Vertical gardens are no longer stuck in the past glory of the legendary hanging gardens of Babylon. Vertical gardens are being used now by homeowners and scientists alike to grow plants in homes, backyards, and multi-million dollar soilless growing facilities. We’ll stick a little closer to home as we look into what these high-rise gardens are and how you can have one, indoors or out, at your home.
- What is a vertical garden?
- Pros and cons of vertical gardens
- Basic equipment ideas for a vertical garden
- Best plants for a vertical garden
- What soil should I use in a vertical garden?
- Principles for vertical gardening success
- FAQ about vertical gardens
Note: Vertical gardening is used to describe both in-ground gardening that grows plants up a trellis, arch, or vertical support and container gardening done vertically. Some vertical gardens also employ hydroponics to feed their plants. In this article, we’ll focus on growing plants in containers with soil as the growing medium. We’ll also briefly mention larger, hydroponic installations.
What is a vertical garden?
A vertical garden is a garden that is installed along vertical supports instead of horizontally along rows in the ground. “Vertical garden” is an umbrella term that can encompass many different vertical gardening setups. This is evident since container vertical gardens go by many different names:
- Living wall
- Green wall
- Vertical wall
- Moss wall
- Plant wall
The four characteristics that remain constant are a vertical structure, a container, a plant, and soil. Vertical gardens are appealing because they save space and allow us to grow food or ornamental plants outside (no pun intended) of the traditional garden.
In commercial settings, vertical gardens are often elaborate installations set up by professional companies. These installations usually include a hydroponic system to provide nutrients and water to the plants to keep them healthy and growing. These companies tout these “living walls” as a tool to increase green space, boost mood and happiness, and function as living art in your workplace.
Fast Fact: What is hydroponics? Hydroponics is a method of growing plants without soil. Water, light, and nutrients provide all that the plants need to grow from seed to harvest.
Pros and cons of vertical gardens
Before you commit to a vertical garden, here are a few pros and cons to ponder.
Pros of vertical gardens
- Can be used indoors or outdoors
- Various sizes — less than a foot in diameter up to to dozens of feet in length
- Used in commercial and residential spaces
- Alternative to indoor potted plants
- Grow food or ornamental plants
- Popular in urban areas, apartments, or where space is limited
- Adds color and texture to your decor
- Grow with soil or hydroponics
- Can be as expensive or inexpensive as you wish
- DIY or professional set up
Cons of vertical gardens
- Containers require more water than in-ground plants
- Not maintenance-free: Professional installations require monthly maintenance
- Soil indoors can attract insects
- Must have basic DIY skills and power equipment for most projects
Basic equipment ideas for a vertical garden
If you’re new to vertical gardens, start simple. Remember, there are only a few things to keep in mind:
- A vertical structure
- A container
- A plant
From there, your imagination is your only limit to what vertical gardening ideas you’ll bring to life.
To start simply, think how to repurpose the vertical elements in your yard or home that you already own. For example, a trellis, arbor, old ladder, or a fence. Then, think about your container options: Old plastic containers, recycled pots, coco coir basket liners, or an old hanging shoe organizer.
-Pallet (not chemically treated)
-Tomato stakes or bamboo stakes
|-Recycled plastic containers|
-Recycled nursery pots
-Coco coir liners
-Old shoe organizer (or purchased wall pockets)
-Window box planter
-Stepped vertical planter
-Burlap bags or planting bags
Finally, the only remaining elements are a plant and some soil, and you’re ready to set up your vertical garden.
Best plants for a vertical garden
So, what are the best plants for a vertical garden? Many different types of plants will work. But rather than overwhelm you with a long list (we’ll get to a short list in a minute), here’s a simple answer: Any plant that works in your climate in your container should work in a vertical garden. Simple, right?
Here is a short list of plants that may work well in your vertical garden:
- Ornamentals (annual or perennial)
- Flowering plants
- Lettuces and greens
- Most climbing plants (These work with a trellis, pergola or other support.)
What soil should I use in a vertical garden?
The best soil for a vertical container garden is generally a good-quality potting mix. Most brands will do fine, but look for a mix that includes peat moss and perlite and/or vermiculite. After you pot the plants, if you think the soil is holding too much water, add more perlite to increase drainage. If the soil doesn’t hold enough water, add more vermiculite, peat moss, or coco coir to help the soil retain more water.
Caveat: Potting soil is not ideal for all container plants. Some people prefer a stone mix for succulents, for example. Epiphytes — including some ferns, bromeliads, moss, and air plants — require very little (or no) potting media for survival.
Principles for vertical gardening success
When you choose plants for your vertical garden, basic planting principles apply. Follow the same principles as for an in-ground garden for the best chance of success.
Right plant, right place
Although the plants listed above work in many climates, not every plant is suitable for your space, whether you garden in-ground or vertically. Choose plants that are a good fit for the container and climate. This is called “right plant, right place.”
Here are a few things to consider when you choose containers for your plants:
Size: Before you buy, know how large your plant will grow. Basil, other herbs, and small annual flowers are perfect for pocket-sized felt planters or standard-sized pots. For perennials, divide them when they outgrow their container.
