The Historic Art of Trellising

Colonial Williamsburg has mastered the art of using trellises in their gardens to ease the growth and harvest of everything from beans and peas to tomatoes and cucumbers.

Trellis building

Tomato plants flop by nature, but with a trellis table they grow up through the lattice and then flop back down onto the table for easy picking.

Photo courtesy of www.RareSeeds.com

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There are few items more useful to a gardener than a long, slender, supple, stick. They prop up the peppers, the peas and the beans. They trellis the cucumbers and the tomatoes, they form the wattle fences, they hold the row covers over the cabbages and they shelter the broad beans from the winter cold. In short, no garden should be without a supply of sticks.

The proper sticks for a garden cannot be simply picked up off the ground, they must be grown. Growing sticks is an ancient art and it is likely that the first buildings inhabited by man were formed with sticks. Wattle and daub construction, in which a lattice of sticks provides the structure for a mud-plaster wall, probably dates back hundreds of years.

In medieval Europe, the sticks were most commonly collected from coppiced trees. This was a pruning method in which plants such as willows, hazels, and alders were kept cut to the ground, resulting in a profusion of sucker growth from the base of the plant. These stems could be used for building material, firewood, tool handles, twig brooms or for the trellising of garden plants.

Pollarded Trees

At Colonial Williamsburg we obtain our sticks from pollarded trees. The pollard is simply a coppice raised above ground as explained by Thomas Hale, Esq. in A compleat body of husbandry (1757):

“From the Management of Coppice Wood we are to advance to the Consideration of Timber Trees; but we are naturally stop’d between both, by a particular Kind of Growth, which is properly speaking, neither of the Coppice Wood, nor Timber Tree Kind: this is the Pollard; a Tree of any Sort cut off at ten or twelve Feet Distance from the Ground, and shooting out from that Part a Number of Branches or Poles. These Poles or Branches are called Shrowds, and the lopping them off is called shrowding of the Tree.”

Pollarded trees were normally kept at 10 to 12 feet to keep them out of the reach of cattle.  As we are not bothered by cattle in our garden, our pollards are maintained at about 5 feet making the sticks easier to harvest.

Some types of trees make better pollards than others. Plants that produce long, slender sticks with a minimum of twiggy side shoots are preferred. One of the most popular European pollards is the little leaf linden (Tillia cordata). Sycamores and ash also make good pollards as do alder and hazels. In our garden we maintain three pollarded chaste trees (Vitex agnus-castus) for a handy source of sticks. Fruit trees also make good candidates. If you have despaired of growing apples, you can easily grow sticks.

To form a pollard, the tree is first grown to the height you desire and then it is headed back before the limbs become too large. This was described in Chiltern and Vale farming explained, published for William Ellis in 1745:

“The Pollard Ash is that which is made by cutting off the Standard’s Head, and should be lopt for that purpose, before it arrives to a very great Body; else the Wets will be very apt to get in between the Rind and the Body.”

If you allow the trunks to get too big before you cut them it will encourage decay in the large wound which is necessarily made.

After the main branch or branches are cut they will produce many shoots springing from the wound. As the years pass and as the plants are repeatedly cut, the number of sticks arising from the cut becomes greater and greater. Every time a limb is cut it produces callus tissue to close the wound. Over time this results in a large knuckle-like knob on the branch where the cuts are made.  Moses Cook gave an interesting explanation of this and the subsequent production of shoots in The manner of raising, ordering and improving forest-trees (1724):

“The Sap riseth into the Head of the Pollard … and so into the Boughs, but finding the Boughs cut off, it filleth the Head so full, that it causeth it to swell in the Spring: and this is the reason Pollard-heads are bigger than any other part of the Body of the Tree; the Head being so full that it can contain the Sap no longer, it breaketh out into abundance of young Shoots.”

We prune our pollards in November, after the leaves have fallen, and store them in a pile in the orchard. They remain supple and perfectly useable throughout the winter, spring and summer months.

Teepees, Trellises, & Tables

For peas and beans we construct long teepee-like structures by first thrusting paired sticks into the ground on either side of the row and then tying them together over the center with long horizontal sticks set across the top and at intervals along the sides to bind them together. This trellis provides a form for the peas to climb on as well as a structure around which to wrap cheesecloth which will effectively exclude the rabbits, a frequent problem in the spring garden. These are particularly suited for the taller varieties of peas such as the Marrowfat and Blue Prussian. If well constructed, this trellis can also be used to grow pole and runner beans after the peas are harvested. The beans will cover the trellis by midsummer and are easily harvested from either side.

For the smaller pea varieties we use a trellis described by John Rutter in Modern Eden (1767). In this case the twigs do not come from pollards but from twiggy natural growth and almost any type of tree can be used. Plant the seeds in two rows, approximately one foot apart, setting the peas with a dibble at 2 inches one from the other. “When they are half a foot high,” Mr. Rutter advised, “some boughs with all the twigs upon them should be stuck into the ground between the rows for them to climb upon.” In this manner, two rows of peas are trellised by a single row of twigs and once the harvest is complete the entire row can be rolled up and put on the brush pile.

Tomatoes, by nature, are predisposed to flop and gardeners have long devised methods to make them stand up. We put them in cages and tie them to stakes but at Colonial Williamsburg we have found that it is more convenient to let them follow their nature by growing them on a stick table.

To construct a tomato table we first put two rows of forked sticks in the ground approximately five feet apart with the sticks about one foot apart in the rows. Six-foot sticks are then laid in the crotches of the forked sticks to form the top of the table and then it is all tied together with smaller, supple sticks woven in a horizontal wattle. The plants grow up through the lattice and then flop back down and for the rest of the summer we simply pick tomatoes from the table.

We use a very similar lattice for growing cucumbers stood on end and secured to iron stakes. The cucumber plants (or seeds) are sown on the north side of the trellis and will naturally grow towards the sun which will lead them to climb the trellis. Trellised cucumbers are much easier to find and harvest and produce long, evenly ripened fruit.

Peppers are prone to blowing over and many varieties have very brittle stems. They are often grown in cages but this makes the peppers difficult to harvest. A far simpler method is to construct a teepee of sticks over the plants. This will keep them from blowing over and make them much easier to harvest. We also use teepees of sticks over plants such as collards, purple broccoli, and cauliflower which are also prone to blow over, particularly when grown in intensive, closely spaced rows.

Once you begin to work with sticks you will discover that their uses are limited only by the imagination of the gardener. Not only are sticks beneficial they are beautiful and provide a rustic intricacy to the vegetable garden that uses natural and renewable components in the best tradition of the modern organic gardener.


Wesley Greene is a gardener at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in Williamsburg, Virginia, and author of Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way: 18th century methods for today’s organic gardeners (Rodale Press, 2012).