The beauty of vertical gardening goes beyond pleasing design.
If you spent time in gardens as a child, you might remember the magic of stepping inside a bean teepee or under an archway laden with grapes. The crops would usually be hanging down for easy picking, while the leaves and vines faced directly to the sun.
The beauty of vertical gardening goes beyond a pleasing design offering sanctuary on a hot day. Not only does it make picking crops a cinch, it also adds growing space to gardens where soil is at a premium. As more and more people turn to gardening for its health and mental benefits, vertical gardening offers a way to grow more with less.
Vertical gardening basics
Trellises, arches, pergolas, and towers: these are just a few of the tools available to a gardener looking to add some height to a garden. Excellent for maximizing space in small backyards or urban areas, vertical elements can also help define discrete ‘rooms’ in any size yard. Use vertical gardening to hide an unattractive area in your yard or just for the love of multi-level growing.
Where do gardens work best?
Vertical gardens work well indoors and outdoors, in private or commercial spaces. Outdoor gardens offer fences and retaining walls that may already be in place, forming the perfect surface for growing. Indoor plantings can use walls, pillars, and railings for support.
The main difference between these two locations is that indoor gardens will usually need more frequent watering due to drier air. Care and attention must also be taken when attaching vertical elements and gardening plants to indoor walls.
Vertical gardening elements
Choose your vertical garden element based on your goals for your space and what you hope to grow. If flowers are your first choice, you have a wide range of options available. Read the descriptions below and check out this list of vining, flowering plants from the Royal Horticulture Society. If edible plants are what you’re after, see our recommendations below.
1. Trellises and arches
One of the most familiar vertical elements in a garden is the trellis. Easy to attach to the ground or to a raised garden bed, trellises instantly expand your garden to accommodate vining plants and those adaptable to training.
The best trellises will provide adequate support and will be easy to install. The taller your trellis, the more base support will be needed. Common shapes include arches, tripods, obelisks, and flat grids. The easiest, low-cost trellis can be made from cattle fence panels looped into a U-shape and supported on two sides. This style is perfect for cucumbers. For a stronger, taller trellis (think squash, tall peas and beans), consider framing up concrete mesh for long lasting durability.
For even more growing space and visual interest, consider a tall archway or pergola suspended between two raised beds. Train your plants to trellises by wrapping the stems as they grow or by fastening them to support with gardener’s tape, scrap fabric, or old nylon stockings. Just remember that trellises can cast shade on your garden, depending on where you put them. Using them on the northern perimeter is the easiest way to prevent problems.
The best edible plants to trellis include:
- Pole beans and peas
- Vining squash and gourds
- Cucumbers and melons
- Vining tomatoes, also known as indeterminate tomatoes
2. Tower gardens
Made from durable plastic, fibreglass, or PVC pipe, tower gardens work both inside and outside according to their design. Tower gardens provide a vertical growing medium, so plants can grow and cascade. In some cases, tower gardens use hydroponics to feed nutrients to plants.
The tower garden below rotates on a central composting axis, so while it isn’t suitable for vining plants, it works well for virtually everything else. It’s also a space saver for balcony gardens, patios, and greenhouses.
The best edible plants to grow in a tower garden include:
- Salad greens including lettuce, spinach, arugula, mustards, radicchio and kale
- Legumes including bush beans and tendril peas
- Swiss chard
- Patio varieties of peppers and cherry or grape tomatoes
- Strawberries, particularly day-neutral varieties
- Collard greens
- Herbs including parsley, thyme, savory, sage and basil
3. Wall gardens
A wall garden mounted to an outdoor frame or trellis helps separate and define garden ‘rooms’. Used to add interest and growing space around an eating area, outdoor wall planters can also give your space the feeling of a lush jungle.
Smaller, vertical planters mounted on indoor walls have the same effect, creating a living wall in an otherwise sterile space.
While wall gardens aren’t always made up of edible plants, many food plants do grow well in wall-mounted garden beds and stacked pockets. These include:
- Salad greens including lettuce, kale, arugula and mustard greens.
- Herbs including basil, sage, parsley, thyme and chives.
- Strawberries, particularly day-neutral varieties.
4. Hanging baskets
Hanging planters offer space for smaller plantings suspended from railings, ceilings and walls. While hanging baskets are often used indoors for houseplants and outdoors for flowers, think outside the box. They work equally well for shallow-rooted, edible plants. A hanging planter filled with strawberries or salad greens looks beautiful while tasting delicious. Some tomatoes are also suited for suspended growing: Tumblers, Basket Boys, and Window Box varieties were all bred to thrive in small spaces.