Most plants prefer at least an 8-inch pot, although many will tolerate something smaller. It is usually a good idea to err on the side of larger, though. Check out this handy chart (see pg. 2) from Cornell Cooperative Extension of Chemung County for details on specific plants and their preferred pot size.
Drainage: All containers must have drainage. This can be holes on the bottom of the pot or just above the bottom on the sides.
- Do NOT place gravel or stones at the bottom of the pot to increase drainage. This actually decreases the ability of the soil to drain from the pot efficiently.
Color: If your vertical garden gets full, blazing sun in the summer, you may want to avoid dark-colored pots as these will absorb heat, increase the soil temperature, and dry out the soil more quickly. In the winter, a dark pot may be an asset, however.
Composition: From what type of material is your pot made? Earthen materials (clay, terra cotta, unglazed ceramics) are the most porous and lose water fastest. Glazed pots, metal, plastic, and fiberglass lose the least water, as they are non-porous. Fiber and wood pots are semi-porous and fall in the middle.
Cacti and succulents work well in porous pots. It is more water-efficient to plant most other plants in non-porous pots so they’ll retain more water.
Finally, most unglazed earthenware is not suited for year-round use in climates with freezing winters. These pots absorb water, which will then expand and cause cracks in these pots.
Weight: In general, the larger the plant, the heavier the pot should be. Consider the wind on your balcony as well and whether your less hefty pots may be affected.
One trick is to double pot (place a lighter, plastic pot, for example, inside a heavier, larger one). Place foam or mulch in between to keep the inner pot from moving too much. This method is most often used to reduce moisture loss, but it works to provide extra weight for lighter plants as well.
Also, consider how much weight your structure can hold. You don’t want to add more weight in pots and soil than will be stable and secure on your structure.
Whether you use drip irrigation or hand-water, group plants with similar water needs together. When watering time comes, water everything, and you’re done until next time.
Light and shade
Plants that are grouped together also must have similar sun/shade requirements. There is one caveat to this: If you have a pocket planter, for example, you can tuck partial shade plants below full sun plants with overhanging foliage. This foliage will shade the plant below, and the two plants can live together in harmony.
Use whatever potting medium the plants normally like, whether you’re planting in pots or a fabric wall unit.
Pro Tip: Start small. Small plants, small containers, and a small vertical support mean you won’t waste time or money on something elaborate that will fail or fall. Once the season is over, you can evaluate this “trial run” and plan for your next round of plants next season.
FAQ about vertical gardens
Vertical gardens offer a solution to many common complaints that gardeners or wanna-be gardeners have:
Complaint #1: I don’t have enough space.
Whether you live in an apartment with a small balcony or have a cement patio for a backyard, lack of garden space is a common concern. But if you have a wall, you can have a garden. Vertical gardens employ vertical space, not horizontal space, and are suited for small spaces indoors and outdoors. No garden beds required.
Indoor vertical gardens will need a grow light and fertigation (where fertilizer is piped to the growing medium) or irrigation system, which isn’t as tricky as it sounds. Outdoor gardens can hang from a fence or any wall. With vertical gardens, limited space is no longer an obstacle to your gardening dreams.
Complaint #2: It requires too many pots.
Do you loathe the idea of having a multitude of pots or containers, even in a vertical setup? You can use pots in a vertical garden, but for maximum yield, build a tiered system or use long planters. This cuts down on the pot clutter and leaves the plants as the focal point.
Complaint #3: You can’t use potting soil indoors.
Bringing soil indoors also can bring gnats, mealybugs, aphids, and other unwanted creepy crawlies into your home. There are simple ways to deal with this, but vertical gardening presents another solution: hydroponic gardening. Using hydroponics in your vertical garden instead of soil eliminates this problem so you can enjoy your plants pest-free.
Any kind you can a) imagine and b) build. Here are a few ideas:
—Tropical greenery garden: Vertical gardens are uber popular in subtropical climates, especially in urban areas. Why let all of that sun go to waste?
—Herb garden: Herbs are one of the most popular plants to grow in a vertical garden. They are small, compact, and they only last a year, so no dividing up plants from one year to another.
—Vegetable garden: Many vining vegetables grow well up a vertical support (cucumbers, beans, peas). However, other plants like lettuces, edible flowers, and herbs grow well in small containers and don’t need the support of a trellis. Both are suitable for container vertical gardens.
—Hanging garden: Your garden may not look like Babylon, but hanging pots are a popular container choice for vertical gardens. Let your imagination grow, and you’ll fall in a long line of innovative gardeners who’ve used this method.
Vertical farms are already providing produce to consumers on a commercial scale. These farms grow crops indoors in controlled, soilless conditions, which means they can grow lettuces, greens, tomatoes, and other crops 365 days a year, regardless of the weather or season. This type of farming is likely to provide fresh produce to more and more grocery stores as the industry grows and expands. Be on the lookout at a grocery store near you.
Too busy hanging out in your vertical garden to pay attention to the lawn? Let our professional, local lawn care pros take turf care off your to-do list.
Main Photo Credit: Pawel Czerwinski | Unsplash