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Transform Your Landscape with Vertical Gardening – Grow More Food in Less Space

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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.

Transform Your Landscape with Vertical Gardening - 10 Reasons to Garden Up Instead of Out to improve your home landscape, make your garden healthier and more productive and create visual interest.

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. Get 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. You can read the post “5+ Terrific Tomato Trellis Ideas” for a variety of vertical tomato growing options.

tomato trellis
Near the end of the season, with some lower foliage removed to speed ripening. Note top supports. this was not a great growing season, otherwise the plants would have filled the trellis.

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.

cucumber plant on trellis
cucumber on trellis
You can see the long tendrils of the cucumber vine starting to wrap around the lattice trellis.

Most shell peas 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.

pea-trellis

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. 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.

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.

raised garden beds

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.

grapevine trellis

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.

Garden privacy screen uses vertical gardening to shield from nosy neighbors
Photo courtesy of Amber Bradshaw of The Coastal Homestead

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 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.

Little garden helpers

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”.

rose trellis

Design ideas like this herb spiral from Little Mountain Haven marry the practical with the whimsical to add visual interest to any garden.

Transform Your Landscape with Vertical Gardening - 10 Reasons to Garden Up Instead of Out to improve your home landscape, make your garden healthier and more productive and create visual interest.
Transform Your Landscape with Vertical Gardening - 10 Reasons to Garden Up Instead of Out to improve your home landscape, make your garden healthier and more productive and create visual interest.

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. It's really helpful at harvest time when it tends to get crazy busy.

Transform Your Landscape with Vertical Gardening - 10 Reasons to Garden Up Instead of Out to improve your home landscape, make your garden healthier and more productive and create visual interest.

Don't Forget Perennial Plants!

In addition to annual crops, 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. Check out “Introduction to Permaculture” to learn more about food production with minimal outside inputs.

Do You Use Vertical Elements in Your Landscape?

Have you tried gardening “up”? What's your favorite type of vertical gardening? Leave a comment or question to share your experience.

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Originally published in 2010, updated in 2015, 2017.

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31 Comments

  1. I love your blog! I added it to my reader.

    This is an old post, so I don't know if you'll receive this question, but would you mind explaining what you mean by dropping "tethers" down from your crossbeam for the tomatoes? I am always trying to improve my tomato staking, and this sounds really promising.

    Thank you!

  2. Hi Andrea! Thanks for stopping by. I had to start moderating posts because I was getting some really weird spam showing up, so I see any new comments, even on old posts.

    The "tethers" I use are generally fabric strips of some sort (I cut up our old sweatpants). I like fabric because it seems to be gentler on the plants, and can be untied and reused for several seasons (especially if you use slip knots). I use all cotton fabric, so when it rots it can just go right into the compost, too.

    You could also use twine and get cut the whole thing down and throw it in the compost pile at the end of the season.

    1. Back when I was still able to garden I used a lot of welded cattle panels for cucumbers, peas and anything that liked to climb ! I also used cattle panels for my tomatoes, I used steel posts to have something to tie the panels to. I set one row of posts and panels, planted the tomatoes then set another row of posts and panels about 10-inches from the first row (sandwiching the plants between rows of posts and panels) ! This will naturally keep the plants from falling over but allows picking of the produce (this also goes for peas and cucumbers) ! The posts and panels can be used for many, many years ! Believe it or not, during an electrical storm the panels and posts take the small electrical currents from the air caused by the lightening and transfer them into the ground and form nitrogen in the soil that keeps the plants growing ! If you don’t believe me check it out at the library or on the Internet ! Have you ever noticed that plants and grass look greener and taller after an electrical storm ? ? I’m now in a power wheelchair and on oxygen 24/7 ! I will have to ave someone build some raised beds (the bottoms about 30-inches off the ground so I can get my legs under them), about 48-inches wide (so I can reach the center from both sides), 8-feet long with sides about 8-10 inches tall ! I know someone in a neighboring town who has raised beds like these and he has some of the most beautiful gardens I’v ever seen ! ! !

