Growing an edible arbor
Arbors make wonderful design elements in any landscape. You can use an arbor, archway, pergola, trellis or similar structure to define outdoor rooms, delineate pathways, dress up bare walls, or as a "focusing lens" to highlight a particular garden feature or artistic element.
Custom arbors made from metal or top-of-the-line redwood can cost several thousand dollars. However, there are many options that can be made from rebar, wire, PVC pipe or even from tree branches and twigs cut from your own garden that cost little to nothing at all.
And instead of growing a traditional evergreen or deciduous vine (jasmine, ivy or wisteria), why not enjoy the "fruits" of your labor by growing a fabulous variety of edible options? You'll want to decide what you want to grow before you build your structure because the weight of the actual plant and produce can vary greatly as well as the width and height requirements-- so plan accordingly.
If you want to plant something that will produce consistently for many years there are dozens of edible options to choose from: grapes, kiwi, passionfruit, blackberries, raspberries and hops.
If you want to grow a variety of seasonal edibles, options include beans, peas, melons, Malabar spinach, cucumber, squash, chayote and nasturtiums. You might, for instance, plant peas in January or February, beans or melons in May and Malabar spinach in September or October. (See box for choices available now. By the way, Malabar spinach isn't a spinach at all but a member of the Basellaceae family. It is best served cooked.)
There are hundreds of design ideas and photos available on the Internet. Many of these "do-it-yourself" projects can be constructed easily in just a few hours or over a weekend. If you are going to build a traditional structure out of wood, be sure not to use pressure-treated wood when growing edibles because of the chemicals used in that treatment process. Also, to ensure that your handiwork will survive the test of time, use metal posts to anchor the structure into the ground; wood posts will rot when exposed to soil and moisture.
For a creative and inexpensive option, you can use 4-foot-by-8-foot sections of chicken wire to create an archway. Lay the 4-foot-long sections on either side of your desired walkway and secure them into the ground with 12- to 18-inch metal tent stakes or pieces of bent rebar. Then wire the top sections together with heavy gauge wire or zip ties.
Arches made from rebar can bear more weight than chicken wire. You can make low arches out of single pieces or taller options by wiring two rods together at the top. You can place multiple arches in proximity to each other to create long, dramatic "tunnels" of grapes, beans, etc. Rebar can either be bent by wrapping the ends around a sturdy object or shaping them with a hammer. Depending on the thickness, you may need to use a rebar bender, which can often be rented.
PVC pipe can be used as a flexible and easy-to-assemble option for trellises or almost any size or shape of growing structure. You can find PVC pipe, caps, clamps and special angle fittings at local hardware stores.
For an option that is truly in tune with nature, use branches and twigs from your own garden. The cuttings can be used to make beautiful domes, teepees or outdoor rooms. Use rope or heavy-duty string to tie and bind pieces together.
Growing vertically is a great option for those with limited space, and it will certainly take your garden to new heights.
WHAT TO GROW NOW
Local nurseries have many good choices available now. Look for these varieties:
Grapes: Black Emerald, Catawba, Eastern Concord, Flame Seedless, Perlette, Ruby Seedless, Roger's Red and Thompson Seedless
Blackberries: Black Butte, Natchez
Raspberries: Canby, Fall Gold, Indian Summer, Willamette
Kiwis: Vincent (female), Tomuri (male)
Vegetables: Cool-season options, including a variety of peas and Malabar spinach, will be available in a few weeks.
The Santa Clara County Master Gardener Program is a University of California Cooperative Extension volunteer organization that provides research-based gardening information to home gardeners. Master Gardener Lee Ann Ray and Mary Lou Flint, director of IPM Education and Publications, UC Davis, contributed to this column. Have a question for Rebecca Jepsen and the other Master Gardeners? Call the hotline, 408-282-3105, from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.