RHS Horticultural Advisor Katherine Liu shares creative ideas and recycling tips to try when making climbing veg supports
There’s so much I want to talk to you about this month, but at the moment I’m concentrating on getting supports up and ready for sowing of peas, climbing beans and squashes.
Supports in a vegetable bed are traditionally associated with climbing beans, but I think they’re a great way to use vertical space to grow all sorts of long-stemmed veg – including squashes, sweet potatoes, vines, cucumbers and cordon (single-stem) tomatoes.
Supports in a vegetable garden needn’t be just functional – they’re also brilliant for adding height and interest to your vegetable beds. You can even use them in larger containers to increase growing space.
There are many types of plant support available from local garden centres or online, including ubiquitous bundles of bamboo canes. Despite this, I love to fashion my own using materials I already have in and around the garden.
To maximise vertical space, I have two rows of 6ft bamboo canes (reused from previous years) placed on the edge of two adjacent raised beds.
This arrangement forms a tunnel, with a path down the centre, so the children can run underneath (or sometimes even help me pick them).
I start by inserting the uprights about 20cm apart in a row, and then joining the two rows at the top with twine to create a line of A-shaped frames. I then run a horizontal cane along the top where the canes cross to add strength.
For the squashes (make sure you grow trailing, not bush cultivars), I create low A-frames constructed from the sides of an old rabbit run. The frames are sturdy, made from a mixture of wood and coated steel mesh that holds the heavy weight of developing fruit well.
Although the frames aren’t particularly pretty, by the time the squashes get going the masses of large leaves hide the structure, and before long they look like giant pyramids of lush foliage.
I also set up tall teepee/wigwam supports using three to four bamboo canes in the flowerbeds, to grow beans and sweet potatoes in the gaps. This adds great vertical interest in the summer, since their flowers have ornamental value even before they fruit.
I also plant a few climbing nasturtiums to mingle with these. As well as edible flowers and leaves, these are considered a companion plant, attracting blackfly aphids that would otherwise affect the beans.
Use what you have
In my garden, a willow tree that I hard prune (coppice) in April provides useful material. The long, bendy stems make ideal supports for fast-growing dwarf peas.
I simply push branches at intervals into the soil in rows, then direct sow the peas next to them. Peas need a little support in the beginning, but once they get going, they cling together and are pretty much self-supporting.
For my cucumbers, I reuse the metal frame of an old swing that the previous owners left behind. I tie jute string netting to this and, although it looks like a homemade assault course for a while, the plants soon scramble up and over.
Growing tips and recommendations
Turning to the plants themselves, I direct sow beans towards the middle of May (depending on the weather) at the base of the bamboo canes. Sowing two or three seeds per cane means I can then thin out, leaving just the strongest single plant. These are tied in with soft twine until they start to cling, and I pinch the tops out once they reach the summit of their support.
These days, I grow for looks as well as flavour. Climbing French bean ‘Purple-podded’ produces a crop of beautiful violet beans that turn green on cooking (so I call them magic beans – if only to get my kids to eat them!)
Borlotti (aka borlotto) beans are also making a comeback, since they have attractive red-splashed pods, but they’re also pulses that can be stored for long periods once dried.
Grow your own beans for drying
I start off cucumbers and squashes indoors in single 9cm pots on a sunny windowsill. These won’t be planted out until the end of the May, when all risk of frost has passed. I’ve tried butternut squash and lumpy-but-beautifully striped turban cultivars, both of which work well as climbers.
I tie plants in as they grow, but since their fruit is heavy I sometimes back this up with extra support from reused supermarket citrus fruit netting, or pieces of hessian converted into little hammocks.
I urge you to see what you can find around your garden that can be recycled for a plant support – think kids’ climbing frames, old tent poles, swing balls, ladders, prunings… the possibilities are almost endless!
Pick of the crop
Look for the RHS Award of Garden Merit (AGM) when buying vegetable seed or small plants. You can also download the RHS lists of recommended cultivars.
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About the author – Katherine Liu
I’m a horticultural advisor based at RHS Garden Wisley. I love to talk to people about plants and gardening, and give people a little confidence in just giving it a go! At home, I garden with the children and love getting them involved in growing fruit and veg.