If apartment life has you down or you’re simply looking to maximize space, building a vertical garden, often called a living wall, can be a great way to enjoy fresh fruits and vegetables and work your green thumb at the same time.
Aesthetically pleasing as well as functional, building and caring for this type of garden is just as easy as the traditional bed gardens that many people have once you have everything set up.
Scope out Your Spot
Start by picking your site. This is perhaps the most important part of building a living wall, as different types of plants require different amounts of sunlight; in general, vegetable plants need about six to eight hours of direct sunlight every day.
Rather than taking a wild guess based on memory, take one day to watch your outdoor space to note how long each area is drenched in sunlight. Once you have a few spots to choose from, pick a location that has plenty of air circulation, as plants need fresh air. Ensure that the wall you choose is not near any air conditioning or central air units, or any dryer vents: the exhaust and air from these units can dry out plants, making it difficult for them to thrive.
Building a Vertical Garden, Method One: the Vertical Wall Garden
Get Everything Ready
Using a stud finder, mark the studs on the wall in the area where you want to build your garden, and measure the length of the wall. Purchase rain gutters, pre-made planters or other open-top fixtures that are eight inches to one foot deep and cut them to fit the wall. You may need a saw for this step: if you do not have one or would prefer to limit the amount of labor you have to put into your vertical garden, most home improvement stores will cut the units for you if necessary.
If necessary, drill holes into the bottom of the gutters or planters about every six inches; this will aid in drainage, preventing your vegetable plants from developing root rot.
Mount the Units
Using a level, draw a straight line across the length of the wall two to three feet from the ground, making sure that the line has marks indicating the studs. Repeat this process every three feet up, working vertically until you mark off installation points for each planter or gutter.
Starting from the bottom, screw or nail each planter or gutter to the wall based on the line, making sure that you secure it to studs at least two points. This will help to ensure that it doesn’t fall or warp later; once filled with soil, growing plants and water, the planter has to be able to hold up a fair amount of weight. Work your way up until the entire wall is full, leaving about three feet between each row.
Now, fill each gutter or planter with high quality garden soil and transplant any seedlings or sow any seeds (see below for ideas of what to plant). Water your plants as needed and enjoy your homegrown fruits and vegetables!
Building a Vertical Garden Wall – The Hydroponic Way
When you hear the words “vertical garden wall”, you can no longer be sure whether someone means a wall, in a garden, that is upright (what other sort is there?), or a “living wall” a la Patrick Blanc.
What you may not realise when you see Blanc’s vertical gardens are hydroponic. You need to be careful, when planning your living wall, that you aren’t going to pull the whole thing down around your ears, by making it too heavy. That’s where hydroponic systems come in.
Unfortunately, hydroponic gardens are a bit more expensive to put together than the average vertical garden, and they do require some know-how. There are several patented systems you can invest in however, including “Grow Wall” and “Zipgrow towers”, both of which are modular systems. Or the Arista Cage, which is made up of single columns arranged in a circle (not so much a wall). You can also build your own using PVC pipes, but you need to you what you’re doing.
Here’s a video on how to build a hydroponic strawberry tower:
How to Make a Vertical Garden Method Three: The Easy Way
If finding studs and mounting permanant units doesn’t appeal to you – or simply isn’t possible in your living situation, you can still build a vertical garden. Whether it’s on a balcony, at the back of a courtyard, or even inside, there are so many options.
You can choose a ready made vertical planter, like the one pictured above, or you can use a free standing trellis and growing climbing plants. You could also use an arched trellis, perhaps over a garden path. You can even use the timed method, first growing a strong upright plant such as corn, (either in the ground or in a solid planter box), and then allow a companion climber, such as cucumbers, to scale the left over stalks.
One important aspect with any method of building a vertical garden, is to choose the right plants, and put them together in the right way.
Choosing Plants for Your Vertical Garden
Plant choices for vertical gardening are almost endless, as long as you select the proper cultivars. Seed and plant sources have worked hard to develop varieties of many popular vegetables, fruits and flowers that thrive when grown vertically. Daily enjoyment of your vertical garden and the eventual harvest of the fruits, flowers and vegetables of your labor is a certainty if you choose the plants and their growing environments carefully.
Planting From The Back Forward
Begin by choosing plants that can be a lush and productive backdrop to the total garden. Runner and pole beans produce living walls of large, evenly spaced leaves on strong vines, augmented by beautiful flowers in hues of pure white, delicate yellow, spectacular coral-red and regal purple. The flowers are followed by verdant green, golden, purple or even beautifully variegated pods. Keep up with the picking, and the vines will produce the colorful flowers and beans for many weeks. Legumes like beans actually enhance your soil by fixing nitrogen found in the air in the soil.
Beans and squash have long been planted together, so consider adding some cucumbers and summer squash to the mix. They are also available as vining plants; avoid the varieties that have “bush” or “compact” in their names. To keep things manageable, grow a vining pickling cucumber or other smaller variety — leave the “straight-eights” for a different garden. You can even grow some acorn or butternut squash if your back support is strong. The leaves are exotically large, the flowers both extravagant and edible, and you will be proud to offer your home-grown squash at your Thanksgiving feast.
Next In Line
In front of these vining wonders, think about planting some unusual heirloom tomatoes. Tomatoes come in two major types,
determinate and indeterminate. The indeterminate are vining, and can produce some state-fair size fruits if they are pruned to a single vine per plant. You can do this by pinching out the “suckers” growing out of the v-shape crotches that develop off the main vine. Look for heirloom tomato sources online to start from seed indoors in late winter or at many farmers markets as small seedlings in the spring. There are some really delicious heirloom cherry tomatoes, including some of the rich and savory black, purple and Russian varieties which may be your best bet.
Plant either in deep containers with strong supports, or look into one of the upside-down or hanging planter options. Growing tomatoes vertically may result in one of your best harvests ever, as the disease and insect damage prevalent when tomatoes are grown normally are limited when the plants are off the ground. Hanging containers in this mid-part of the garden are also a good choice to cultivate herbs, many of which have varieties with trailing habits.
Front Row Seats
In the front and to the sides of your main vertical plantings you may want to include some things that may not seem exactly vertical, but will add some fun to the mix. Pick up some potato grow bags, and home-grow some red boilers or gourmet fingerling potatoes. You will not believe how beautiful the flowers of the potato are. Invest in some deeper tubs and grow a relish tray of radishes and carrots in front of the tomatoes. Many varieties are small, and some carrots available are even round.
Dressing On The Side
If you have a railing or a sturdy table, sow some lettuce mix or mesclun seeds to add to the salad. Cut the leaves young, and you will have a delicious and inexpensive spring mix salad at a fraction of the cost. The best part is the lettuce will come back for a second salad bowl after the cutting.
Look for heirloom tomato sources online to start from seed indoors in late winter or at many farmers markets as small seedlings in the spring.