The Well-Dressed Garden

Trellises: Going Up

Give your garden a lift with a trellis. They're versatile, vertical plant supports with lots of sculptural appeal. Even in the tiniest garden, you can find a place for a trellis.

When you put up a trellis, you're also adding an eye-catching architectural element to the garden. Besides providing a blank canvas for brilliant displays of bloom, trellises are extremely functional. A trellis will instantly block undesirable views, such as the view of the compost heap from a patio. A simple panel trellis -- painted, stained or weathered to a silvery gray -- might serve as a privacy screen between your house and the neighbors'. Trellises mounted on the house or on the side of the garage break up an expanse of wall and give it more definition, echoing the geometry of a window, for example, or creating a sense of depth to make a small garden seem a little larger. Trellises look pretty on either side of a garden gate or by a patio. They're perfect along a porch rail.

Trellises are real space savers, too. If you're running out of places for plants, you can grow roses, clematis, peas, beans and many other climbing plants on trellises; they have a very small footprint but make room for flowers or an impressive harvest of fresh vegetables.

In vegetable gardens, trellises can be extended along the length of a bed for peas or cucumbers, and they hardly take up any room at all. Just be sure you position them in such a way that they do not rob the rest of the bed of its sunlight.

For centuries, garden designers have employed trellises to create fanciful and useful accents up against garden walls, and to help define garden rooms. All trellises naturally create gentle boundaries -- see-through walls that introduce veils of color and texture. Sometimes they're meant to stand on their own, without any plants on them.

In the 16th century, willow whips and trimmed shoots from fruit and nut trees provided excellent pliable trellis material, and they remain highly serviceable to this day, especially for rustic pieces. Bamboo poles make tremendously sturdy trellises. If you're looking for a great garden project, lots of trellis plans and supplies are available on the bookracks and in the regular aisles at builders supply stores. And you'll find all kinds of ready-made trellises at garden shops, too, made of wood and metal, and in colors as bright as any garden.

Trellising can mirror the architecture of almost any house style. Bentwood trellises seem perfect for bungalows and cottages. More sharply angular trellises lend themselves naturally to the Craftsman style. Slim trellis panels fit into tight spaces, which makes them suitable for Federal style facades and backyards and patios. Georgian and Palladian styles call for arched trellises.

In a large garden, you can put several panels of trellis together to form a backdrop for larger plants. It's the same effect as a wood fence, but more discreet and friendlier. Unlike a hedge of junipers or hornbeams, a trellis needs no watering or pruning, and will never outgrow its spot.

In tiny gardens, trellises almost have to be part of the garden plan. Even a window box has room for a little trellis and would look wonderful with annual black-eyed Susan vines twining up it. On a south-facing balcony, a series of trellises in deck-rail planters would offer a lot of protection from the hot summer sun. On a small patio, you can put a trellis in a large flowerpot, plant it with cucumbers or cherry tomatoes, and pick your own salads all summer long. Almost any cascading plant, including petunias, nasturtiums or licorice plant, could be trained up a trellis instead of being allowed to tumble freely.

Trellises are low-cost, high-impact garden solutions, handsome as soon as you put them up. This might be the year to give them a try.

(For editorial questions, please contact Clint Hooker at

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