The Perils of Trellising

Having grown up on a farm in rural North Carolina, I have spent quite some time dealing with the infinite varieties of trellising, also known as the art of how to get plants to grow up and stay spread out rather than growing over itself in a heap on the ground.

We had running snap beans that would easily grow higher than you can reach, tomato plants in this area that can grow up a trellis and then back down again, grape vines, climbing roses, etc.  I’ve seen a tomato plant grow up to over 10’ high and then back down a couple feet.  If you want to hang cucumbers, melons or tomatoes you are looking at some serious weight on the fruit.

We used to stake the tomato plants and then try to keep them tied up with twine.  It’s a nasty dirty slow tedious job and even then you just eventually give up as the plant grows wider and higher and heavier than can be supported.

I’ve worked with bare wire, insulated wire, thin wire, thick wire; twine and string; ribbons of cloth; lattices of nylon; cloth and nylon and wire netting (like chickenwire and hardware cloth); and combinations of the above.  I’ve worked with bamboo poles, tobacco sticks, steel poles, and telephone poles.

The problem is that you want something which can support the weight of the plant and fruit that it bears.  But, you want it to be easy to put up, easy to take down, durable, flexible in its use, not too expensive.

Telephone poles at the end of the row with baling wire connecting them at the top and the bottom and individual twines running vertically every 6 – 8” is great for running snap beans.  It really works.  But it isn’t cheap and it is not mobile.  And you want to encourage good crop rotation, so you need to be able to move the trellising around.

A 4’ or a 5’ tomato cage just isn’t tall enough around here. 6’ to 8’ is more like it.  Lighter wire frames don’t support well enough, or cut the plants as they grow, or cost too much or what have you.  I don’t like nylon netting for a variety of reasons.  Anything “disposable” is likely to be too flimsy.

When we started the first garden, I spend hours researching what people use for trellising, and I saw nothing that I either hadn’t tried before, or it was something I couldn’t afford.  I found nothing that suited all my requirements, or even most of them in a manner I could stand.

I was discussing this with the man at the feed store down the road one day.  He laughed and said that his wife had been going through the same thing, and had recently discovered cattle fencing panels and that I sounded like I might like the same thing.  After investigating them, I was convinced.

Cattle panels are 16’ long.  Depending on the source, they are listed as being from 48” to 52” high.  They are made of rigid and sturdy galvanized wire. You can stand a panel on its side 16’ up and get very little wavering in the frame.  They won’t rust, bend, break, fall over in a hurricane, and you can use them year after year after year.  They have nice large holes you can easily reach through and fruit can easily dangle through.

We got a bunch of them at the local farmer’s supply store in Pittsboro, NC.  They took bolt cutters and cut them down for me to the lengths we wanted (for a very small fee).  So we had 8’, 6’, 4’, and 3’ trellising, all the same exact 52” width.  They delivered them on a flat bed truck, along with T-poles of varying heights and some dog wire clips.

8 footers are for tomatoes and cucumbers.  6 footers are for beans, cucumbers, heritage tomatoes, melons, etc..  4 footers are for peas, various bush varieties of beans and what not.  3 footers are for shorter plants that might like some support in a heavy rain or wind, like peppers and eggplants.

We drove the steel stakes along one side of a box on the outside.  Then we would set the base of the trellis on the other side of the interior box and lean it at an angle against the stakes, and clip the panel to the stakes with a dog wire clip.

I can stack the panels up in a relatively small area when not in use and they are going to last practically forever.  This makes the high initial capital outlay economical and really worth while.  I’m not buying stuff every year for trellising, and they will support the weight of a human if necessary.  You can grow literally anything on them, and placing them at an angle lets tomatoes and other stuff dangle through them, so it is easy to reach under and mess with the plant.  I can break a 12’ long box of trellising down and move it to another box in under 5 minutes.  If I have to swap stakes, then it is up to 15 minutes.   This makes it easy to grow peas in the spring, beans in the summer, and then plant yet a different fall or winter crop, all on different heights of trellis, or even no trellis.

If you angle the trellis away from the sun, you can create a shady area to grow another row of plants in our 2’ wide boxes.   We learned to angle all the trellising in the same direction because having 2 trellises coming together at the top just begs for the beans and the tomatoes to grow into one another, plus it gets harder to get underneath.

After a year of having these cattle panels around, I’m ready to get more of them, and am thankful I never have to fiddle-fool around with trellising ever again.

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5 Responses to “The Perils of Trellising”

  1. kitsapFG Says:

    Hog wire and cattle panels are great garden tools! I use stiff wire panels (smaller sized) for a variety of purposes in the garden and jealously guard my inventory of them. I could use more and some larger panels like you acquired but it’s not in the budget this year.

    The garden looks good!

  2. meemsnyc Says:

    This is definitely an interesting way to trellis. I’m not sure where we can find cattle panels in Staten Island. 🙂 But it gives me an idea of maybe I can use different kind of fencing.

  3. Glenda Says:

    Hi We have been trying to work out the best way to trellis tomatoes. I grow cherry tomatoes which can easily grow to 8 feet. I like your idea very much – we think we will give it a go. Thanks for the idea.

  4. msg Says:

    Excellent tip on the cattle panels. I was at the local Home Depot looking for something similar, and all they had was rusty mesh used for concrete slab, in odd sizing. I’ll going to see if I can source this stuff. Sure would beat spending an hour stringing my own mesh with jute.

    Question: how did you use these panels for tomato support?

    • foodgardenkitchen Says:

      We use T-posts to support the panels – either 6-foot posts or 4-foot posts, depending on the height of the panel. I use twine to tie the panel to the post where the two meet.

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