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How to Start Vertical Gardening

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Wooden ladder

Courtesy Stock.XCHNG

Use items around your house, such as an old wooden ladder, to help your plants grow vertically.

If you'd like something with a little more structure, there are other options close at hand:

  • Do you have a chain-link dog kennel in your yard? That’s a perfect structure for any vining plant grown vertically.

  • Old wooden ladders can provide the basis for a surprisingly productive garden when leaned against a fence or the side of your house. Vining vegetables or fruits planted underneath will climb the ladder as they grow. They may need to be lightly tied to the first rung when they become tall enough, but once the tendrils latch onto the rung, the plants will take off on their own.

  • Clay pots, strung together with rope and suspended from a sturdy support, make another simple and attractive way to grow plants vertically.

  • Even used children’s toys can serve as support structures for climbing plants. If you know children who have outgrown their Slinkys, put these toys to good use as a creative trellis for beans or peas: Simply suspend a Slinky from an overhang, such as an eave, a porch roof or a stairway railing; anchor the Slinky in place at the bottom by placing a stake in the ground and tying or wiring the stake to the Slinky.

  • Easy Garden Projects to Make, Build and Grow: 200 Do-it-yourself Ideas to Help You Grow Your Best Garden Ever (Yankee Publishing, 2006) describes an old wooden step ladder put into service as the framework for a small garden that could support tomatoes, cucumbers, herbs, salad greens, flowers and more. Flower pots for greens, herbs or flowers are positioned on the ladder’s steps and pail shelf, held in place by long screws through the bottom of each. The drainage holes in the pots are set over the screws; the pots are then filled with soil and seeds. Garden twine is wrapped horizontally between the ladder’s rails, providing support for tomatoes, cucumbers or even pole beans.

When planning your vertical structures, consider what you plan to grow and how tall those plants will become. To keep plants from growing out of your reach, consider an arbor, where plants can grow up one side and down the other.  

Vertical Gardening Super Stars 

I don’t think anyone has the last word on which plants are best for a vertical garden. There are tried-and-true plants that many vertical gardeners use, but you’re limited only by your imagination—and the location of your garden. 

D’Eramo says he likes to grow cucumbers on a trellis because they’re easy to find and pick. “If I were to rank vegetables that do well on a trellis, cucumbers would be at the top of my list, followed by tomatoes, beans and peas,” he says.

Cucumbers, which send out twisting tendrils, grow easily on upright structures. For years, I’ve grown mine on a simple portable fence of chicken wire attached to two poles. It doesn’t take long for the vines to cover the fence. 

Climbing beans and peas are naturals in the vertical garden and are so popular that pea-trellis netting is a stock item at most garden centers. There are many varieties of beans from which to choose, including pod-type beans and shell beans. Imagine growing and drying your own shell beans for a deep-winter batch of chili or soup! 

Because tomatoes aren’t naturally vining (i.e., no curling tendrils), they must be supported upright somehow. For my money, D’Eramo’s solution is ideal. Tomatoes can be easily guided through the 6- by 51⁄2-inch mesh openings in his garden trellis as they grow. The metal frame and plastic mesh are sturdy enough to hold their ground as the prolific plants make their way up the 7-foot-tall structure.

Many people use wooden stakes to support tomatoes, placing them in the ground next to the plant and tying them loosely to the stake as they grow. Others use tomato cages, which take up a little more room. My experience has been that the plants quickly outgrow the cages and stakes and eventually tip over at the top, creating a “tomato jungle” that can become a good habitat for garden pests and diseases. Laden with fruit, the plants often cause the cages to fall over, unless the cages are also staked. 

If you plant tomatoes and cucumbers, you’ve almost got a salad. What about greens? Lettuce and spinach can be grown in hanging baskets, in gutters mounted on a wall or in vertically set PVC pipes. Little-known Malabar spinach, a climbing perennial plant whose leaves are said to taste a bit like chard, is an ideal candidate for a vertical garden. (This is best grown in locales that have cold winters.) 

Even winter vegetables like squash and pumpkins work well in a vertical garden; though heavy fruits such as these may need extra support. Create a “sling” from old nylon stockings (or T-shirts) tied to the stake, and place them around the squash when they’re small. The sling will support them as they grow. Trellises for larger fruits, such as pumpkins or Hubbard squash, may also require extra support. If you really have a yen for pumpkin but no desire to engineer a sturdy frame, consider growing one of the small varieties, such as Jack-be-little or Baby Pam. 

Easy Vertical Garden Upkeep

Because the soil around vertically grown plants is exposed to more light and air than the soil under plants left to grow on the ground, it could dry out more readily and could be a handy target for weeds. This calls for plenty of mulch and more frequent checks to see if watering is needed.

A healthy topping of compost in the spring will provide plants with nutrients to help them grow their best throughout the season. At the end of the growing season, remove all dead stalks and leaves and cover the bed with more compost. 

Vertical Gardening Results

D’Eramo’s “garden room” isn’t confined to a particularly small area, but his use of vertical structures and raised beds maximizes the space available. His garden, consisting of 17 raised beds—seven of which are trellised—produces more than enough for a family of four. He’s never weighed his yield, so he can’t say how many pounds of produce he gets from his efforts annually, but says, “We grow enough to supply our family and leave us with storage problems.” And, he says, he shares his garden’s overabundance with friends.  

The sky is the limit for urban farmers who need to maximize growing space by growing vertical, rather than out.  

About the Author: Lynda King is a freelance writer and organic gardener from central Massachusetts and is the president and co-founder of a sustainability group in her community. Her articles on sustainability, food, organic gardening and family research have appeared in Hobby Farm Home, Urban Farm, Family Chronicle and GenWeekly magazines.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2010 issue of Urban Farm magazine.

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Give us your opinion on How to Start Vertical Gardening.
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Every year I try to add more vertical planting. I use trellises in my raised beds for cucumbers and small melons. I have two teepee trellises in my front yard with pots underneath for pole beans. My pumpkins and winter squash climb the chain link fence around my back yard, and it looks beautiful as well as being functional. My next challenge is figuring out a better trellis system for my tomatoes. I wishbthis article had photos of the 7-foot system discussed.
Rosemarie, Charleston, SC
Posted: 2/25/2015 5:21:41 AM
Good information
Annie, Houston, TX
Posted: 10/7/2012 7:39:20 AM
Great article. I picked up several good ideas from this. The great how-to information helps. Keep it coming.
Bruce, Las Vegas, NV
Posted: 9/29/2010 3:26:56 PM
I like the idea of the vertically set PVC pipe for letteuce but I am new at this and I don't understand how you would keep the soil in the pipe from being compacted by it's own weight or how you keep the soil from spilling out of the holes from the time when the seeds are first planted until the lettuce fills up the hole. Any ideas would be appreciated.
Carol, Taylor, MI
Posted: 9/18/2010 4:47:31 PM

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