How to Start a Vertical Garden

Toronto Life

If you've always dreamt of growing your own veggies for breakfast but gave up trying on your tiny lot, starting a vertical garden might be the right solution for you. Follow our simple tips to create a beautiful lush garden that grows upward rather than outward!

Vertical Garden By snoeziesterre
Vertical Garden By snoeziesterre

Choose a location

Choosing the right plot or wall is vital to the success of your efforts in starting a vertical garden. Jason Rokosh from Vertical Landscape Architects comments:

"Ideally, living walls should be located in bright areas with lots of natural light. Otherwise, supplemental light will be required for optimal plant health. A general rule is that the place shouldn't face north — however, even choosing a shadier spot can still be okay if you choose plants that don't mind less sun exposure.

It's also important to realize that since vertically growing plants are generally more exposed than those that stick in the ground, they tend to dry out a bit faster and need more watering. Another point is not to forget that vertical gardens do great as green separations in the garden and have ability to hide an unwanted view and turn it into an eye-pleasing decorative space.

Choose your material

There are plenty of ways how to construct your garden. You can use trellises, fences, branches, cages, old gutters, your apartment staircase and balcony, string and net structures, and much more. If you're worried about making a garden by yourself, nothing is easier than popping over to the nearest gardening store and buying one of the pre-fabricated support structures, ranging from stackable containers and irrigation systems to an assortment trellises, teepees, and different kinds of netting. Check out a few of the options you can go for.

Shelves

One of the easiest ways to go about building your garden is using traditional shelves. You can either mount them at various levels on a wall or set a shelf anywhere in the garden to create a great basic structure for your vertical project. Add pots and hanging baskets of various sizes and colours to create a feeling of depth and texture and wait until the plants overgrow the shelves, so that they can be hardly seen. This option is very good if you don't feel like building elaborate structures with in-built irrigation systems — all you need for maintenance is a ladder and a watering can.

Hanging pots and baskets

Your local garden centre surely offers a huge variety of hanging pots and baskets to choose from (more self-confident creators may construct them on their own). If you place several of them at various levels, you'll create a great multi-depth feel with the over-hanging plants. The great thing about this approach is its versatility — you can hang pots basically anywhere.

Wallflower Vertical Garden By Haldane Martin
Wallflower Vertical Garden By Haldane Martin

One approach is to construct a garden trellis or a triangle. Use three pieces of garden trellis and hold them hold together using a heavy wire or lean one trellis against a wall. While the traditional method would be simply using these structures as a support for intertwining vines, a couple of hanging baskets will add character and make the vertical garden space look richer. Similarly, arbors, balconies, pallets, and even a gutter can be a great place to hang the pots filled with blooming flowers. When it comes to using hanging pots and baskets, it's also important use more shade, especially when you try to create several levels of containers hanging above each other.  

Pallets

Pallets look great — especially when you aim for a rustic feel in your backyard. You can use any old pallet that you find lying around the neighbourhood or buy a new one (typically at a local home improvement store). The construction is simple. Attach extra wooden slats to the back of the pallet to cover the empty spaces on one side. Use a weed mat to cover the bottom, sides, and back of the pallet, using staples to make sure it's taut. At all times, the top and front will be left uncovered, so that you can put the plants in. Now the basic structure is ready — all you need to do is fill the pallet with potting soil through the empty slats. When creating this kind of vertical garden wall, it's important to fit the plants tightly to the available space so that the soil doesn't fall out. It's also good to leave the palettes to rest in a horizontal position for at least a week, so that the roots have time to get used to the soil and establish themselves.

Pockets

Another option is using gardening pockets, especially designed to be attached to vertical walls within minutes thanks to metal grommets. They're composed of a recycled material, look great, and last for about 20 years. Standard pockets can be filled with about 20 pounds of soil and usually work well for both annuals and perennials and small veggie and fruit plants.

Vertical Garden With Pockets By Ruben Bodewig
Vertical Garden With Pockets By Ruben Bodewig

Go professional

If all of these tactics seem too basic for you and you wish to create a true vertical garden work of art on your wall, check out our last tip — but be careful if this is your first time and you're using an actual wall of your home (not an old barn), as it may be a good idea to contact professionals to avoid troubles with dampening.

Start by attaching a plastic layer to the wall, so that the water and moisture don't harm it — use PVC sheets or simply a thick black plastic sheet available in gardening and home improvement stores. Afterwards, attach two layers of special gardening fabric to the wall. Ask for the material in your local store, but theoretically, you can use any carpet padding that's able to contain moisture and not rot. It's important to secure the fabric tightly, as this is where the plants will be planted, so it needs to be able to hold the weight without wrinkling.

Now it's time to think about the irrigation system. There are several approaches you can take (besides watering the plants by yourself, balancing on a ladder every day). One of the ways is to place a horizontal tube that sends drops of water down from the top of your vertical garden. The more technical name of this system is poly tubing with fittings that lock — that's what you want to ask for at your local irrigation supplier.

Another option is to buy valve and irrigation drippers along with a timer that will make sure your plants get regular water supply. It can be a bit tricky to find the right balance between overwatering the plants and walls and letting them dry out, but you'll find your stride after a few days of trial and error. When talking about this kind of irrigation, it's also a good idea to install a fertilizer injector to one or several irrigation valves, so that the plants receive all the nutrition they need.

