Often when people start talking about integrating a garden or other food crops into the landscape, the design ideas still tend to focus on two dimensional diagrams. How many fruit or veggie plants can I fit per square foot? While there's nothing wrong with this per se, it means you're missing out on some great opportunities to optimize growing space you might not even realize that you have.
If you haven't tried vertical gardening, hopefully this post will win you over. Yes, growing up instead of out takes a little more work initially, but the end result is well worth it. I use trellises throughout my garden to make plants easier to care for, reduce disease and predation, and produce a larger crop in less space. In the flower garden, vertical elements add visual interest and focal points – and can be just plain gorgeous.
10 Reasons to Garden Up Instead of Out in the Home Landscape
1. One of the biggest advantages of vertical gardening is getting a lot more productivity in a lot less space.
In my annual garden, tomatoes, cucumbers, beans and peas all get the trellis treatment.
The tomatoes get a “combo” trellis system. Each tomato plant gets three (or more) four foot wooden stakes to start them on their journey upward. Again, they are tied on with strips of old sweatpants. After they've started to stretch beyond the stakes, I drop tethers down from a wooden crosspiece braced by seven foot metal fence posts. In a good year heirloom tomato plants will easily reach six feet tall, even in our relatively short growing season.
I prefer this method over boxes or cages, because it gives me better access to the fruit and accommodates the often rampant growth of the heirloom tomatoes. The posts are driven in fairly deep (one foot on the tall posts, at least half a foot on the short posts) and can withstand our high winds. You can read the post “5+ Terrific Tomato Trellis Ideas” for a variety of vertical tomato growing options.
The long slicing cucumbers (Suhyo Long, our favorite Japanese slicer and Telegraph Improved European, a new cold-tolerant variety I'm trying this year) live up against wooden lattice. I train them up the lattice and tie them up with strips of old sweatpants. Eventually their tendrils help them cling on their own. I let the pickling varieties roam free on the ground, but trellising helps the long fruit of the slicers grow straighter and gives them a more compact footprint. With a sturdy post driver in hand, you can drive a post in with just a few quick slams.
Most shell peas (except the Tall Telephone/Alderman variety) get a three foot tall fence with supports every two to three feet. Much wider spacing on the supports and the first good wind storm with the fencing laden with plants and wham! Over it goes.
Pole beans and tall peas (Sugarsnap and Alderman) get trellis netting supported every five feet by six foot tall metal fence posts. A wooden cross piece on top reduces sagging as the season goes on. I can skip this step with the peas, but the pole beans really need the cross support. The trellis netting is tied to the cross support. See “How to Grow Lots of Pole Beans for Easy Picking and Preserving” for more detailed information on our bean trellis setup.
In addition to annual crops, adding food producing trees, shrubs and brambles into the landscape brings in tiers of productivity with minimal long term effort. Once mature, trees, shrubs and brambles may produce food for you every year. Why have just a regular hedge when you can have a hedge that grows food? Vertical gardening elements are also a key part of a permaculture landscape design. You can read the post, “Introduction to Permaculture” to learn more about a great system for food production with minimal outside inputs.
2. Vertical gardening creates better air flow, which generally mean less disease, especially fungal problems.
We live in a fairly humid area (about 15 miles from Lake Michigan), so it's inevitable that as the season goes on, there will be some fungal issues in the garden, like powdery mildew. Trellising opens up the plants to better air flow so they dry more quickly, minimizing the impact of fungal diseases. If you have a problem with soil borne plant problems, getting the plant foliage up and away from the soil and putting down a layer of mulch can help with those, too.
3. Elevated fruit/veggies generally means less predation – the mice and other ground dwelling garden pests have to work a lot harder to access your crop.
My mom didn't bother with trellising her tomatoes most of the time, and we always used to find tomatoes during harvest that had been munched on by something other than us. Mice and slugs were the worst culprits. Training your crops up provides an added layer of protection from ground dwelling pests. It doesn't completely eliminate the problem, but it does help. Growing strong smelling herbs and/or mulching tender seedlings with strong smelling herbs will also help keep pests like rabbits confused and can buy your baby plants time to grow. Just be careful with catnip – it'll keep the rabbits away, but may attract cats who will roll on your seedlings while rolling on the catnip. (Ask me how I know…)
4. Growing up instead of out can help you compensate for poor soil quality, thin topsoil or rocky ground by building soil up instead of trying to dig down.
