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Everything you need to know about vertical gardens

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What is vertical gardening and why would you?

You probably know that vertical gardening is a thing, as you probably searched for the term.  However, just in case you were meandering around, and the idea intrigued you, we will give you some idea of what it means to create a vertical garden.  We also think this will be a great way to create a dramatic backdrop for your wooden bench, so it makes the perfect topic for one of our more detailed guides.

A lot is revealed about vertical gardening from the name, to be fair.  It means growing up, or the opposite of your normal horizontal system of growing a garden.  Get yourself some trellis, some netting, a tower of pots or some other structure like a garden wall and design a planting scheme.  This pretty much all there is to it in terms of what it is – simple really.

So, why? Well, first for those of us with limited space it might be genuinely our only option.  We have only a small yard in a large city but still we want to nurture plants and experience the joy of growing a garden.  However, even where you have lots of space, a vertical garden can be less work and offer greater yields in vegetable growing than traditional gardening.  A well-designed trellis or wall can also look stunning.  You are less likely to experience the damage caused by weeds, experience pests such as slugs and snails, and there is little need for watering great expanses of space.

The essential tips of the vertical gardener

The next step in any essential guide is to address the “how”.  All traditional ideas about soil and watering and food, ideas about complementary planting and growing cycles may seem irrelevant – but a lot of the same tips cross over from your horizontal planting.  Here we cover all the points that will be helpful to those seeking to make the change.

Planters hanging outside houses

Decision #01: Choosing the structure

The first mistake you could make is to choose a structure that is too big or to choose a structure that cannot be added to or adapted.  Also, you need to think if you want the structure to be permanent or if you want the opportunity to move it with you, if you are renting, or move it to sunnier places at different times of the year.

If you are building your vertical structure specially for the task of creating your garden, then use lightweight materials that can be easily moved.

Alternatively, build the structure up with pots that can be removed or added to as your ambition grows, or maybe if you need to move to a new house.  A good idea is to use pots on castors that have a tripod growing from them.  If you hold the pots together to form a firm base, then you have literally got a garden on wheels!

Obviously, if you are sticking around, then you can easily attach a trellis to a wall and watch the plant grow from the base, naturally filling the space.  It is also possible to use a wall, planting into gaps and creating a wonderful piece of art for the garden.   Be cautious when planting into a wall that the plants will not cause instability in the structure due to the growth of the roots.  It is best to seek professional advice before being too ambitious with planting against a significant structure, like your house for instance.

If all this sounds more than you hoped, then try erecting a series of shelves or a structure of old apple crates and filling these with plants.  Vertical gardening can be as easy or hard as you want it to be, remember ultimately it means gardening upwards rather than across the ground.  One of our favourite ideas was to put up some chicken wire and hang pots like pictures with a metal hoop and a hook.  This way the garden could change with you taste. If your garden is too small for any of these ideas, then go to a DIY store and buy a pocket hanger made from canvas or plastic.  These are meant for holding screws and nails and the like but also make perfect planters and can hang in relatively small spaces.

Be aware: vertical gardening requires more watering than traditional gardening and the water will erode organic materials quicker than you would hope.  This means a metal or stone container may be a more suitable structure for a more long-term project – especially if you want to avoid disturbing the root structure once the garden is established.

Decision #02: Where to plant

If you are using vertical gardening techniques because there is little space in your yard, then the question of where to plant could well be a moot point.  However, if you are trying to create a feature then placement is a factor.  The good news is that a vertical garden can go virtually anywhere, even indoors if the fancy takes you.

The one consideration when deciding where to plant is sun and shade.  Feel free to plant anywhere, but then you are going to have to select plants that will thrive in that area.  If you are creating a garden of cacti, for instance, believing these are hardy growers and can take a lot of punishment, you are still going to need to give them some sun and some shade if they are to thrive.  A cactus needs half-exposure.

Remember when designing your vertical garden that you need to consider how it will grow.  Sometimes it easier to start your growing on the horizontal first, particularly if you are looking to be ambitious, so your plants roots and the soil surrounding it don’t have to deal with gravity as well as everything else.  It might be possible to slowly elevate your garden to a vertical position gradually.  When starting your garden use potting soil, as your vertical garden will dry out quickly – acting just like a pot plant rather than a traditional garden.  The potting soil will retain moisture better – remember gravity is working to pull the water downwards!

wooden wall planter

Decision #03: Choosing the plants

As we said, where you plant dictates what you plant to a small degree.  However, you are also going to be guided by the purpose of your vertical garden and your level of ambition.  Obviously, planting succulents such as cacti is a useful starting point, as they do take a good bit of hardship.  However, you could plant herbs in your pocket hanger and keep it as a feature on a kitchen wall.  Herbs are relatively easy to grow, and this would be a practical addition as well as a focal point.

In truth, if you have gardened at all, you will likely have some experience of vertical gardening anyway.  If you have grown vegetables, then you will have likely used trellis to support tomatoes or runner beans.  You will have guided the plants up the trellis.  Therefore, keeping this in mind, if you choose varieties like Pilostegia Viburnoides, which is a self-clinging evergreen, or Jasminum nudiflorum, which can be trained to act like a climber and flowers profusely – would be a good plan.  There are more obvious choices for climbers, such as clematis, rose, ivy or honeysuckle.  However, you need to be careful that they do not exceed your expectations for your garden space – as they have a life of their own, literally obviously.

It is better to choose plants that are flexible to growing in the shape you intend.  If you choose woody varieties of plants, like some lavenders, for instance, then you will find it difficult to train them upwards.  This obviously doesn’t matter if you are growing your garden using pots or growers, but it matters in you are training or planting up a surface.  Herbaceous plants are much more flexible – and include some beautiful ferns, some lovely soft green stems that will droop, as well as flowering varieties that add colour.

