Vertical gardening—an excellent way to take advantage of limited garden space—is often more identified with urban locales where residents have no choice but to grow up, not out. However, small-scale commercial farmers can also benefit from learning how to use garden space more adequately: Saving space is never a bad thing.
While residential vertical gardening has been around for decades, it’s just been in the past few years that hobby farmers began investigating vertical farming on a commercial scale. Going vertical is easier than you might think: It produces more product in less space, and it also has a slew of other advantages, which we’ll take a look at.
You can grow a variety of fruits and vegetables up a trellis, arch or garden netting or in a tower of pots. This innovative, highly productive way of growing uses bottom-up or top-down supports that allow you to grow in small and large spaces.
Unlike horizontal gardens that you typically grow in long, straight rows or large raised beds, gardeners use narrow strips of soil with plant supports either freestanding or attached to walls. Even when you have plenty of space for gardening, you may find that breaking free from traditional, horizontal rows and embracing a vertical setup provides numerous benefits.
Because you only need enough soil for the root system of the plant, you have smaller beds to prepare and maintain with fewer amendments needed.
Because plants are more densely concentrated in a smaller area, you decrease runoff and eliminate the need to water the unused soil in wide rows, such as the spaces between plantings.
Vertical gardens get the fruit up off the ground and within easy reach come harvest time. Instead of sprawling vines that allow fruit to rot as it lies on wet mulch or bare soil, fruit are safely suspended, which also improves air circulation and makes them less susceptible to pests and diseases.
With vines raised up and out of the way, you have free access to roots for easier watering, weeding and fertilizing, and because you’re working within a smaller space, you’ll battle less weeds and use less mulch or weed barriers, fertilizers and compost.
Besides opening up more area by going vertical, you can also take advantage of the open space below plants with foundation plants that won’t grow vertically but make great companion plants.
Save Time & Effort
Because fruit is now at eye level, harvesting is quicker and requires less backbreaking bending over and crouching.
Because the more you pick, the more vining vegetables put on, they’re capable of continuous yields, which is unlike bush varieties that often exhaust themselves and peter out after just a few weeks.
You’ll have a wide array of choices for site selection, so pick one most suitable for what you’re growing and the type of support or vertical structures you want to use. Because most commercial farmers grow in open fields, focus on freestanding garden structures, which require 12 inches on each side of the unit for planting. For each unit, you’ll need a 2-foot strip of soil that’s about 6 to 12 inches deep.
Soil requirements are basically the same for any vertical garden, and like any gardening endeavor, good soil is the foundation of your success. Your site should also have good drainage and provide at least six hours of direct sunlight, especially for sun-loving plants, such as tomatoes and pole beans. Additionally, it wouldn’t hurt to test your soil and take note of any areas that require frost or wind protection when selecting sites.
To test the drainage of a particular site, dig a hole about 6 inches wide and 1 foot deep, then pour in a bucket of water. Soil with good drainage should drain at a rate of 1 to 6 inches per hour. Anything less than 1 inch per hour is considered poor, but anything over 6 inches per hour is excessive and only drought-tolerant plants will thrive here. You can improve poor drainage by using raised beds, improving the soil texture or installing underground drainage pipes to direct excess water away from the growing area. Alternately—and more easily—you could just choose another site.
Avoid sites shaded by trees, barns or other structures. Most vegetable crops need a minimum of six hours of light per day and warm-season crops, such as tomatoes and peppers, require midday sunlight to flourish. If you’re combining vertical and horizontal gardening systems, put your vertical structures on the north side of the garden, so your ground-level growing space won’t be shaded.
Vertical gardening relies on a variety of structures that provide support for growing plants. Some plants need minimal support while others need heavy duty structures; the amount of support matches the weight of what you’re growing. For example, cucumbers, peas and pole beans only require lightweight support, while pumpkins, gourds, squash and melons need something stronger. Though you can buy premade structures at most garden centers, you can easily make some using materials you may already have lying around.
A common choice, trellises can be made of wood, metal, plastic or various fabrics, including cotton and nylon. You can purchase inexpensive, readymade sections of trellis at most lumberyards, home-improvement stores or gardening centers, or build your own with a set of simple directions.
If you choose wooden trellises, keep the bottoms above soil level to prevent rotting and store them inside during winter for longer life. For an easy DIY project, create a trellis out of builder’s wire, which is a heavy-gauge mesh that allows a 6-by-6-inch reach-through framework that plants can climb or twine through.
