A Trellis by Any Other Name

Cucumbers, indeterminate varieties of tomatoes and several varieties of beans and peas are healthier and ultimately produce more when trellised, and the structures themselves are a great way to add height and drama to the vegetable garden. I recently built a few tuteurs for the little Texas garden using a free, easily obtained resource.

A tuteur is nothing more than a four-sided pyramid, or obelisk. The name is French in origin. It means “guardian,” and once you look at one of these beautiful trellises you’ll understand just how appropriately they are named. Mine are about seven feet tall and tower majestically over the rest of the garden.

Tuteurs are popular in formal, immaculately groomed gardens, and are typically constructed with perfect symmetry in mind. I wanted something a bit more rustic. There is a stand of bamboo growing in a railroad right-of-way near my home, about a four-block walk from my garden gate. Bamboo is an aggressively invasive plant, the rhizomes tending to spread when left unchecked, and this bunch was no exception. I walked along the edge of the bamboo looking for the tallest stems, or culms. A pair of garden shears made harvesting a breeze and less than fifteen minutes later I walked home with a dozen good-sized stems for the tuteurs.

After the stems dried in the hot Texas sun for a few days I was ready for construction. By the way, when drying bamboo it’s a good idea to set them upright so that the sap can properly drain. This also helps the curing process, which in turn enables you to benefit from the maximum strength of the bamboo. Trimming eight pieces to the same length, I layed them out in twos, and then joined the tips together at their tapered ends with wood glue and twine. I did this until I had four sets of joined pairs, enough for two tuteurs, before calling it a day to let the glue harden. Never let it be said that gardening doesn’t teach you patience.

The next day I used the remaining bamboo to make horizontal braces for the tuteurs. These are so simple to make that I didn’t even bother with a rough sketch before beginning construction. I started with 24-inch links of bamboo at the base of the trellises, and shortened them accordingly as I moved toward the top at two foot intervals. While the tips were joined using twine and glue, I found that screwing the horizontal pieces into the vertical stems gave the structures a sturdier feel. The entire structure is ultimately going to be covered in vines anyway, so I determined that obsessing about the screws detracting from the look of the tuteur was ultimately a waste of time.

Although part of me still wants to keep building them until I’ve perfected the look, over all I have to admit that I’m pleased with the results. They resemble small, primitive Eiffel Towers, very neatly reminding me of their Frenchness. I’ve spaced them about ten feet apart, and will plant cucumbers on one and beans on the other. I’ll also thread a longer, thicker bamboo pole through the top of the tuteurs in order to hold the twine I’ll use to train the tomatoes I’m planting for the fall garden.

Now that I’ve discovered the bamboo growing so close to home I seem to notice it everywhere. I commute to San Antonio several days a week, and there are several stands of bamboo along the roads leading to my destination, in city, county, and state right-of-ways, all awaiting future projects.

Although I’m not quite finished laying out the raised beds for my little Texas garden, I’ve already designated an area for a garden bench. The bench is going to sit between two raised beds that will have grape vines planted in them, and I’ve decided to use bamboo to build a trellis over the bench. I have this fantasy of being able to sit in a shaded spot, watching the beans grow while I reach up and pluck a few grapes for nourishment. Time will tell.

I’ve got a simple design in mind, consisting of five bamboo stems sunk in the ground on each side of the bench. I’ll use glue and twine to join the stems together at the top before screwing in the horizontal braces. At this point I have no idea if it will be sturdy enough to hold the weight of a grapevine, but I suspect that it will be. Bamboo is remarkably strong for such a lightweight building material.

After the trellis for the garden bench I’ll likely build a few more tuteurs, but should probably cool it after that so that my garden doesn’t end up resembling the set of Gilligan’s Island.