Estimated reading time: 10 minutes
When you think of a vegetable garden, what image comes to mind? If you are like most people, you visualize a piece of ground with neatly arranged rows of healthy green plants.
While there is nothing wrong with this picture, it can be limiting you as a gardener. No matter how big or small your property, you may have already reached your growing potential with a traditional horizontal garden. It’s time to grow up – in a literal sense – with a vertical garden.
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Vertical gardening makes it possible to grow food almost anywhere. You can grow plants on walls, fences, and trellises outside and inside your home. By maximizing your growing space, you can grow more fresh produce in less space, thereby lowering your dependence on store-bought food and creating a more self-reliant lifestyle.
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What can you grow vertically?
As you might expect, the plants that thrive in a vertical environment are those that grow naturally in vines, the kind that send out curling tendrils. However, with proper support, non-vining plants – even low-growing plants – can do well also. In general, look for trellis, non-bush, or indeterminate varieties. In the case of large plants, look for miniature types.
Many experienced vertical gardeners find that there is almost no limit to the types of plants they can grow in an up-and-down environment. Here, however, is a list of tried-and-true options to help get you started:
- Pole beans
Keep in mind that the vertical direction can go both ways. Potatoes and other root vegetables are suitable for vertical gardening; they just grow in the opposite direction!
Your selection of plants for a vertical garden depends on your space and your lighting conditions. Place sun-loving plants in a north-to-south orientation, allowing one side to get the morning sunlight, and the other to get the afternoon sun.
Vertical structures can help expose plants to more sunlight. However, be careful when placing a vertical structure that won’t cast a shadow on lower-growing plants. Most vegetables require an average of six hours of sunlight each day; root vegetables will handle some shade.
How to get a vertical garden started
When it comes to assembling a vertical garden, you can purchase kits and pre-made systems that range from stacked planters to raised tomato cages and from netting to trellises at many garden centers or online outlets. However, many vertical gardeners create their own structures by re-purposing other items from their households.
A simple and easy way to start a vertical garden is with a wooden pallet. Visit local warehouse retail stores, building supply stores, or garden centers to ask if they give away or sell used pallets. Other places to check for used pallets are Craigslist and your local newspaper classified ad section.
These flat structures make a good starting point for a vertical garden. You can cut a pallet down to fit your space requirements or use it as is.
This video shows the steps for making a vertical garden structure with a pallet and landscape fabric.
Another idea for a quick do-it-yourself vertical garden is to attach chicken wire to the back of an unused large picture frame. You’ll also need recycled plastic bottles and landscape fabric for this project.
Many other unused items you have around your property will work as a support system for a vertical garden. A few ideas are ladders, doors, fences (wooden and chain-link), bed springs, old gutters, and even over-the-door shoe organizers. Heavy fruits and vegetables can be supported with homemade slings made from old t-shirts or nylon stockings.
You can attach trellises to existing walls immediately above the container where the plants are growing and then train them to use the trellis by weaving the stems into the lattice as they grow. You can also create free-standing structures by lashing bamboo poles (or old broom handles) together in a teepee style.
Be sure to anchor your frames and trellises well – perhaps as much as 24 inches in the ground — to protect them from wind and to handle the weight of the growing fruits and vegetables.
Vining vegetables will climb an old wooden ladder. At first, you may need to tie them with twine to the first rung, but soon, they will establish a strong enough base to continue growing upwards on their own. You can also position clay pots or unused rain gutters on the ladder steps. With old gutters, simply drill holes for drainage, attach them to your structure, and then fill them with soil.
A clean 55-gallon barrel can work as a space-saving and efficient vertical container. You can either purchase a barrel-type planter with pre-cut slits for the plants or make the slits yourself in a food-grade plastic barrel you buy new or obtain used from a local food processing company.
This recycled planter takes up little space and can accommodate 50 plants, depending on the size of your plants.
Supporting plants as they grow vertically
Plants that usually grow out, not up, such as tomatoes and berries, may need some training at first. In addition to stakes and trellises, which are often used in traditional gardens, put twist-ties or clips to work to help contain your growing plants in a compact space.
You can also use plants to help support each other in a vertical garden. Native Americans have traditionally planted corn, squash, and beans together for this purpose. The corn serves as a sturdy support for the climbing beans, and the beans contribute nitrogen to the soil for the corn.
Squash tends to crawl along the ground, crowding out weed growth. Sunflowers are another option to use as a support plant for vertically-growing plants.
Be Creative With Vertical Spaces
Let your imagination run wild when it comes to your vertical garden. Well-loved but no longer used children’s toys can serve as support structures for climbing plants while adding a bit of whimsy to your yard at the same time. Even old bicycles can serve as attractive and useful support systems.
Unused window shutters can work well for small plants, such as herbs. Cover the back of the shutter with a landscape fabric, fill it with soil, and then tuck your herbs in the slots.
Other vertical planter options include buckets, cups, burlap bags, or just about anything else you can hang.
Another idea is to use the ultimate vertical support systems – trees – for your vertical gardens. You can suspend a rope or wire between two trees and hang your planters along the length of the rope, making creative and attractive use of the previously unused space.
You can also purchase or make long tube-like canvas or plastic bags, fill them with soil, and cut multiple holes into the sides where you can easily grow a variety of food, including strawberries, lettuce, cabbage, and herbs.
Root vegetables also can have a place in your vertical garden. You can purchase planters specially designed for vertical gardens that have small openings to give you access to the potatoes. Check out this article for tips for growing root veggies vertically.
Care and maintenance of vertical gardens
In general, vertical gardens require less maintenance than traditional gardens; however, they still require some care to keep them healthy.
The type of soil you use can affect the look and the viability of your vertical garden. In general, lightweight growing media works best. A good example is a mixture of peat moss and coco peat. Peat moss contains nutrients for growth, and coco peat helps the soil retain water.
Just like hanging baskets or container gardens, vertical gardens can be more vulnerable to changes in wind and temperature than traditional gardens. The soil around vertically-grown plants is exposed to more light and air than in regular gardens, and therefore, it can dry out more readily. Add extra mulch to compensate for this moisture loss, and check frequently to see if water is needed. Mulching also helps supply additional nutrients to the soil.
Be sure to remove all dead leaves and stalks. Trim as needed to encourage new growth. Regularly inspect your plants for signs of stress, disease, or pests.
By their very design, vertical gardens use less soil than regular gardens, so you will need to nourish your plants with fertilizer-enriched water. Check with your local nursery or university extension service to determine what your particular plants need in your region and climate.
Choose a watering system that fits your space and your budget. In many cases, you can use a hose and a watering wand. Another option is to install a gravity irrigation system that runs drip lines through the back channels of your pockets or trays.
Here are some tips specifically for indoor vertical gardens:
- Indoor lighting requirements can vary according to the season and the location of your home. Most indoor areas require increased light levels using lamps designed especially for plant growth. Average indoor air temperatures should be kept between 65° and 75° F with a relative humidity level of about 50 to 70 percent for most vertical gardens.
- Avoid placing your indoor garden near heat vents. Consider adding a humidifier to the room if the air is dry or a fan to keep the air circulating for optimum plant health.
- Consider fewer but deeper waterings to encourage the roots of your plants to extend further into the soil.
- Make plans for drainage for your vertical garden to prevent overwatering. You’ll need a small reservoir or tray to catch spillage, and it will require frequent cleaning.
Whether you’re looking to save money, eat more fresh, organic produce, or pursue a more self-reliant lifestyle, vertical gardening is a meaningful step. When it comes to gardening, it is clearly time to “grow up.”
Here are some additional resources to check out:
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