Tripods & Teepees
These are usually built from three long, narrow pieces of wood or bamboo tied together at the top end and spread into a triangle at the bottom. These freestanding structures are very DIY-friendly, and you can even grow your own bamboo for tremendous cost savings. Bamboo canes grow long and straight and are also ideal for building trellises and scaffold-like towers to support tall, bushy plants or used as supports for container plants.
This material comes in different widths and lengths you can cut to suit your needs, and most types are made of durable, reusable plastic. (Another common use is to keep birds and deer out of your garden.) Choose netting with a 4-by-6-inch grid for vertical growing, which will provide ample support for fruits and vegetables and still allow you to reach through for harvesting.
Drape or hang your netting from a crossbar of wood, metal or plastic that’s strong enough to not break when weighted down with plants burgeoning with fruit. Attach these crossbars to upright garden supports or posts and hold the netting taut to the ground with metal or plastic pegs, so it doesn’t collapse on itself. In some areas, ingenious farmers discovered that reusing old fishing nets also works well in the same capacity and often find these for free.
You can find elaborate prefab planters in stores, including cascade planters, or simple DIY projects online, such as a 55-gallon drum with alternating holes punched out on the sides.
Other popular options for vertical structures include maypoles for lightweight produce, obelisks or pyramid-like frames that offer sturdy support, and arches that provide ideal support for quick-growing annuals or ornamental gourds. You can even build a very elementary structure by running wire strands between T-posts for heavy vines, such as grapes and berries. Suitable structures run the gambit from practical to offbeat, so let your imagination run wild.
Crop and Variety Choices
There are literally hundreds of varieties of fruits, vegetables and flowers that work perfectly for climbing, cascading or growing vertically in freestanding structures or tiered containers. Of course, the vegetables most suitable for vertical gardening are vining types. However, they don’t necessarily have to be self-climbing, and even plants that naturally climb often need assistance through training to encourage upward mobility. Surprisingly, there are climbing varieties for most of the major vegetable families, including zucchini and spinach.
Beans & Peas
Some of the best plants adapted for vertical gardening are pole beans, such as lima or snap beans. Peas, including shell peas and edible-pod snow peas and sugar snap peas, work as well as beans, but the vines are much lighter and don’t require near as much support.
Another lightweight choice is climbing spinach, aka Malabar spinach, which is a great substitute for regular spinach and tolerates heat better.
Some fruits that flourish in various vertical structures include strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, dessert and wine grapes, figs and kiwifruit.
Several heavier plant varieties grow healthier in vertical systems but often require slings to hold their weight on the vine. Tigger melons and smaller varieties of cantaloupes that weigh less than 2 pounds at harvest are fine without support, but larger varieties need slings. The same is true with pumpkins: Miniatures and varieties less than 6 pounds are fine on the vine and heavier varieties needing sling support. Most watermelons, however, are too big and heavy for vertical gardening, but with slings, you can grow icebox and personal-size varieties on sturdy trellises or netting.
Squash & Cucumbers
Cucumbers naturally climb, and there’s an array of pickling and slicing varieties that adapt well. Summer squashes, such as green zucchini, yellow crookneck and spaghetti squash, may or may not require slings, depending on their weight. You can tie the ends of each sling directly to your trellis or netting, but some plants will also need the stems tied up, right above each fruit. Cheesecloth, pantyhose, fabric scraps or netting are all excellent sling material.
Last, but certainly not least, are all the wonderful types of tomatoes you can train to grow up trellises or garden netting. To determine whether a variety is a good candidate, check whether it’s determinate or indeterminate. Determinate tomatoes are short, bushy plants whose fruit ripen all at once, then the plant dies. These plants tend to have a short lifespan and aren’t suitable for going vertical. Many indeterminate tomatoes, on the other hand, have exceedingly long vines perfect for vertical gardening, but their stalks need assistance to stand erect. This requires a strong pole to attach to the stalk or main stem, and tying up longer stems or branches with string, twist ties or zip ties to keep them from falling over when they become heavy with burgeoning fruit.
You can also place tomato plants inside wire mesh, so the branches poke through and make plants self-supporting. Pick ripe fruit often to encourage continuous flower formation and a much longer growing season. From cherry to beefsteak, you’ll find numerous strains for your endeavors.
Remember: Growing vertically is one of the best ways to maximize your garden space, and there are numerous solutions for converting your horizontal rows, so use your imagination. Experiment with various techniques until you find one best suited for your needs or implement multiple techniques to optimize your garden’s growth. You might even discover that certain crops fare better in one type of vertical situation over another one.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2017 issue of Hobby Farms.