5. Tiered beds and planters
Despite the wisdom that you can’t garden on a hill, many homeowners have successfully created a thriving garden using tiered beds. Whether your slope is gradual or more extreme, you can install raised beds and planters by following the contours of the landscape. In the case of a steep slope, the beds will form retaining walls and will need to be made from thicker materials to increase durability.
6. Grow cabinets
Grow cabinets include lighting so you can grow vertical indoors, all year round.
Hydroponic units like the example below have a slim profile, making them easy to fit against the wall in the smallest of spaces. They provide a ready source of light and nutrients so you can cultivate salad greens and herbs steps away from your kitchen.
How to grow vertical
While each garden design comes with its own unique conditions, there are some elements all vertical plantings have in common.
Whether inside or outside, a vertical garden needs light. What you put in your garden determines just how much. Most vegetables need six to eight hours of sunlight per day at a minimum. The exceptions to this include salad greens and other leafy vegetables, which will tolerate dappled shade, particularly in the afternoon when temperatures climb.
Unlike in-ground gardens, vertical gardens need light, absorbent soil that will stop plants from drying out and prevent soil compaction. This means going beyond topsoil. The best soil (or soilless) mixes will include peat or coir to aerate the medium and will feel light and lofty. However, if you’re working with a big area, these can get quite expensive. Check with your local nursery for an economical potting mix that’s high in loft and low in added fertilizers. Add well-rotted compost and your choice of complete organic fertilizer to your chosen mix.
Containers and frames
Once you’ve decided to go vertical, you’ll need to consider the needs of your plants before you can choose a container. Edible plants have different requirements when it comes to soil depth. And while the internet is full of cute plantings tucked into garden clogs, some containers are impractical if you want your plants to thrive.
Make sure your container is deep enough for your chosen vegetables and strong enough to withstand the weight of being suspended or mounted. Some low-grade plastic will weather and crumble over a single season when exposed to direct sunlight. Line frames like pallet gardens with a felt liner to contain soil and extend your garden’s lifespan.
As discussed above, it’s best to add finished compost and complete organic fertilizer to your vertical plantings to support growth and lighten the soil. Organic fertilizer releases nutrients slowly over the whole growing season. This means you won’t have to worry about feeding your plants frequently as they grow. Some vertical gardens take this a step further–by creating their own fertilizer using composting worms.
DIY vertical gardening ideas
Vertical gardening design can take many forms, from traditional trellises to DIY projects made from repurposed materials. Here are five of our favorite DIY vertical garden projects.
DIY raised bed trellis
Perhaps one of the simplest ways to get some height in your garden, this trellis fashioned from wood offers ample space to grow peas, beans, and even roses. Read the full article about how to build this.
Some varieties of summer squash command a lot of space in the garden. That’s why lots of gardeners have decided to grow these favorite crops ‘up’ instead of ‘out.’ Built from sturdy metal, this squash arch keeps fruit off the ground where it can ripen without spots. Some types of squash (like Tromboccino) benefit from suspension by growing straight and lean.
All the rage a few years ago, pallet gardens are not all created equal. We love this classic design that uses burlap sacking to contain soil.
This great growing idea pleases kids and adults alike. Made from mammoth sunflower varieties planted in a circle and then joined at the top, it’s temporary so you can relocate it from year to year.
While there are more durable grow units on the market, this DIY salad tower is a quick and easy project to complete that gives you greens all season long.
Frequently asked questions
Which plants should I grow in a vertical garden?
There are so many to choose from! The type of plants you can grow will depend on how you choose to grow them. Some plants require lots of soil depth (like tomatoes and root vegetables) while others are happy with less (lettuces and other greens). Consider whether you need vining plants or simply ones you can train ‘up.’ Then consult the lists above.
How can I create a vertical garden at home?
Look around your space for vertical gardening opportunities. Do you have a fence where you can mount a trellis? Would your backyard benefit from a divider that you can cover in plants? Indoors, consider the lighting needed by various edible and house plants. If you have the space for a hydroponic grow-unit, some of these come with their own illumination.
How much do green/living walls cost?
You’ve probably seen the lush planted walls in hotel lobbies and shopping malls. Smaller versions of these can work in private homes or outside, in the garden. The costs for green walls will differ depending on the size of the wall and the method you use to cover it. Average costs range from $150-$250 per square foot.
Is there any wall degradation with vertical gardens?
Some units have been known to leak or ooze moisture onto walls. Check the reviews of your chosen product and make sure the material is one hundred percent waterproof. Every time you water your plants, make sure there is no leakage.