Grow Up! (Vertical Gardening)

Big on ideas but short on space? Maximize your yard’s potential by growing up, not out, with vertical gardening.

Long a staple in Europe, vertical gardening is blooming among US landscapers, designers and home gardeners looking to transfrom skinny side yards, bitty balconies and cramped courtyards into living, breathing masterpieces.

Rebecca Sweet, co-author with Susan Morrison of Garden up! Smart Vertical Gardening for a Small and Large Spaces inside Cool Springs Press 2011 stated that people are trying to maximize every square centimeter of their property, and more and more people have smaller properties or just a balcony or courtyard, but they still want to have a garden.

The options are endless. Ardors, trellises, lattice frames, fabric pockets, obelisk trellises, along with unorthodox methods and materials, such as rebar and even old filing cabinet. But do not be daunted.

Vertical gardening is surprisingly beginner-friendly, and experts say supplies are cheap and easy to find at big-box stores like Lowe’s and Home Depot.

Sweet, of Los Altos, California, and retired horticulturist Tina Aur of Memphis, Tennessee, break down the main elements of vertical gardening and offer tips to get your green thumb in gear this summer.

Living Walls

The trendiest vertical gardening technique is living walls – fences, patio walls or other surfaces covered in plants, flowers, succulents, even fruits and vegetables.

There are two main ways to do this. The first involves modular, mountable tray planters, an the second uses breathable fabric “pockets” that can be hung on a wall.

Starting small with one pocket garden from a manufacturer like Woolly Pockets (US$39) that will hold three or four plants. Hang it along a wall or fence that gets partial sun to avoid drying out the smaller amount of soil.

Instead of flowers, consider planting herbs or vegetables. Mixing trailing herbs like thyme and oregano with upright red and green lettuces will not only look great, but because your garden will be off the ground, you’ll have fewer problems with pests.

Succulents, which need less soil, work better in tray systems because they need better irrigation than the pockets provide.


Aur prefers to train plants and flowers to wrap around lattices, arbors, trellises and other frameworks to give her small gardens more vertical structure and shape. She uses a combination of Italian cypress trees and trellises coated with clematis vines to create a cozy, outdoor room in her backyard. Aur bought the iron trellises at Lowe’s, and under-plants them with roses, columbines, irises and other perennials to take full advantage of the space through layering.

She grows vines on vinyl-coated wire available at hardware and some big-box stores, and hooks the wire onto fences, making it easy to take down for painting or repairs. Aur also uses the technique with vegetables, using elderberry sticks in stainless steel tubs bought at Home Depot to grow early season sweet peas with later-producing cantaloupes. She grows cucumbers up a trellis on the back of her greenhouse and underplants whatever is growing up the poles with strawberries.

Awkward side yards and other skinny spaces often turn into dumping grounds for toys, old barbeques and other oddities, particularly in the city. Uneven lighting and lack of soil can make these areas challenging for growing. But Sweet says she has yet to “meet the bed that is so skinny you can’t plant in it,” and suggests layering to create a lush look.

The top of back layer is the backbone of any vertical bed. Sweet suggests vines easily trained to grow flat against a wall like black-eyed Susan and clematis, or vase-shaped shrubs and trees like box leaf azara and flowering maple that allow plenty of room for planting below.

The middle layer should feature perennials with tall, delicate flower stalks, or finely textured ornamental grasses such as flowering tobacco, vervain, Scotch heater and yarrow. By choosing plants that can be ‘seen through’, your skinny space will appear larger and more lush than it really is.

Small-scale grasses, ground-hugging shrubs and compact perennials anchor the bottom layer. Foliage plants are particularly effective in this layer, and provide more months of interest than flowers alone. By creating your layers vertically instead of horizontally, even beds a few feet wide can rival the most lavish perennial border.


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