Vertical Garden With Herbs And Strawberry By Laura
Vertical Garden With Herbs And Strawberry By Laura

The last step is to insert the plants you've chosen into the structure. Use a blade to make a horizontal cut in the sheet and insert the plant into the hole. Try to clear off soil from the plants' roots — this reduces possible rotting. Now use a staple gun to attach the fabric to the plastic sheet in the back and create a small semi-circle around the plant that will act as a tiny bed for its roots.

How much would it cost to hire professionals?

As with everything in the world, the price depends on the size of your garden, the material, and the level of sophistication you wish to achieve. According to Chris Ogilvie from a Touch of Green, the general rule is that

"fabric pockets tend to be the most popular as they are not as expensive as a modular system."

However, to be a bit more specific, for example, a garden by Vertical Landscape Architects that includes system components, growing media, planting design, plants, planting, and installation would cost you about $200 per square foot.

Choose your plants

There are quite a few things to consider when selecting your plants. As with "horizontal" gardening, you need to plan for sun exposure, size, maintenance, humidity, cold, and many other factors. You also need to consider whether you wish to have a vegetable or flower garden and how long these plants will live, as well as their approximate adult size, so that you're able to predict what kind of structure you'll need to install.

For example, annuals don't get as large as perennials and mostly require less upkeep, but obviously, they only last a short time. On the other hand, perennials grow slower and eventually get bigger, and you have to account for that in advance. If you're a laid-back gardener and don't like to toil with the upkeep too much, it may be wise to go for evergreens — remember that vertical gardens are usually set at eye level, and looks are therefore quite important.

Another point to consider is that vegetables may need to be tied to the supports to prevent the plants from breaking as they grow (and there's no option of leaning the fruit on the ground, as usual). When buying seeds, avoid one of the common mistakes and make sure to ask for vining — not bush — varieties of the plant.

 
Living Room w VLA logo
Living Room w VLA logo

Considering all of these tips, here's a quick list of species that might do well on your wall:

Fruits and Vegetables: tomatoes, pumpkins, zucchini, squash, gourds, peas, pole beans, cucumbers, melons, and blueberries.

Flowers: hostas, iberis, grape, clematis, moonflowers, virginia creeper, ivies, wisteria, ferns, phlox, weigela, morning glory, cardinal climber, and hyacinth.

Potential problems

When asked abut potential problems that people face when starting a vertical garden, Chris Ogilvie answered that maintenance is one of the biggest challenges.

"Maintenance is key for a healthy green wall, especially at the beginning when plants are in the developing period," he said.

It's important to realize that vertical garden is a living system that needs our constant care. Another common issue comes with the watering system, as

"over watering which could change the PH levels in the soil medium and could cause foul odours."

Jason Rokosh added that choosing a water system is not only vital for the plants — but also, if you don't have enough time or sufficient skills to do the watering manually, it might be a good idea to get an automated irrigation system that will suit your lifestyle (and your plants' lifestyle too!)

Plus, be prepared for a bit of soil and plant debris falling on the area under the vertical garden from time to time. This is especially important to consider when contemplating an indoor garden. 

Professional tips 

If you're hunting for inspiration, take a look at some of the vertical gardening works by Patrick Blanc, a botanist and a designer considered the inventor of vertical gardens. Many devout vertical gardeners cite his installations as the reason they started creating their own works.

As for some nice examples of vertical gardening in Toronto, Chris Ogilvie and Jason Rokosh revealed their personal favourites. Chris' vote went to a small green wall at the Gladstone Hotel at 1214 Queen Street West, because he believes that it showcases "how a green wall can be used in a decorative indoor application." Jason picked the living wall in the Chorus Quay building and the one at Century Tile. Why not check them out and show them up with a vertical garden in your own backyard!

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6 thoughts on “How to Start a Vertical Garden

April 1, 2014 at 7:53 am
Heather says:

what a cool idea! Do you have any experience when it comes to cats and this idea?

Reply
April 1, 2014 at 8:44 am
Jamie Sarner says:

Hi Heather,
Actually, people build their vertical gardens to keep the cats out of the veggies. See example here: link to instructables.com

Reply
April 1, 2014 at 11:45 am
Heather says:

i have a pretty smart cat, shes a Manx, so i don’t know but i’ll check it out i definitely want to try that though

Reply
April 2, 2014 at 9:58 pm
Jason Rokosh says:

$200 per sq ft is on the high side of supply and installation of a living wall using a modular system. The range is typically between $150 and $200.
I think it should be noted that hydroponic (felt based systems) aren’t well suited for exterior applications in our cold winter climate especially if clients use perennials and want them to survive winter and regrow in the spring. They are less expensive initially but plant replacement cost are considerable due to over winter mortality and these systems rely on constant irrigation so plants don’t dry out and die. For more info on our soil based systems contact
info@vertla.com or call 416-518-8446.

Reply
April 11, 2014 at 2:20 am
Kim Smith says:

The first photo is beautiful. Must be in a country or area with not too cold winter.

Reply
April 11, 2014 at 3:38 am
Jamie Sarner says:

That’s right. This building is located in Paris. The temperature during winter is usually a bit above 0°C there.

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