Start your very own vertical garden and eat healthy food for free!

It’s no tall tale: Vertical gardening maximizes the growing potential of your container garden or small-space garden plot.

Try growing beans vertical by guiding them up a trellis.

If you’ve ever longed for a lush garden full of vegetables but have put that dream aside because you live on a 1/4-acre lot or in a high-rise condo, you might be surprised to know that your high hopes really can blossom. Vertical-gardening techniques can put fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, spinach and more within easy reach—literally.

Vertical gardening uses an assortment of support structures to help plants grow up instead of out, where their sprawl can take up a lot of space and leave fruits and vegetables vulnerable to diseases, scarring and garden pests. A garden filled with vertically grown vegetables not only produces more in a small space but can also camouflage unattractive structures, provide privacy and shade, and add interest to landscaping. Vertical structures also make a garden more manageable for those who have difficulty bending and stooping, because the vegetables are at eye-level and above, making them easy to prune and check for garden pests.

Starting a vertical garden isn’t hard. Many garden-supply centers offer ready-made supports, including stackable containers and an assortment of trellises, tepees and netting. The most common structures are those designed to support tomatoes, such as the tomato cage and the hanging “upside-down” tomato planters.

There are a surprising number of items that can easily be put to work as garden supports: fences, old gutters, saplings, branches, other plants and even your apartment staircase. For small spaces, vertical gardens often work best in combination with containers or raised beds.

The plants that thrive in a vertical garden are those that are naturally vining, sending out tendrils to grasp their way along as they grow, including cucumbers, winter squash, pumpkins, melons and grapes. But tall, non-vining plants, such as tomatoes, work equally well in a vertical system, given the proper support. And believe it or not, you can even grow low-growing plants vertically.

One key to any successful garden is sunlight. Vertical structures will help expose plants to more of the sunlight available in your area. In situating your vertical garden, be careful your vertical structures won’t cast shadows that could keep sunlight from lower-growing plants. Most vegetable plants need an average of 6 hours of sunlight daily, though root vegetables and some cool-weather-loving plants will tolerate some shade. In a vertical system, sun-loving plants should be grown in a north-south orientation, ensuring that one side will get morning sun from the East and the other will get afternoon sun from the West.

Propping Vertically Grown Plants

Joe D’Eramo, a gardener in Harvard, Mass., who began practicing vertical gardening 16 years into his gardening career, was inspired by Mel Bartholomew’s book, All New Square Foot Gardening: Grow More in Less Space! (Cool Springs Press, February 2006). After reading Bartholomew’s book, he created a garden of raised beds and upright structures that can only be described as an engineering marvel. He says that the source for all the vertical framing was the “take-it-or-leave-it” section at the local transfer station.

His 7-foot vertical structures, aligned along a north-south axis, are made of discarded metal  tubing, and he uses plastic trellis netting with a 6- by 51⁄2-inch mesh to support the plants. The garden is completely enclosed in deer fencing, and weeds are kept at bay with Lumite landscape fabric, which helps give the garden the feel of an outdoor room. He uses the vertical system to grow tomatoes, cucumbers, pole beans and butternut squash.

If you’ve never gardened before, it can be tempting to rely on ready-made structures available at your local garden center. Depending on how much you hope to grow, that can get expensive. There are many structures you can make yourself (such as a portable trellis), from the simple to the sublime, using readily available materials—maybe even those lurking in your own backyard.

If you’re partial to a natural look, suitable branches leaned against a wall or tied together tepee-style make an attractive structure for peas, beans or cucumbers. You can actually use tall, erect plants to serve as climbing posts for vining plants. A traditional practice among Native Americans has been to plant the Three Sisters together—corn, beans and squash. The sturdy, upright corn acts as a support for the climbing beans, which in turn add nitrogen to the soil for the heavy-feeding corn. The squash is allowed to crawl along the ground, crowding out the weeds that would otherwise hamper the growth of the beans and the corn. Like corn, sunflowers can also be used as a support plant.

If you’d like something with a little more structure, there are other options close at hand:

  • Do you have a chain-link dog kennel in your yard? That’s a perfect structure for any vining plant grown vertically.
  • Old wooden ladders can provide the basis for a surprisingly productive garden when leaned against a fence or the side of your house. Vining vegetables or fruits planted underneath will climb the ladder as they grow. They may need to be lightly tied to the first rung when they become tall enough, but once the tendrils latch onto the rung, the plants will take off on their own.
  • Clay pots, strung together with rope and suspended from a sturdy support, make another simple and attractive way to grow plants vertically.
  • Even used children’s toys can serve as support structures for climbing plants. If you know children who have outgrown their Slinkys, put these toys to good use as a creative trellis for beans or peas: Simply suspend a Slinky from an overhang, such as an eave, a porch roof or a stairway railing; anchor the Slinky in place at the bottom by placing a stake in the ground and tying or wiring the stake to the Slinky.
  • Easy Garden Projects to Make, Build and Grow: 200 Do-it-yourself Ideas to Help You Grow Your Best Garden Ever (Yankee Publishing, 2006) describes an old wooden step ladder put into service as the framework for a small garden that could support tomatoes, cucumbers, herbs, salad greens, flowers and more. Flower pots for greens, herbs or flowers are positioned on the ladder’s steps and pail shelf, held in place by long screws through the bottom of each. The drainage holes in the pots are set over the screws; the pots are then filled with soil and seeds. Garden twine is wrapped horizontally between the ladder’s rails, providing support for tomatoes, cucumbers or even pole beans.

When planning your vertical structures, consider what you plan to grow and how tall those plants will become. To keep plants from growing out of your reach, consider an arbor, where plants can grow up one side and down the other.

Vertical Gardening Super Stars

I don’t think anyone has the last word on which plants are best for a vertical garden. There are tried-and-true plants that many vertical gardeners use, but you’re limited only by your imagination—and the location of your garden.

D’Eramo says he likes to grow cucumbers on a trellis because they’re easy to find and pick. “If I were to rank vegetables that do well on a trellis, cucumbers would be at the top of my list, followed by tomatoes, beans and peas,” he says.

Cucumbers, which send out twisting tendrils, grow easily on upright structures. For years, I’ve grown mine on a simple portable fence of  wire attached to two poles. It doesn’t take long for the vines to cover the fence.

Climbing beans and peas are naturals in the vertical garden and are so popular that pea-trellis netting is a stock item at most garden centers. There are many varieties of beans from which to choose, including pod-type beans and shell beans. Imagine growing and drying your own shell beans for a deep-winter batch of chili or soup!

Because tomatoes aren’t naturally vining (i.e., no curling tendrils), they must be supported upright somehow. For my money, D’Eramo’s solution is ideal. Tomatoes can be easily guided through the 6- by 51⁄2-inch mesh openings in his garden trellis as they grow. The metal frame and plastic mesh are sturdy enough to hold their ground as the prolific plants make their way up the 7-foot-tall structure.

Many people use wooden stakes to support tomatoes, placing them in the ground next to the plant and tying them loosely to the stake as they grow. Others use tomato cages, which take up a little more room. My experience has been that the plants quickly outgrow the cages and stakes and eventually tip over at the top, creating a “tomato jungle” that can become a good habitat for garden pests and diseases. Laden with fruit, the plants often cause the cages to fall over, unless the cages are also staked.

If you plant tomatoes and cucumbers, you’ve almost got a salad. What about greens? Lettuce and spinach can be grown in hanging baskets, in gutters mounted on a wall or in vertically set PVC pipes. Little-known Malabar spinach, a climbing perennial plant whose leaves are said to taste a bit like chard, is an ideal candidate for a vertical garden. (This is best grown in locales that have cold winters.)

Even winter vegetables like squash and pumpkins work well in a vertical garden; though heavy fruits such as these may need extra support. Create a “sling” from old nylon stockings (or T-shirts) tied to the stake, and place them around the squash when they’re small. The sling will support them as they grow. Trellises for larger fruits, such as pumpkins or Hubbard squash, may also require extra support. If you really have a yen for pumpkin but no desire to engineer a sturdy frame, consider growing one of the small varieties, such as Jack-be-little or Baby Pam.

Easy Vertical Garden Upkeep

Because the soil around vertically grown plants is exposed to more light and air than the soil under plants left to grow on the ground, it could dry out more readily and could be a handy target for weeds. This calls for plenty of mulch and more frequent checks to see if watering is needed.

A healthy topping of compost in the spring will provide plants with nutrients to help them grow their best throughout the season. At the end of the growing season, remove all dead stalks and leaves and cover the bed with more compost.

Vertical Gardening Results

D’Eramo’s “garden room” isn’t confined to a particularly small area, but his use of vertical structures and raised beds maximizes the space available. His garden, consisting of 17 raised beds—seven of which are trellised—produces more than enough for a family of four. He’s never weighed his yield, so he can’t say how many pounds of produce he gets from his efforts annually, but says, “We grow enough to supply our family and leave us with storage problems.” And, he says, he shares his garden’s overabundance with friends.

The sky is the limit for urban farmers who need to maximize growing space by growing vertical, rather than out.

About the Author: Lynda King is a freelance writer and organic gardener from central Massachusetts and is the president and co-founder of a sustainability group in her community. Her articles on sustainability, food, organic gardening and family research have appeared in Hobby Farm Home, Urban Farm, Family Chronicle and GenWeekly magazines.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2010 issue of Urban Farm magazine. Happy vegan.

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