Squashes have a reputation for being the gangly gangsters of the vegetable plot. Their sprawling stems spill out this way, that way and every way, dominating their patch and leaving little room for daintier darlings. But this needn’t be the case. Whether your squashes grow to be space-hungry divas or not is entirely down to how they’re brought up – a classic case of nurture over nature!
When I was lucky enough to tend a bigger garden than I do now I dedicated an entire bed to winter squashes. These hungry feeders were planted on top of pits filled with kitchen scraps, topped with a thick layer of nutrient-rich compost. The squashes romped away and produced some stonking fruits. Alas, now my smaller garden demands some lateral thinking – or rather, vertical thinking.
Train Squashes Vertically Up Trellis
My most memorable experience of vertical squashes was on a visit to Spitalfields City Farm in London. The farm is located in one of the most densely populated parts of the city where space is very much thin on the ground. Here, exotic snake gourds and kodu reached the rafters of the polythene tunnels. The forearm-sized fruits dangled down from above like giant lime-green truncheons, all supported by a system of netting straining at the weight. It was an impressive – almost intimidating – sight!
If space isn’t on your side, then growing squashes upwards is the obvious answer. The easiest way is to train them onto trellis. A simple one-piece trellis can be secured against a sun-facing wall or strong fence.
Plant your squashes the same distance apart that they would grow at if left at ground level. The advantage of growing upwards is that you’ll be able to make much better use of the soil in the immediate vicinity of the squashes for growing other plants. You’re essentially giving yourself twice the growing area to work with.
Once your squash has put on growth, gently weave the shoots onto and into the trellis. Soft plant ties and string can help steer wayward stems in the right direction. Most squashes will then produce tendrils that will grip their supports like a mountaineer pulling himself skywards towards the peak.
Remember that squashes are prodigious feeders, so keep them well fed and watered. This is particularly important when training them upwards like this: plants left to trail along the ground often root at several intervals to help suck up more water and nutrients. A vertical vine has no such luxury.
Make Free-Standing Supports for Squashes
A wigwam trellis can add decorative structure to your garden. You could buy ready-made wigwam trellises and just heft these into position over your squashes. Much more fun is to make your own. Start by leaning four strong battens of wood (about 5cm/2in wide and at least 180cm/6ft long) into each other to form a teepee. Push them into the ground so they are at least 30cm (12in) buried; this will keep them rigid. Secure them at the top. You can now nail horizontal slats or tie in strong string or wire at regular intervals, starting about 20cm (8in) off the ground and continuing at the same distance until the top of the teepee is reached.
Free-standing screens of trellis or horizontal wires are another option. Hammer in strong (and I do mean very strong) upright stakes or posts into the ground. They’ll need to be really driven home so they don’t budge under the weight of the squashes or wind. If necessary, add braces at the bottom for additional stability. Set the stakes a maximum of 150cm (5ft) apart.
Now secure wooden trellis, chicken wire or square wire mesh panels to the uprights. Or, strain horizontal wires (thick gauge) or string (nylon is best) at similar intervals to the wigwam trellis above. The same system of supports would work well secured to existing uprights that form part of a strong fence or wall.
Supporting Heavy Fruits
Summer squashes and smaller fruited winter squashes such as the acorn squash won’t require any additional support. Larger squashes, like the butternut, will. The heavy fruit can strain the stems and, in severe cases, cause it to come crashing back down to earth. The solution is to create a sling for each fruit.
A great way to do this is to use a pair of old tights. Simply tie the tights to the screen, trellis or wires, then gently ease the young fruit into one of the legs. As it grows the fruit will naturally stretch the soft material, offering a handy cup for your fruit. You could also use lengths of cloth or netting – just leave adequate slack in the system for the fruit to swell. Or, train vines up and over archways covered in mesh to ‘catch’ the fruits as they develop.
Let me know if you’ve grown squashes vertically and, if you have, how you supported them. Oh, and please share which varieties worked well for you – I’m after a few ideas for my own garden!