Thursday, June 14, 2012

On-ward and Up-ward, or, An Ode to Cliches and Hyphens

Hops, hops, and away!

Vertical gardening has reached new heights (excuse the cliche, but it happens to be the direct and resonant way to say this) in the past decade, outgrowing tomato cages and trellises to climb urban walls many stories high. High concept architects and their landscape associates paint buildings with sedums and such, and occasionally recall the old Babylonian hanging gardens trick. While the web can cough up photos of these efforts without even turning its head, the search for a food garden cannot get much more than a couple of humans high without more effort than I'm willing to put forth. But if you look closely at the loftier architectural statements, of paradigm shifts to verticality and green living, you'll see that most of the images are of new installations and of high-end commercial properties maintained by professional crews; the same few places show up over and over in a single search, and many are still just conceptual drawings. Call me back when they've lasted a decade, and I'll be impressed.

Gardeners as I'm thinking of them tend to be (again, a cliche says it best) more down to earth. Our beans have always climbed cornstalks and poles and twine. Tomatoes and their friends clamber up cages like kids on the playground, branches hanging out on rungs, leaders never satisfied til they've summitted. Trellises and latticery are about as far as we go, architecturally (which we did generations before actual architects appropriated the forms).

Upward gardening's roots (am I pushing this cliche thing too far? Nevermind, it's working well enough) go even deeper than the gardeners, though. Some plant species and tribes just want to grow upward. Not just the obvious viney ascenders or even the sprawlers who can be coaxed onto a fence or frame. My Tongan mentors explained Polynesian gardening to me in this way: taro grows up and yam grows down...meaning that the big starchy corms of the aroid tribe build upward with each new leaf, while the yam tuber reaches further down into the earth with each week (the vine may rise five Tongans high, or six of an average human, but they aren't food, and therefore not the proper focus of Polynesian agronomic discourse).

Potatocage (background) and a rising sunken bed of spud-runts.

In my own Olympia garden, taro and yams are not possible (tropical species are by and large frozen out, I'd say, were I continuing the cliche theme), but potatoes are fine, and my tuberrific efforts cater to the plant's needs. The vines want to grow vertically, and must be propped up before they flop over, but with dirt or mulch instead of trellises and twine, so that they'll bear spuds. In theory, the higher you can pile the soil, the more taters you get. Northwest winters kill all manner of theories, this one included, but for a time I can fill this old cage made for tomato with it's rhyming tuber.

I love the down-to-earth climbing of soil-bound starch-balls (and hyphen-ation, clearly), but some plants do want to climb, to wrap one-tendril embraces as high as they can reach, and yield the fruit of this embrace way up high (often out of reach of tiny non-Polynesians like myself).

Last June, I wrote about hops being the upwardest of climbers, including an experiment sending them into the hazel. It worked well enough that this year I'm doing it again this sun-lap, but without the dead-hazel. Instead of a tipi of cut poles tied together, I just ran twine from the hop-sprout to the top of the biggest hazel-nut tree. Already, the vines have helixed up the line and into the tree (over twice my height, maybe even two Tongans high), with a few feet to go before they even think of budding. When the time comes, I'll cut vine and string at the base and yank it all down.

Meanwhile, the other aggro-climbers, the Himalayan blackberries, whose volume puts hops' height to shame, require restraint more than  support, or they'll eventually weave a thorny mat that begins in suburbia and ends with a net covering Puget Sound. I just now cut back a bunch of the vegetative canes, giving the flower-buds some sun and weaving a few leafy ones behind to make next year's berries; the cut tips are tender because of recent rains, and will become snacks or stir-fry or candy or pickles; I pretty much cut them just above where the thorns harden and skin toughens, so I won't have to do much peeling. I'm not even bothering with saving leaves for tea this time.

Once the vegetative enthusiasm is checked, what appears is a web of fruiting mini-canes, interwoven behind a few metal T-posts hammered in close to the house foundation. Instead of securing canes to a trellis (or, as some previous denizen of this house did, a 2-by-4 nailed to the siding) the idea is to pin the blackberries against the wall, which will help them ripen so that my kids can come along later in the summer and gorge on ripe berries...with only the occasional puncture wound.

As the world's population expands, land will seem to shrink, and we'll be forced to make the most of whatever patch of soil we can cultivate. I hope I never have to see the end-ish times when such things are a matter of survival. In the meantime, getting the vertical most out of horizontal space is a game I like to play.

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