Create a garden adventure while maximizing your growing space

By Lloyd Thompson
WSU Chelan/Douglas County Master Gardener
June 29, 2022

Veggie garden tunnel made of PVC pipe.
A “tunnel” fashioned from PVC pipe and zip ties is a good starter project for your young gardener to grow pole beans. There are lessons to be learned along the way, writes Master Gardener columnist Lloyd Thompson. – Provided photo/Lloyd Thompson

Lloyd Thompson – WSU Extension Chelan/Douglas County Master Gardener – Provided photo

Three of my favorite things to do are hanging out with grandkids, plants and having an adventure. In the age of electronics and passive entertainment, I think anything that can connect kids to nature is a win. I love it when I get a chance to explore with kids as we discover things like plants and insects and how they grow and reproduce.

Planting a seed and waiting for it to grow is tough when you are young and are used to pushing a button and getting an instant response. Seeds don’t grow as soon as you plant them, and there’s a difficult balance for kids as they wait for the plant to grow without losing interest. The fact that the seed is underground and most of what occurs is out of sight only adds to the problem.

Rather than just planting seeds in the garden, plant a few in a folded paper towel that is kept moist and warm (my wife used to put the seed in a quart-sized ziploc bag with her first-grade class and tape them to a window). Kids can check on the progress of what’s happening to the seeds without having to disturb the ones in the ground. It’s an awesome time to discuss what’s going on as seeds swell and start to germinate, the first emerging radicle “root” and its fuzzy white root hairs and then the shoot emerging. I like to do both monocots, such as corn, and dicots, which include beans, so we can see and talk about the different seed structures. Even if you aren’t sure yourself, it’s still a learning experience that’s fun to share. It helps act as a “hook” to keep kids connected to the seeds planted in the garden.

We can increase our growing area by going vertical while at the same time providing a cool place to explore nature. I like to plant pole beans because they will grow up and out, unlike bush beans which stay compact. Pole beans need something to climb up on or they just spread out and can take over the garden.

I start with a 10-foot long, half-inch PVC pipe. In our sandy soil and with a terraced stack block garden, I just insert the ends in the soil next to both sides of the stack block to keep them in place. Without stackblock, you can use 2-foot pieces of a rebar stuck halfway in the ground and place the pipe ends over the rebar to make an arch. I like to make a “tunnel” and connect the PVC pipe ribs together with one piece of pipe on the top, and zip tie to the arches for support.

Depending on your garden, you can do a single wall, dome or tower if it fits your space better. You can also use steel posts and livestock panels, old pipe, rebar, and unused metal or plastic frames to make a structure. I tend to use zip ties to hook things together because it’s secure and quick to take apart later. Then I plant the seeds along the bottom of my structure. You can use a plastic covering on the structure to get an earlier growing start. That’s especially nice it’s a cooler-than-normal spring.

As the bean cotyledons pull up through the soil, it’s a great time to practice making daily observations. Look for the soil to be “lifted” as the seed emerges. The cotyledons, or seed leaves, provide the developing plants energy until the true leaves emerge. They will fold out from the cotyledons and start the photosynthesis process of making food for the plant.

Here’s where the fun really begins as the plant begins growing, the shoots send out tendrils to wrap around things so the plant can climb. Carefully help the plant by directing the plant to grow up the pipes. Soon, the entire structure will be covered by vines. It provides a great “fort” to sit inside and peek out at people or study the plants as they mature and start to flower and grow bean pods. The secrecy of the hidden fort gives a special place to talk and explore the garden from a different perspective.

The best is yet to come as beans mature and the kids harvest their bounty. This is the part where we will pick some for neighbors so we can share our harvest with others. It’s pretty amazing to listen to a young gardener tell the story to the neighbors about where the food came from. It’s important to teach kids that we can grow our food and if we don’t, someone else is growing it for us. Few kids today have any connection to a farm and have no idea how the food we eat gets to the grocery store. Gardening is both an adventure and educational for all ages.

More from Lloyd