Uplighting to grow fruit on trellises

In the garden we’re always trying to make the most of the space we’ve got, especially if we live in a city, a town or just a small lot in the countryside. “Leafy suburb” is a positive phrase, evoking beautiful old trees and welcome summer shade.

“Yard with a dinky patch of sun for vegetables” doesn’t have the same ring to it.

In addition to interplanting, and cut-and-come-again greens, vertically trained crops are a space-saving solution. Crops that like to climb make it easy for you to trellis them. Peas and beans will scale anything they can grasp with their tendrils, as will cucumbers. Those with lax stems and no tendrils or twining habit, such as tomatoes and kiwi fruit, take more guidance and a sturdy structure for support.

Most challenging are the larger cucumber relatives such as melons and squash. Their tendrils are far too weak to support vines bearing heavy watermelons or Blue Hubbard squash. Such vines, which would collapse under their fruits’ weight, are meant to scramble along the ground, their ample leaves shading out the weeds as they go — great in their own way, but not the best choice for a small plot.

Gardeners are resourceful, though, and the more delicious the prize, the more effort we are willing to spend. I love reading about the old English estate gardeners and the lengths to which they would go to put superb food on the table of their wealthy employers.

Dessert fruits were so beloved that they were trained against hollow brick walls with stoves built into them, for earlier ripening.

Heat-loving melons were especially prized for their exquisite flavor and aroma. Along with cucumbers they helped usher in the use of brick-enclosed hot beds, with warmth-producing manure piled beneath the soil, and heat-retaining glass cold frame lids set above. Further developments in glass technology led to the building of greenhouses, sometimes one or more for every type of fruit, grown against the back wall of the structure and trained to continue along the inside of the glass roof.

Those experts knew that the trick with melons was not just to support the plants stems, as with grapes, or figs, but the fruits themselves. The solution lay in the use of melon nets, which were little mesh slings, one for each melon, anchored to the roof with wire.

Modern gardeners still use melon nets and there are various kinds for sale online. For economy’s sake you might save old onion bags, which are made of durable plastic mesh. Another popular material is nylon stockings or pantyhose, which would otherwise have a short useful life. You could stuff a melon into the foot and let the stretchy material expand as the fruit grows; stuff it in halfway down the leg (as if a python had swallowed a large rodent) and hang it up by the two ends; or slit it lengthwise to make a hammock.

Those of us who gave up pantyhose years ago might make this a macramé project on a rainy day — or in another life.

Somewhat less common is the use of old plus-size brassieres. Buying from thrift shops and box stores will help you avoid a plus-size price — assuming you don’t mind your garden looking more like a California dada art project than His Lordship’s home in the Cotswolds.

There’s also the question of how to hang up a large fruit support without a greenhouse. I have seen two spectacular examples of squash supported by a series of sturdy arches, placed to form a tunnel. The first was a “marrow arch” in the garden of the famed English gardener and writer Rosemary Verey. (“A “vegetable marrow” is a traditional British squash rather like slightly overgrown zucchini.)

The other was a tunnel of dangling bottle gourds in the garden of the American gardener and writer Amy Goldman Fowler.

You also can just build a fence around your garden and suspend melons and squash on it. The sight of baby orange pumpkins trained on a fence is a delightful one, and they are small enough that they will not need individual supports. So are other small winter squash such as Delicata and Sweet Dumpling.

I once grew some on a 6-foot wooden lattice fence that did triple duty as a decorative feature, a support for climbing squash and beans, and a barrier to keep out deer. Fortunately, although I had elevated both crops to a position perfect for nibbling, the deer found neither to their taste.

Barbara Damrosch

Barbara Damrosch

Barbara Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Gardener’s Cookbook.”
Barbara Damrosch

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