Make Room in Your Garden With Climbers And Crawlers
By Glenn G. Dahlem, Ph.D.
Farmers with 1,500 acres available and urban backyard gardeners alike often have the same complaint: “If I only had just a little more space somewhere, I could grow…” There often seems to be a need to produce just a little more, to grow an additional fruit or vegetable that would be great to have, but doesn’t seem to have any place to call home.
Unless a farmer or gardener wants to chop down all their shade trees and dig up the front lawn, all available crop space is in use. Yet there still is a need to grow a little bit more—but how? In fact, there are two ways. Two potential techniques for increasing acreage are not only easy to employ, but lead to property beautification while doing them.
Such two space-expanding, prettiness-enhancing tricks might be called planting climbers and crawlers. The former involves plants that like to go up, often in places where fruits and vegetables aren’t usually found. The latter finds ground-hugging plants adapted to narrow environments usually thought of as inappropriate for farming or gardening.
Let’s examine climbers first.
Some plants just like to climb. An annual example is green pole beans; two perennial ones are Clinton grapes and strangler figs. Moreover, some trees don’t seem to mind being climbed upon, especially in their lower trunk area. One example is the American black walnut tree. A valuable commercial crop in its own right, yielding valuable meats, shells, husks and furniture-grade lumber, black walnut trees have widely spaced branches, leaving ample trunk space for climbers. But be careful about what you plant near walnut trees. Do your research first, as a lot won’t grow well with walnut trees nearby.
Sometimes climbers don’t need trees at all. Almost every farm and many urban properties have one or two less than attractive building sides, fences or other manmade structures. Use of cord, running from pegs in the ground to those building eves will give pole beans all the grip they need as they shoot skyward. As long as ample sunlight and occasional watering is available, pole beans will thrive. Most fences won’t even need any cord to help the beans or other climbers along. Here is where the beautification aspect comes into play. Bunches of dark green beans, hanging down in large numbers, will obscure a shed or garage wall or chain link, rail or wire strand fence. Granted, this will only take place a month or so during a growing season, but short-lived beauty is beauty never the less.
Clinton grapes are an agricultural curiosity like none other. A hybrid between two wild American species and dark blue European domestic grapes, they were developed by a New York state college professor early in the 19th century. Somewhat strong-tasting for table grapes, their very dark, elliptical-shaped fruit makes excellent wine for serving with wild game, mutton and sausage. Little known in the United States, Clinton grape wine is popular in Switzerland, Austria and Northern Italy.
Due to their wild grape ancestry, Clinton grapes are avid climbers. One vine made it up 100 feet on a huge blue spruce tree without any human assistance, where for many years it helped feed generations of songbirds. With minimal care, Clinton grape vines can yield under more manageable conditions. Just as the dangling pole beans contributed to an attractive environment before being harvested, hanging clusters of grapes will do so too.
Obviously, it’s easier to use annual climbers like pole beans than a perennial one like Clinton grapes. When Clinton grapes start their skyward journey, they plan to stay wherever it takes them! For example, if pole beans run along an unused clothesline, it’s easy to remove the dead vines once the growing season ends. Not so for perennial vines like Clinton grapes. Wherever they grab a hold, they intend to remain.
Another perennial climber, strangler figs, requires special knowledge, as do figs in general. Just as their name implies, stranglers will damage or kill most live hosts upon which they intertwine.
There are four families of fig species. One doesn’t bear fruit. Another bears fruit but presents complicated pollination issues. A third readily produces, but takes the form of a conventional tree, rather than a climber. Then there are the numerous varieties of stranglers.
The best rule of thumb for dealing with strangler figs is, except for one species named clusia, which rarely kills its host but requires an almost tropical environment, don’t let them climb a valued tree. A good host for stranglers is a large dead or dying trunk of a tree that would have otherwise presented major removal problems. Strangler figs are not a parasite; parasites require a live host, off of which they live. Stranglers will envelop a living tree, but continue to flourish after they eventually kill it. They also thrive attached to non-woody hosts, such as concrete or brick walls, drawing nourishment from the soil like any other vine. As they slowly build upon such a foundation, they continually yield fruit, while creating an attractive, permanent living wall or barrier.
While climbers go up, crawlers expand along the ground, covering up unproductive or unsightly patches of soil. They also include annuals and perennials, and offer dual benefits of food production and beautification. One of the top crawlers is zucchini squash. It adapts well to almost any environment, and is a prolific producer of a universally appealing food commodity. Its large dark green leaves and numerous big, orange-yellow flowers make it one of the prettiest garden vegetables.
A favorite zucchini site is a roadside ditch, or narrow strip of sod along a driveway. As long as some sun and occasional water is available, zucchini will feel at home, even if it is planted in a row, not in hills, as squashes normally are. As they rapidly grow, zucchini are self-weeding, as their thick broad leaves shut out the sun from any upstart weeds. As long as a little dirt is available, they don’t seem to mind sharing it with a few rocks and stones. Zucchini will continue to bear throughout a summer if their fruit is kept picked, harvesting it when it reaches a foot to 15 inches long.
Two good perennial crawlers are asparagus and rhubarb. There is a bit more work initially connected with asparagus than most other perennial vegetables, as the original rootstock may need to be buried in a prescribed manner at a depth of up to four feet. The stock is very long-lived. One bed planted in the early years of the 20th century was producing into the 1950s, without cultivation or fertilization.
The beautification aspect of asparagus occurs after it bears edible shoots for about a month in the spring. It goes to seed, producing tall, dark green ferns with bright red berries. These berries attract songbirds, and a row of dark green ferns can form an attractive, albeit temporary, property or garden border designation. Some gardeners blessed only with minimal available space have planted asparagus in a flower garden, achieving an interesting esthetic effect.
Rhubarb, unlike zucchini, doesn’t thrive if planted in a ditch, but it does do well alongside a house, fence or garage, just so some sun is available. As long as moderate water and a little fertilizer are provided, a row of rhubarb hills will continue to bear its edible stems throughout an entire growing season. Rhubarb’s large green leaves and pretty rose-colored stems make it one of the most naturally attractive garden plants. (Ed. note: Just remember the leaves are poisonous, so don’t feed them to livestock.)
There is one family of vegetables, native to India, but popular with some farmers and gardeners in both Europe and North America, that can be climbers or crawlers. That is, they may be trained up a lattice or fence, like grapes, or allowed to spread out on the ground, like pumpkins. These are the so-called bottle gourds, known as Doodhi or Lowki in their native India. This group of subspecies, from a culinary standpoint, may be prepared for eating either like a summer squash, such as zucchini, or winter squash, such as Hubbard.
Although bottle gourds will never climb to great heights, like pole beans, nor spread out willy-nilly on their own, like zucchini, they do present a considerable degree of versatility to farmers and gardeners. They also lend themselves to a wider range of consumption options than do more highly specialized plants like Clinton grapes or rhubarb.
So the next time some agriculturalist dares to say, “If I only had the room….”
You can tell him or her, “Climbers and crawlers say that you do.”
Originally published in the March/April 2016 issue of Countryside.