Growing vegetables vertically has many benefits. It allows you to grow more food in a given area and makes harvesting so simple. Vertical gardening increases the air circulation around your plants, making them less susceptible to fungal diseases. It also keeps the plants off the ground, distancing them from soil-dwelling pests. And in many cases, growing vertically is also really beautiful. In this article, I share one of my favorite ways to grow food vertically: by using a cattle panel trellis.
What is a cattle panel trellis?
Commercially made garden arches constructed of wood or metal are attractive, but they’re also expensive. If you’re looking for a great way to increase the growing space in your garden, a simple cattle panel trellis does the job just as effectively as these more costly options. While it’s not quite as elegant as some manufactured garden arches, it certainly makes up for this shortcoming by being extremely effective, affordable, and easy to install.
Simply stated, a cattle panel trellis is a wire arch made from a piece of common farm fencing known as a cattle panel (also called a feedlot panel or a livestock panel). Typically made from welded, four-gauge, galvanized wire, standard cattle panels are 16 feet long and 50 inches wide. They are straight, not rolled like fencing. Cattle panels can be found at various farm supply stores. The panel is bent into an arch and attached to stakes hammered into the ground. Here’s the process I followed to make my cattle panel trellis, along with some important lessons I learned along the way.
Materials needed for a cattle panel trellis
To make a single cattle panel trellis you’ll need:
- 1 16-foot-long cattle panel
- 4 6-foot-tall studded T-bar posts
- 24 Heavy-duty UV-resistant plastic zip ties
- Small sledgehammer
- Tape measure
- Torpedo level
The most difficult part of building a cattle panel garden arch may well be getting the cattle panel to your home. They are deceivingly heavy. You’ll need two people to get the panel into the bed of a pickup truck. Since the panel is way longer than a truck bed, it’s easiest to turn the panel up onto its edge and bend it into an arch that sits between the wheel wells of the truck’s bed. Use bungee straps and tie-downs to safely hold it in place while you drive home. Alternatively, you may be able to transport the panel in a flat-bed trailer hitched behind your vehicle or find a farm supply store that delivers. You’ll need two people to take the panel from the truck to the site of your arch, too. Again, they are surprisingly heavy!
Where to put your vegetable garden arch trellis
Once you’ve collected your materials, it’s time to select a site for your cattle panel trellis. The “legs” of the arch need to be about 5 feet apart to keep the arch from bowing in at the base. Choose a position that passes over a garden walkway or perhaps between two raised beds. For a really cool effect, line several cattle panel arches up next to each other to create a long tunnel. Make sure the site receives at least 8 hours of full sun if you plan to grow sun-loving climbing vegetables on your wire arch.
Try to orient your arch so the opening faces north/south to encourage a good amount of sunlight reaches both sides of the arch equally. If doing so isn’t possible, don’t worry about it. Face the opening whichever direction works best for your garden’s design.
How to install a cattle panel trellis
Once you’ve selected the site, position the four studded T-posts so one will be at each corner of the arch. Use a tape measure to be sure the posts are equidistant on both sides and that the rectangle they form has square corners. Use the sledgehammer to hammer the posts into the ground, ensuring they are perfectly straight by holding the torpedo level flush with the stake as your partner carefully hammers them in. If a stake is not straight when you’re done, pull it out and try again. Ensure that each of the four posts is hammered in to the same depth.
After the four posts are installed, bend the cattle panel into an arch. I like to mark the center wire with a piece of masking tape first so I can make sure it stays at the top center as the panel is bent. Otherwise, your arch may not be centered and straight. Both partners have to use equal force to bend the arch to keep it straight. It can be a challenging job because the fence piece is large and unwieldy. Bring your sense of humor.
Use the zip ties to secure the arch to the outside of the T-posts where each horizontal wire of the panel meets the post. You’ll need about 6 zip ties per post, depending on how deeply you hammered in the posts.
Before I introduce you to some great crops to grow on your arch trellis, watch this video to see a quick tutorial of how to build one:
What to grow on your wire arch
There are many vining veggies you can grow on your cattle panel trellis. Try pole beans, squash, cucumbers, gourds, mini pumpkins, cantaloupes, and Malabar spinach. Last season, I grew 4 different types of cucumbers on one of my trellises and spaghetti squash and Kentucky Wonder pole beans on the other. Vines with heavy fruits, like winter squash and cantaloupes, should be fastened to the cattle panel trellis with twine as they grow. Light veggies like pole beans and Malabar spinach do not need any extra support.
I plant 4 to 5 cucumbers, melons, or squash vines on each side of the arch. For beans, I plant 15-20 seeds along each side. It’s also fun to plant climbing annual flowers on your garden arch in combination with the edibles. They’ll help support pollinators and add beauty to the garden. Try morning glories, Spanish flag, climbing nasturtiums, or cypress vine.
How to maintain a cattle panel garden arch
To take care of your wire arch trellis, there’s really not much to do. I recommend replacing the zip ties at the start of every growing season so they don’t fail in the middle of summer when the trellis is laden with crops. If you’d prefer not to have to complete this task, use wire to fasten the panel to the posts instead of zip ties.
If you live in a growing zone with lots of freeze-thaw cycles, there’s a good chance the stakes may heave out of the ground, bend, or become crooked through the winter. Check the posts each spring and re-install any that have gone wonky during the off season.
Alternate method of making a wire arch trellis
If you don’t have any way to get a 16-foot piece of heavy feedlot fencing to your property, there’s an alternate way to build a cattle panel trellis using two 8-foot-long panels instead. Fasten the two panels together at the top. They’ll form a Gothic-style arch instead of a classic arch. Use wood slats to act as “spreader bars” to keep the top of the arch from caving in as per the photo below. The two smaller panels are definitely easier to handle and can be attached to metal studded T-posts as described above or you can attach them to wooden posts as shown in the photo. You’ll find more on this method of garden arch building here.
I hope you’ll consider adding beauty, functionality, and more growing space to your garden this season by installing a cattle panel trellis of your own.
For more on growing vegetables vertically, check out these additional articles: