In the story of Jack and the Beanstalk, Jack trades the family cow for some magic beans, which grow into the sky where a rich ogre lives. Jack learns to steal from the ogre, and when he is certain to be caught stealing the goose that lays golden eggs, he chops down the vine and the ogre falls to his death. Jack and his mother live happily ever after.
From a gardener’s point of view, the moral of the story is simple: If you accept the sheer exuberance of vining vegetables, they will reward you with rich and abundant harvests. Plus, there is more. You can use vining vegetables as the vertical elements in garden beds meant to be both beautiful and edible, or locate trellised vegetables so that they do double duty as privacy vines. Vines that are most at home on the ground, for example squash or sweet potatoes, can be grown in spots that are difficult to mow, where they work as dense edible ground covers.
Vining Vegetables as a Focal Point
The best known vining veggies are built to grow upward, either by spiraling around their support, as beans do, or holding on with curling tendrils, as you see in peas and cucumbers. When given a trellis that works with their anatomy, these upward-growing crops can be great producers that are easy to pick because much of the crop ripens at eye level. If you are a new gardener, keep in mind that trellising any vegetable is not a one-time thing. Once vining vegetables get going, expect to supplement your trellis with more stakes and strings as needed to add height or structure.
In small gardens, it can be great fun to turn your vining vegetables into a focal point, as I did (above) with a ladder garden planted with beans, tomatoes and cucumbers. One of the great things about a ladder garden is that you can paint the ladder a key color, the same as you might do with a more refined trellis. In addition to serving as a charming garden element, a tower or teepee of colorful beans can be used to block out views you would rather not see.
Using Vining Vegetables as Privacy Vines
When vining plants are used to create a green wall, or screen, they are called privacy vines. Tall varieties of peas and long-vined pole beans and runner beans love growing on a chain-link fence, or you can locate their trellis where no fence exists to grow a single-season privacy screen. This is a great way to see if you might want a permanent fence or a perennial vine in a certain spot, and your options are not limited to peas and beans. Fragrant Armenian ‘Tigger’ melons can be trained to a secure trellis, and in warm climates there is no finer pillar plant than red-stemmed Malabar spinach. Small-fruited ‘Minnesota Midget’ muskmelon or ‘Small Wonder’ spaghetti squash are fence-worthy edibles, too.
Vining Crops as Edible Ground Cover
The most enthusiastic vining crops in my garden – pumpkins, winter squash and sweet potatoes – want nothing to do with a trellis, and much prefer growing into dense ground covers that dominate weeds and grasses. They also tend to take up a good bit of space, so I put them to work along the outside edges of the garden in spots that I’d rather not mow. As long as I prepare a proper planting bed and keep it weeded until the plants take off, they don’t mind mingling with weeds, most of which can’t compete with them anyway. When a happy pumpkin or watermelon vine decides to take over a spot, other plants don’t have a chance.