How to grow a vertical garden for a small yard or patio

How to grow a vertical garden for a small yard or patio

You can train some plants to grow vertically up an existing fence. Or try building a vertical container garden. (Harlow & May Studios)

Growing plants upward maximizes space, and can also require less maintenance. Here are several ways to do it.

One of the easiest ways to maximize your garden space is by taking advantage of the real estate above the ground, using a method called vertical gardening. This type of landscaping can be practical — for example, if you want to grow fruits or veggies — or purely aesthetic. And whatever your gardening goals, growing vertically can require less labor than tending traditional plantings. “A smaller footprint often means less weeding, and more efficient irrigation and fertilization,” says Chia Ming-Ro, owner and designer at Coastal Homestead edible gardens.

Here’s what else to know, and how to get started.

What is vertical gardening?

In short, it’s a gardening technique that trains plants to grow upward, either directly from the ground, in a container or as part of a multi-tier system. Vertical gardens can be terrific solutions for people with city-size yards, apartment dwellers who want to add lushness to a balcony, or really anyone seeking to maximize a garden’s output while minimizing its footprint.

What types of plants work in a vertical garden?

When creating a vertical garden, you’ll want to choose plants that will make good neighbors to lower-level greenery. “It’s usually best to place taller plants or structures at the north or west side of your garden to prevent them from shading out shorter plants,” says Kelly Smith Trimble, author of The Creative Vegetable Gardener and Vegetable Gardening Wisdom.

Flowers with non-woody stems, such as gerber daisies, freesia and carnations, work well in vertical situations since they tend to spill over and dangle, adding more visual interest than plants with rigid stems. Succulents can also make a stunning addition, since they remain compact and their shallow root structure doesn’t require much dirt to survive. If you’re looking to cover a trellis, both morning glory vines and climbing roses are great options.

Trimble says growing vegetables such as cucumbers and winter squash off the ground often increases the quality of the harvest — cucumbers can grow straighter when hanging and more effectively fight off pests and disease. Other veggies that she recommends include pole beans, snap peas and gourds such as loofah. Perennial fruits, such as grapes, blackberries, raspberries and melons, also do well in the format, she says.

Why try vertical gardening?

Aside from saving space, vertical gardening comes with other advantages, too. Giving your garden some height can add aesthetic appeal, no matter its size. You don’t have to bend or squat down to care for vertical gardens, which means less strain on your back and legs, says Ming-Ro. Maybe most importantly, they usually require less water than traditional gardens since overflow from higher-up plants trickles down as you water.

Jennifer McDonald, co-founder of Garden Girls, a garden design company in Houston, says growing her tomatoes vertically on a trellis has allowed her to double her harvest since she can squeeze in more plants. Plus, she says, it “provides excellent air circulation, which means less pest pressure and healthier fruit.”

Growing a vertical garden from containers or the ground

To create a successful vertical garden, Ming-Ro says you’ll want to keep two things in mind: location and plant placement. The ideal location will be a spot that allows your garden to get plenty of sunshine while keeping it sheltered from wind, since taller structures are more susceptible to damage from gusts.

Once you’ve settled on a spot, you can think about your plant structure. Ready-made containers, such as the Greenstalk five-tier vertical planter recommended by Ming-Ro, are widely available on Amazon and at big-box stores such as Lowes. Or you can build your own vertical container garden, starting with a large flower pot as the base. Build a tube out of chicken wire by wrapping it so that the ends meet (you can use zip ties or sturdy twine to secure it), fill the pot with dirt, and insert one end of the chicken wire into the pot. You’ll then add plants by pushing them gently into the dirt, through the openings in the chicken wire. “Larger or vining plants should be placed towards the bottom, with smaller plants towards the top so they do not shade the lower plants,” says Ming-Ro.

To grow a vertical garden out of the ground — no container required — insert a trellis into the dirt and surrounding it with vining plants. Introduce the tendrils of plants such as clematis or mandevilla to the structure by gently pressing them through the slits or holes of the trellis, which should encourage them to climb upward. Train varieties without tendrils, such as climbing ivy, by weaving their growth in and out of the structure.

The easiest and cheapest way to include vertical growing methods in your yard is to use what you already have. Most types of fences can support vining plants such as fig ivy, wisteria and bougainvillea, says McDonald. Plant them a few inches away to allow for proper airflow and introduce their growth to the fence, just as you would with a trellis.

For heavier, fruit-bearing varieties, Smith Trimble suggests adding a cattle panel with hook and eye screws to an existing fence to provide additional support. Plants such as squash will then “send tendrils out and around the metal grids to grab onto,” she explains.

Growing a vertical garden on a small patio or balcony

Ready-made towers, such as Ming-Ro’s Greenstalk recommendation, work well for tight spaces, though they can be pricey. For a more budget-friendly option, McDonald recommends using pots you already have. Connect them together with a basic garden arch, which you can find at most home improvement stores, she explains, and let vining plants climb up from each side. The result will remain compact, but should eventually fill out with lush greenery.

Or, go even smaller, says McDonald: “Consider something as simple as a hanging basket” filled with ferns. (Yes, hanging plants count as vertical gardening.) “The texture is stunning and complements a shady balcony or patio perfectly,” she says.

Growing a vertical garden without soil

It’s true — you don’t need dirt to garden vertically. Hydroponic and aeroponic options are also well suited to the format.

Hydroponic gardening involves using a liquid planting medium (like water or a premade hydroponic formula tailored to your individualized plants) instead of soil. These types of vertical gardens typically grow in a prefabricated tower or pod-style system, such as the ones made by Gardyn, which can be used indoors or out. Plants such as amaryllis, iris and daffodils are good choices for this type of garden because they can be grown in water alone and do not need soil to thrive.

Aeroponic setups involve planting seeds in foam that will hold the roots as they grow and allow them to absorb moisture during watering, which is often done with a nutrient-dense mist or liquid plant food. Ming-Ro recommends the Lettucegrow structure for aeroponic gardening, because it has “taken the guesswork” out of the process by supplying the materials you’ll need to get started.

For an aeroponic garden, you’ll want to go with plants that thrive with exposed roots, such as orchids, anthuriums and carnations. “They can be indoor or outdoor, and can be installed along walls, fences [and on] balconies,” Ming-Ro says.

Lauren Wellbank is a freelance writer near Lehigh Valley, Pa.