Lake City. They raise chickens, cook and bake from scratch and grow much of their own food on their ¼-acre lot in the suburbs. He writes about his experiences with small-scale suburban farming, eating healthy food and living sustainably.