When I bought my flat in London a few years ago I faced a problem. I was fortunate enough to have a garden. But it was small and, worse, paved with slabs of grey stone. Having grown up in the countryside I felt a little sad at the lack of greenery. I always wanted a garden of my own but this didn’t feel like what I had imagined. At least I wouldn’t have to mow the lawn twice a week.
I asked myself: what’s the best way to grow plants in a small, urban garden? And how can I grow vegetables and herbs without raised beds or much soil?
It wasn’t long though before I discovered vertical gardening. I discovered that I didn’t need beds or soil. I could build up, rather than out. And that it was possible to fill my small, stone garden with bright flowers and green vegetables. My garden became a vibrant and productive ecosystem. And it can do the same for yours too – whether you have a large, green garden already, or a small urban one.
But what exactly is a vertical garden?
As a general rule, a vertical garden is a system of gardening that uses containers that stack on top of one another to grow plants upwards instead of horizontally along the ground. Vertical gardens can take many forms, from simple stacks of soil-filled containers to complex hydroponic tower systems.
In this article, I share everything a beginner needs to know about vertical gardening, from the different types of vertical garden systems, how it works, and the key steps needed to create a vertical garden of your own.
How do vertical gardens differ from regular gardens?
Unlike traditional gardening, vertical gardens – as the name suggests – are grown vertically using a variety of different methods from simple tiers of containers and trellis structures to complex hydroponic tower systems. Vertical gardens can be used to grow everything from flowers, food and herbs very effectively, or to create beautiful ‘living’ walls made from plants and mosses.
The concept is nothing new. In fact, the first known record of a vertical garden is as early as 3000 BCE (yes, you read that right!) constructed by ancient Greeks to grow grape vines more efficiently. The ‘Hanging Gardens of Babylon‘ is another excellent example, from around 600 BCE, this time of how vertical gardening can be used to create magnificent green and natural spaces.
The modern creator of vertical gardening is widely considered to be Stanley Hart White, a professor of landscape architecture from Brooklyn, New York. In 1938, White patented his ‘Botanical Bricks’ garden design, which saw plants stacked into space-efficient vertical panels.
White realized that traditional (horizontal) gardens took up a lot of space. Additionally, gardens that are spread out across a large surface area use much more water and fertilizers, which can be costly. When a traditional garden is watered, any excess simply leaches into the ground, passing over the roots of a small number of plants, before being wasted. A vertical garden however ensures that this same water passes through each plant before (ideally) being captured in a reservoir for recycling.
By stacking plants on top of one another, White was able to design a system that not only maximized the use of space but also conserved precious resources. And thus, the vertical garden (as we know it today) was born.
Since the 1930s, vertical gardening has grown dramatically and today exceeds far beyond the boundaries of individual gardeners. An entire industry – vertical farming – has developed exponentially to create a whole new tech-enabled food production system predicted to be worth over USD 10 billion by 2026.
So, what are the main benefits of vertical gardening?
Over the years vertical gardening has helped me to turn my small, urban garden into a green and vibrant space. Gone are the days of back-breaking digging. Gone are the days of constant maintenance and preparation. Gone are the days of weeding and worrying constantly about snails and slugs.
If you are somebody who’s considering getting into gardening for the first time or getting frustrated with the back-breaking labor involved with traditional gardening, consider the many benefits of creating a vertical garden of your own.
It may come as no surprise that there are many advantages to vertical gardening. So many, in fact, that I’ve written a whole article on them in another post which I suggest you read as well. I’ve listed some of the key ones down below:
- Vertical gardens are more sustainable
- You can grow more with less space
- You can grow things anywhere
- Learn about innovative gardening techniques
- They’re easier to maintain
- You get larger crop harvests
- Harvesting is easier
- Better protection from pests
- Better protection from diseases and rot
- You can create beautiful garden art
- Your plants will be cleaner
- Some vertical gardens reduce noise levels
- It can be cheaper than conventional gardening
I’ve written a more in-depth article on the benefits of vertical gardening in another post.
What are the two main styles of vertical gardening?
Vertical gardening techniques split into two main camps: growing plants in containers and training plants to grow vertically. The approach that works best for you will depend on your garden and what you are trying to grow.
Personally, because I have a small, urban garden with no beds or much soil, growing vertically in containers works great. But, if you have more space (and the right location to train plants upwards, like a large wall or trellis) then training plants to grow vertically may be a great option.
1. Growing plants in containers
Perhaps the most popular form of vertical gardening, this approach involves (as the name suggests) growing plants in vertically stacked containers. It’s essentially as simple as that. There are thousands of different styles and techniques and you can really get creative! From recycled soda bottles and wooden pallets to high-tech, hydroponic systems there is something to fit every need and budget.
2. Training plants to grow vertically
Training plants is a practice that goes back thousands of years. It involves (sometimes over a number of years) feeding plants through a trellis or frame structure as they grow upwards. It works particularly well with climbing plants, like wisteria or grape vines. Training plants through a trellis encourages them to grow upwards, saving space at ground level.
What are the different ways to create a vertical garden?
