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Vegetable Gardens Go Vertical

Derek Fell, a longtime organic gardener who lives in Pipersville, shared his tips and techniques for creating high production vegetable gardens in small spaces.

Derek Fell became hooked on growing vegetables as a child when he watched pea seedlings thrive in a small garden at his grandfather's English row house.

Fell, an award-winning garden photographer and author, shared his passion for vegetable growing in front of a crowd of nearly 150 in the Newtown Township building. The Bucks County Foodshed Alliance presented his talk, "High Production Vegetable Mini-Gardens."

If you don't have much room for vegetables, don't despair! Fell provided some tips for utilizing the space you have whether you plant in raised beds or containers, or plant a vertical garden. If you lack horizontal space, then think upwards!

"Vertical gardening is an intelligent way to grow," said Fell. "You can grow vegetables up a pillar to maximize your yields. You'll grow more vegetables vertically and more efficiently than you would horizontally."

In his newest book, Vertical Gardening: Grow up, not out, for more vegetables and flowers in much less space, Fell outlines several advantages of this technique: smaller beds to prepare and maintain, the use of inexpensive supports and trellises, fewer pests and diseases, easier on the back, and easier harvest. In addition, you can be successful with vertical pots and containers in the tightest spaces.

There are plenty of plants suited to vertical gardening. Some of Fell's favorites include Blue Lake pole beans, Malabar spinach, Black Forest zucchini, Sweet Patio tomato, Early Cascade tomato, Trombone zucchini, Sugar Snap pea, and Orient Express cucumber. Also, sweet potatoes, edible gourds (chayote), melons (especially cantaloupe), miniature pumpkins, various types of squash, watermelons and yams (e.g. Chinese climbing) are good candidates.

Malabar spinach is a favorite of Fell's because "it tastes better than spring spinach." Also, some spinach is not easy to grow and bolts in the heat, but not Malabar spinach.

"This spinach loves the heat, and you don't have to worry about fighting diseases," he added.

This fast-growing vine will reach 10 feet high. You can harvest it in 50 days of direct seeding in spring. The attractive stems appear red, with decorative pink flowers.

Here are some other plant favorites suitable as climbers or as growers in tower pots: beets (Chioggia and Burpee's Golden), cabbages (Stonehead and Gonzales), carrots (Royal Chantenay and Nantes), Super Sugar Snap peas, Blue Podded peas, and Golden Sweet peas. 'Bright Lights' Swiss chard is a gorgeous plant and easy to grow, said Fell. Whether you eat it or not, you will marvel at this chard's green or bronze leaves and stems in a variety of colors such as pink, orange, gold, purple, red and white.

However, you can try plants that are not traditional climbers, according to Fell. Low-growing plants such as lettuce and peppers can be vertical-grown by using tower pots that stack on top of each other. Tall plants such as sweet corn and okra can be used as supports for other plants.

Fell likes to use bamboo poles (he cuts his own from plants on his property) for support, but you can also consider using willow branches, netting, string, tree branches, and wire as supports depending on the weight of the vines.

Other labor-saving ways to grow vegetables include planting in raised beds, grow bags, and grow boxes. You can find information about these items in many places, including Gardener's Supply Co. catalog. The patented Earth Box container gardening system is becoming a popular item, according to Fell. With its reservoir wicking system, you can easily grow a variety of vegetables in this no-muss, no-fuss container (29"L x 14"W x 11"H). Fell has grown Yellow Big Boy (a.k.a. Golden Big Boy) successfully in an Earth Box.

Early Cascade, one of Fell's favorite tomatoes, is a medium-sized early tomato that grows on vigorous vines and stays productive until fall. It grows well in a large (10-gal) pot. Sun Gold is another winner, he said. This "exceptionally sweet, bright tangerine-orange cherry tomato leaves customers begging for more. Vigorous plants start yielding early and bear right through the season ... the taste can't be beat," according to information from Johnny's Selected Seeds catalog, a good seed source, said Fell.

Yum! Get growing and let us know what you're trying out this year in the garden, vertically or horizontally.

Tamara Kells April 22, 2012 at 07:06 PM
Thank you for this article, Laura! I only have a deck & some limited ground space, so I try to utilize every nook & cranny.
Jesseka Kadylak April 23, 2012 at 09:43 PM
I recently got a topsy turvy upside down tomato planter since I don't have a yard any more and I'm excited to see how it works. Does anyone have any experience with it?
Laura Brandt April 25, 2012 at 04:40 PM
Let me know how your plants do this year. I used to have a small balcony and took advantage of growing vertically. Now I try to include trellises and poles in different places because my garden is very flat. Happy gardening!
Charles Minguez May 23, 2012 at 01:18 AM
I really want to give this a try! I like the idea of using sweet corn and other tall crops to support crops above them. I have limited space to garden and this could really work out well. Thanks for sharing.

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