Raised beds and container gardens are classic examples of vertical gardening. Another variation on this is the lasagna garden bed, where layers of materials are build up to compost in place to create the planting area. The options are endless for planting containers and raised beds – from straw bale gardening, to custom built wooden construction such as strawberry pyramids, to upcycled discards like planting in a pair of old boots. The only limit is your imagination. (If you need more container gardening and trellis ideas, my Common Sense Gardening board on Pinterest is a great place to start.)
I thought this time lapse video of a lasagna garden bed in the making was a pretty cool example of creating something out of nothing with an afternoon of effort and a mix of mostly recycled materials.
5. Vertical gardening plus mulch equals great weed control. Once you train your crops up, you can lay down a nice layer of mulch, and weeding is virtually eliminated.
Sure, I'm a little weird in that I let some of my garden weeds grow because I use them for food and medicine (you can read more about that in the Weekly Weeder series), but I don't let them grow completely out of control. By mixing mulched areas, landscape fabric and unmulched areas, I can have my weeds without them taking over the garden.
6. Gardening up makes harvesting easier and can make the garden more accessible to those with limited mobility.
I've spent enough time over the years bending to weed and harvest. A little less is a good thing. My trellised tomatoes, beans and cucumbers are clean and mud free right off the vine, a far cry from the mud and dust covered produce I remember gathering as a child. This makes it easier to spot any damaged produce and use it up before it spoils, because bumps and bruises aren't hidden under grime.
For those who can't bend due to health reasons, raised beds can make gardening possible again. The act of gardening has also been shown to help promote healing, as discussed in the post, “8 Health Benefits of Gardening“.
7. Vertical garden elements can be used to create a microclimate.
In our area, planting taller crops and placing trellises to the north and west not only prevents them from shading crops to the south, it also help block the prevailing winds. Planting edible landscape plants as a protective green wall around your garden can help shelter tender seedlings and moderate extremes of both hot and cold temperature. Trees and shrubs also draw moisture from deeper in the soil and transpire it out through their leaves. Studies have shown that this helps trees to make rain (really – this is why the rain forest needs to stay forest) and cool the area that they shade. (It's not just because they block out the sun.) It is literally possible to “green the desert” through strategic tree and shrub planting.
For the home landscape, this means thoughtful placement of trees, shrubs, walls, trellises and other vertical design elements not just for the view or convenience, but with thought for how they will affect the microclimate of your garden area. Too hot and too much sun? Plan for taller elements to the west to block late afternoon sun, or consider a pergola to train vines on to provide dappled shade conditions for growing underneath. Too cold? Plant trees and shrubs as wind blocks. Add high mass elements like stone walls to trap and slowly radiate heat.
8. Tall plantings can shelter your home from the weather.
In addition to enhancing the outside areas of your property, vertical elements can improve comfort inside your home as well. Planted on the south side (north side in the southern hemisphere), deciduous vines, trees and shrubs can shield your home from the pounding summer sun. (More on this in the post, “9 Tips Everyone Should Know for Keeping Your House Cool“.) In cold climates, trees and shrubs planted to block prevailing winds can substantially reduce the heating load. Planting wind break evergreen trees was one of the first tasks we tackled after moving out to the country.
9. Vertical garden elements add privacy and screen ugly views.
Strategically placed hedges and trellises can shield with windows of your home and outer living areas from overly curious passersby. Alternatively, or in combination, you can also used hanging or tiered planters inside near the windows to create a plantscape to bring the outside in. Vertical planting elements can also shield unsightly views such as garbage can storage or a busy roadway.
10. Vertical garden elements look cool!
I confess, I love looking at my garden almost as much as I like eating the crops. Our big south facing passive solar windows look out over our main garden. Wandering through the garden, it's a pleasure to see the vines trailing up the trellises and see salad greens protected from bolting in the shade. Low, mid and tall crops hum with pollinators.
Our extended plantings here are still a work in progress, as it has been more difficult to get permanent plantings established in the harsher conditions, but at our first home in the suburbs the boys could graze their way around the yard. From grapevines looping along the south wall of the home to thickets overflowing with raspberries and sweet cherries in the front yard, they'd toddle from plant to plant as fast as their little legs could carry them.
In our flower garden, a beautiful climbing rose trellis caught the attention of anyone driving through the neighborhood, bringing a huge splash of color to welcome guests to our home. I'd tell people looking for our house in the neighborhood to just “watch for the flowers”.
Garden design ideas like this herb spiral from Little Mountain Haven marry the practical with the whimsical to add visual interest to any garden.
Like a number of other things I do in the garden, vertical gardening and working with vertical design elements in the home landscape is more work up front but a lot less work down the road, especially at harvest time when it tends to get crazy busy.