There are three main types of vertical gardening systems: stacked, tower and ‘living’ walls. Each is slightly different and requires varying levels of skill to develop and maintain. Choosing the right system for you will depend on your overall objectives, how much money you want to spend, as well as how ‘hands-on’ you want to be.
Vertical ‘Stacked’ Systems
The simplest form of vertical garden, stacked systems, can be created from just about anything, including old soda bottles. As I have detailed already in this article, the system stacks (or hangs) tiers of plants above one another, allowing water and nutrients to flow efficiently from top to bottom.
They are the cheapest and simplest form of vertical garden and (in my opinion) often the most fun to build and the best place to start for beginners. Creating one makes a fantastic DIY project.
Tower Garden Systems
If you have a little more money to spend and are looking for a sleek, hyper-efficient vertical gardening system, look no further than the ‘Tower Garden’. These all-in-one solutions make superb vertical gardening systems with built-in reservoirs, excellent airflow, automated watering and many more high-tech features.
Additionally, many systems are ‘hydroponic’, which means that you don’t need to use soil at all. Instead, you can simply grow plants by using a water-based mineral nutrient solution that submerges the root system (but it depends on which system you buy).
Tower Gardens are excellent for growing just about anything but can struggle with root vegetables like carrots and potatoes. Nevertheless, they are a great piece of kit for any eager vertical gardener.
Green ‘Living’ Walls
Those of us who live in cities may have come across a ‘living’ wall before. They are increasingly common in built-up urban areas, particularly within or outside of office spaces.
These green walls make fantastic show-pieces and are often grown in patterns of colorful plants, mosses and flowers. Personally, I have found creating one quite a challenge. Nevertheless, they’re a great way to bring urban gardens and city spaces closer to nature. They can also have the effect of dampening sound as well as cooling your garden spaces in the warmer summer months.
Are vertical gardens good for indoor spaces?
Owing to their efficient use of space vertical gardens do very well indoors. They can be both pretty and practical, even improving the air quality of your home.
Additional considerations, like ensuring you get enough light, are important. Depending on the type of vertical garden system you use it may not always be practical to maintain and harvest, particularly if there is a lot of water and soil.
You may wish to consider ‘smart’ garden systems specifically designed for indoor use. There are a much of them on the market and I’ll be trialing them and posting my reviews on this blog.
How can I create my own vertical garden?
Creating your own vertical garden at home can be both cheap and easy. To answer this question properly, I have written a detailed guide in a different post that will walk you step-by-step through how to build your own vertical garden.
However, there are some key steps that budding vertical gardeners must be aware of. I’ve listed them below:
Step 1: Decide on your budget
The cost of creating a vertical garden system can vary substantially between DIY stacking container systems to state-of-the-art hydroponic towers. First, establish how much you are willing to spend, and if you want an ‘out-of-the-box’ product or to design and build something yourself. My advice would be to try to build something of your own before investing too heavily.
Step 2: Decide where you want to place your vertical garden
Positioning is important and there are many factors to consider. Vertical gardens can be placed just about anywhere, but the plants you grow still have needs to be catered for. Placing a vertical garden against a wooden fence can also cause damage (as continuous watering can sometimes rot the wood). Be mindful of where you build and what you build on.
Step 3: Choose a suitable structure and design
Pick the type of vertical garden you will create (or purchase). I’ve outlined the three core types above, but there is a multitude of different techniques that you can use. I’ll outline these in another post.
Step 4: Choose the right plants to populate your vertical garden
Different plants have different needs. It’s important that you consider the best plants for your vertical garden. For example, are you going to be growing herbs or vegetables? As I mentioned, root vegetables may not be a good option as they need deeper soil beds. Additionally, placing light-loving plants or those that need more water on the bottom may result in poor growth if they don’t get what they need.
Step 5: Ensure you use the right soil and fertilizers
This will depend greatly on the types of plants you choose for your vertical garden. However, generally, I use good-quality commercial potting soil which is loam based and mixed with a good amount of nutrients. I find a liquid fertilizer works best as this trickles through the system with the water.
Step 6: Care for and maintain your vertical garden
Maintaining a vertical garden is not difficult, but it’s always advisable to keep on top of things and check in on how your plants are doing and if the structure requires any repair or attention. It’s generally better to water deeply (from the top down) every so often than to water a little bit more frequently. Check regularly that water is flowing through the system properly. If your water isn’t tricking through the stack, make sure each tier gets enough individually. Soils will eventually need to be replaced, but they should last a few years.
Now, time to create your own vertical garden!
Vertical gardening is a fantastic way to grow more with less space. Since I started I have transformed the way I grow herbs and vegetables and find I can frequently feed myself and my partner.
I hope that this beginner guide to vertical gardening has helped you to:
- Understand what vertical gardening is and how it works;
- Identify the different types of vertical gardens;
- Learn the benefits and limitations of vertical gardens; and
- Understand how you can get started (and why you should!).
Now it’s time to get building and start growing! Please follow this blog and flick through some of my other articles where I go into depth on key vertical gardening topics and share my top tips and tricks for creating successful vertical gardens that help you grow more, save space, reduce waste, and help the planet too.
Thank you for making it this far! Don’t hesitate to reach out to me if you have any questions.