Whatever your choice, you need to consider the planting as more of an installation, a unified design.  Therefore, you need to choose plants that grow at the same speed and enjoy the same conditions.  You do not want to plant an aggressive plant in amongst slower growers.  It is likely that the aggressive grower, particularly some of the vine variety of plants, will quickly dominate the whole space and leave the others with no light, soil space or hydration.  Complementary planting is more important in vertical gardening, where space and light will be more restricted than in a more traditional garden.  You should choose all shade plants or all sun plants, as you are going to be planting to the placement of your vertical garden.

Decision #04: Maintenance

When setting up your garden, think ahead.  How is the garden going to be maintained? Have you just got excited by your pocket herb garden in the kitchen? Did you rush out and buy everything you need before reading on? Well, now is the time to think about how you are going to water this lovely herb garden you have created.  The good news is that if you have chosen plastic pockets, then just a small watering can and a reminder to yourself to water them regularly is enough.  A canvas pocket will hold the water in the fabric to a degree, but overwatering will be messy! So, daily maintenance will be needed.

This is the sort of thought you need to put into any vertical garden structure you design.  How are you going to keep it growing? One option is to organise a drip irrigation system.  This is particularly useful on living walls, where you are planting up a wall to create a single focal point.  If you organise a drip irrigation system, then you will find that there is a constant stream of water steadily moving through the plants.  This system can be highly sophisticated.  There are lots on sale.  Alternatively, if you are a clever DIYer, then you will be able to do something with a thin hose and something that can pierce holes in regular spaces.  This can then be snakes amongst your plants.

As with any garden, some of the plants will thrive and some will not.  However, holes in your vertical garden will look even more unsightly than in traditional gardens.  Therefore, it is important to keep a few extra plants growing that can be easily planted into the garden if necessary.  If you are worried about the level of maintenance this means you would have to do – then you should be opting for a container style vertical garden, where you can easily swap plants in and out when necessary.

Finally, a simple point worth remembering… if you are going vertical to an extreme then you may need to purchase a ladder!

raindrops on a plantDecision #05: Add the wow factor

This is our favourite section.  You have done all the practical things.  You have considered light, water, structure and maintenance.  Now, you get to think how you are going to make your vertical garden that little bit different.  Here we gather together some of the really clever ideas we have seen during our time and during our research – offering you a healthy dose of inspiration we hope.

First, we loved the vertical garden make of old drainpipe cut into sections and hung together with wire.  This was such the mobile garden, as it could be moved like a picture from place to place.  It was planted with small alpines, herbs and moss.  It was small and understated but perfect for that busy professional who wants some life in the small yard or even in the living room.  This is a modern design, particularly if you choose drain pipes of different materials, from metals to plastics, to make the planter part of the beauty.

We also love the idea of using old materials that would otherwise be discarded.  Wooden pallets are an obvious choice here.  If stand a pallet on its side, hammer in a slat to cover each horizontal and turn it into a box.  You immediately have a vertical planter that is perfect for creating an under-window vertical garden with daisy and posies.  Old apple crates are great, as is an old trough from a farm.  Remember the container takes on a new life when used as a planter.  The rusty old bath that you have stored in the shed, this could be a wonderful base for your trellis.

Living sculptures are ambitious and maybe not for the beginner.  However, they are striking and give a room a primitive feel that can cause an emotional stirring in your visitors.  You can create a complex pattern of wooded plants, ferns, succulents, in a shallow metal tray.  If you start this on the horizontal first and then as it grows and establishes itself, you can slowly move it to the vertical.  If you add some driftwood and some moss, then it will always be a point of interest.

If you want an easier starting point to adding a wow factor to your vertical garden, then try buying a variety of pastel pots that will look delicate on their own.  A focal point in your design does not have to be huge – to be different doesn’t have to mean big.  A vertical garden could easily be made from that terracotta pot that broke in half and you decide to fill the remaining pot with soil and grow plants up the slope.

In short

As this is the essential guide, we have just bombarded you will a monstrous amount of information and you may feel overloaded.  Let’s take you through the most important points here, as a quick reference.

First, you will want to try vertical gardening because it is perfect for city spaces and for those wanting to get a high yield from your garden.  You will maximise harvests using vertical gardens.

You also want to be a vertical gardener because the chance of disease killing your crops and the danger from pest are much reduced.  The choice of vertical means the plants are well aerated and offers maximum sunlight, if needed.

You will want a vertical garden because it can make your garden different, stunning and much increased beauty.  All design needs texture, shape and form, your garden is no different.

Then, you will choose your structure and do some prep work.  Let your imagination free – think how you could cleverly create a structure that would hold soil and plants.  Remember those wow factors – see Pinterest for more inspiration.

Remember to choose your place and your structure at the same time as you choose your plants.  There needs to be a more unified vision for the end product with a vertical garden.  Most importantly, think light and think watering.  Then, buy your plants.

Gravity will not be your friend for a while, if you are going thoroughly vertical.  So, start the plants off on the horizontal first.  You should also choose potting soil, to help hydration.  Remember water naturally travels downwards.

You will make sure that there a few spare plants handy, just in case you need to fill a space left by a plant that did not thrive.

Finally, you will step back and wonder why you didn’t grow up before – for once this growing up business is more fun than the alternative – and provides an easier and more fruitful space.

Anna is the marketing and office manager for Garden Benches – a premium supplier of high-quality wooden benches and other outdoor furniture.

Anna Sharples

Anna is the marketing and office manager for Garden Benches - a premium supplier of high-quality wooden benches and other outdoor furniture.

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