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Bean Teepee

What's as American as a teepee? The familiar, conical Native American structure is perfect for a simple yet striking garden centerpiece for climbing plants.

Kids who have sat in the shade of a bean teepee in mid-summer, snacking on fresh green beans snapped right off the plant a few seconds before, are kids with the ultimate in happy garden memories.

Bean teepees are not only a beautiful and striking focal point for your garden, but they make great use of garden space by "going vertical," an efficient feature that's much appreciated in smaller garden spaces.

The most common form of a garden teepee is five or more tall poles, bound at the top, stuck at least one foot under the soil line for sturdiness, and underplanted with pole beans. Note: if you live in an older area, and might have lead or arsenic in your soil, for sure have your soil tested. But if you're not sure, you might be better off to plant a non-food vining crop, such as morning glories, instead of something that kids are going to be eating.

For variety, consider a tunnel: insert 8-foot poles every 3 feet along both sides of a path; lash horizontal poles at 2-, 4-, and 6-foot heights; and then plant and train vines along this corridor.

You can make anything -- from wigwam to dome -- with willow or plastic tubing and then plant it with vines. Instead of beans, grow gourds, cucumbers, miniature pumpkins, morning glories, or love-in-a-puff.

Beanpoles that are for sale in garden centers may be too skinny for your purposes. You can also use bamboo, recycled lumber or PVC pipe.

1. Plan and plot. The size of your tepee depends on how much space you have, what time of year you are planting and the type of crop you are growing. For example, you can make a huge bean tepee in the summer using 10-foot poles, with space for 10 kids inside. Or, you can make a small pea tepee in the spring or fall using six-foot poles with room for just one child.

2. Watch the sun. Make sure to choose a spot with adequate sun for the crop you are growing.

3. Let the kids practice their geometry skills. Here's "living math" for young gardeners to enjoy. They can plot and plan the teepee, using concepts such as radius, diameter and circumference. Here's a simple planning tool for them: cut a string the length of the circle's diameter. Fold it in half to get the radius. Cut it. Tie one end of one of the pieces of string to a stick or pencil, and "plant" the stick in the center of the circle. Pull the string taut. Tie the other end to a stick. Use it like a compass to scratch out the diameter of the circle. Then you can see where to plant the poles.

4. Bury the poles for stability. Loosen the soil all around the circle to a depth of about a foot, especially if your site is windy. Add compost or other soil amendments to enrich the soil. Decide how many poles you'll need to fit around the circle with 1 to 2 feet between poles.

5. Pole spacing. Push the ends of the poles into the soil at the proper spacing. Pole ends should reach one foot into the soil. Pull the poles together at the top (you may need a ladder to reach) and tie with sturdy twine, wrapping them to make sure they are tight. To make your tepee plants grow more densely, you can weave strings around the poles horizontally and tie them in place.

6. Living walls. Plant your seeds or seedlings all around the circle on the outside of the poles. Leave one section between two poles unplanted to serve as the doorway. It should be at least three feet wide. Keep plants watered and protected from birds as needed.

7. Decorate! Cover the floor with mulch, old rugs, mats, straw or carpet samples to keep the weeds down and make a comfy place to read, tell stories, or discuss garden club business and the man in the moon.

By Susan Darst • Projects 07 © 2011

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