Grow up: Into the world of vertical gardening

Written by francine kaplan
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Expand your garden's horizons with vertical gardening

Grow up: Into the world of vertical gardening
Going vertical has plenty of environmental benefits. It also looks very cool. (Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images)

It’s quite easy for the home gardener to tap into living walls in a modest way.

— Susan Morrison, residential landscape designer and author

Gardeners are climbing the walls ... literally. And it’s not extreme weather, poor soil or tender leaves nibbled to lace by pesky insects that’s pushing them to new heights. Instead, it's a strong concern for the environment. Called bio walls, green walls or vertical gardens, this expanding horizon of the horticultural world takes your garden and plants it up on the wall. The benefit: Vertical gardens help the environment by reducing urban heat, delaying storm water runoff and improving indoor air quality.

The basics

Grow up: Into the world of vertical gardening
Patrick Blanc, the "father of living walls." (Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images)

When it comes to the “wow!” factor, no one does vertical gardening like French botanist Patrick Blanc, known as the "father of living walls." His gardens run up entire faces of multistory buildings and large walls inside corporate lobbies. Blanc’s stunning vertical gardens are nourished by elaborate soilless hydroponic systems that keep greenery thriving.

These impressive projects are giving creative home gardeners food for thought. In the past, vertical spaces have gone bare on patios, decks, balconies, fences and yards, but that is changing. There’s a whole movement blossoming to maximise those overlooked upright spaces and add new dimensions to your gardening palette. Vertical gardens for the home expand your planting space, turn walls or fences into focal points, and show off your garden mastery.

You don't need to possess Blanc's experience or artistic eye to create a vertical garden. It's something beginners can do. “It’s quite easy for the home gardener to tap into living walls in a modest way,” said Susan Morrison, a Northern California residential landscape designer, Master Gardener and co-author of “Garden Up! Smart Vertical Gardening for Small and Large Spaces." Morrison notes that she loves stepping outside and snipping herbs for the kitchen from the wall right next to her back door.

But Colleen Dudley, a senior horticulturist at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens, suggests that you ease into your first vertical garden. “It can be really cool looking and novel,” she said, “but you might want to start small, because when it comes to watering and plant maintenance, vertical gardening can be labor intensive.”

Container systems

Unlike the costly soilless method used in major projects, beginners first need to choose a container system to hold potting soil and plants. According to Morrison, the four to consider include tray systems, pocket systems, kits and create-your-own solutions.

Trays have many gridlike plastic planting sections held together in a frame. You put the unit flat on a table to pack each cell with soil and a plant or two and then mount it on the wall. The cells are slanted so the soil does not fall out. These come in modular sections that can be snapped together to expand your living wall.

The pocket or pouch system works well for both indoor and outdoor plantings. These feltlike pockets wick moisture to your plants while having a plastic barrier to keep walls dry. They come in a large variety of sizes and configurations.

Kits can provide just the raw materials for a framework that you construct yourself or a box with a planting diagram to show you exactly what to do. If you prefer instant gratification, purchase a completed “living picture” shipped with the greenery in place and ready to hang.

Not a kit type? Some inventive do-it-yourselfers eschew boxed solutions, instead turning anything from a discarded hanging pocket shoe organiser, old gutters or a dented teakettle into a vessel fit for wall-mounted plants. Your imagination is the only limit here.

Tips for success

For the highest rates of success with your vertical garden, monitor moisture levels carefully. Because the plants are growing in a minimal amount of soil, they tend to dry out more frequently than those in the ground. Many gardeners install automatic drip watering systems for their walls or choose to display them in protected areas that do not get full sun all day.

Another consideration is plant matching. “You have to make sure they will all do well with the same amount of water,” said Dudley. For example, although both herbs and succulents work equally well on living walls, herbs need a lot of water and succulents need little, and that makes them less compatible.

Growth patterns are also of concern. If you use trailing species, place them near the bottom so as not to shade out and kill what is trying to grow beneath them. Plants that hug the ground or are naturally dwarfed will stay close to the wall and take well to snipping and shearing. For a more attractive look, avoid plants that get leggy or have lots of woody stems showing. Add more interest to your design by taking into account the colors, textures and aromas of your choices. Wanting to reach out and touch or smell your vertical garden elevates the effectiveness of your wall and moves any garden in new directions.

“Whether you live in a flat, townhouse or single-family home with lots of yard,” said Morrison, “we all have vertical spaces just waiting for us to exploit their potential.”

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