      1. I believe I heard something about the nitrogen buildup from electrical storms some years ago, but never pursued it. Started searching a bit on it and came across this article from 2017, “Nabbing nitrogen from the air to make fertilizer on the farm“. Sounds like it may be promising technology that could be implemented on a small scale in lieu of well placed electrical storms.

        I hope you find your raised bed builder and can keep gardening. It sounds like you have a lot of experience.

  3. ha! The first post that caught my eye and of course if was yours. Thanks for linking up Laurie!

    I heart you! xo, Sustainble Eats

  4. Hi Annette! Always good to hear from you. ๐Ÿ™‚ I hope all is well on your urban homestead. I'm so excited for you and your upcoming book.

  5. Love that you are sharing this! I use cattle panel for my garden. It is very difficult to unroll fencing. It is also a bit flimsy. Panel last for many many years. they run around $20 a panel but they are well worth it. they also come in different sizes, I think they start at 12′ and go to 20′. Place them with T-post and zip ties. So quick and easy!!
    Again, love that you are sharing this! BTW, loved loved loved you post confessions-of-a-messy-gardener that is so me!! And your wild-crafting series!
    Please have a look at my web page if you have time http://blog.cherylsdelights.com/

    1. I know a number of people use cattle panel and love it. For me in the storage space I have, it’s easier to roll up the fencing and just use a few extra posts.

      Just popped over to your site – looks like lots of fun recipes and tips. ๐Ÿ™‚

  6. Your post gives me a lot to think about when I get a yard of my own (hopefully!) someday.

    I’m thinking vertically with my balcony container garden by adding hanging plants this year as well as creating bamboo stick tipis for my cucumbers and beans.

  7. Your video, with **great** music, showing planting lasagna garden with hay bales etc is wonderfully encouraging! Just wonderfully!

  8. I would love to know how too make the vertical hanging garden you have on pintrest with succulents in it made from pvc piping

    1. That’s not a project I did. Someone made up an unrelated photo and linked to my site. Why, I don’t know. I’ve been talking to a friend of mine who raises succulents to see if she can duplicate the project.

      1. If growing squash on trellises or cattle panels, heres an old trick that’s been used for years and it works to keep squash from pulling lose from the vine ! take some old pantyhose or nylons, cut the legs into two pieces (one piece will have an open end and need to be tied, slip over the squash and tie to the trellis or panel, the hose will expand with the squash but won’t let it tear or pull the vine (I’ve used this method before and it works( try it if you wish

  9. Have you tried growing strawberries vertically? And if yes, did you get good results with them?

    1. I’ve used the P.V.C. pipe with holes up and down the length with one end buried in the ground or a large tub and have used hanging baskets ! Either method works just fine and keeps the ground critters from eating the delicious berries, but remember they have to be watered fed nutrients more frequently than the ones grown in the ground (the basket and pipe method has less soil and nutrients to hold water) Try either methods and see which one you prefer !

  10. Hi Laurie: I love your website and emails, thank you for some great ideas that I will definitely be using. I have 3 acres, but most of it is wooded, so my gardening space is limited (until I can clear more land). I was wondering if you have ever tried growing beans by training them to grow up corn stalks and if so, how did it work out for you?

    1. Hi Debi. Glad you enjoy the site and newsletter.

      I’m 0 for 2 on the beans and corn stalks combo. I think there are three main hiccups.

      1 – The timing has to be just right, so your beans don’t get ahead of your corn and strangle it. (This happened the first time I tried.)

      2 – You need to spread out your corn so it takes up more space than normal in order for the beans to get enough light. (I plant my corn in rows that are in a block, with narrow pathways, for good pollination and to conserve space. This was the demise of bean planting attempt #2. The corn was too close and shaded out the beans.)

      3 – I think that the arrangement works best with shell beans and flint (dried) corn, so that all can be harvested together and you don’t need to get into the patch during the season. If the beans (and squash, if you add them in for a full Three Sisters planting) grow big enough to act as a good ground cover, the patch becomes nearly impossible to walk in without stepping on something.

      Now if you only had a couple rows of corn in a smaller bed, #2 and 3 would be less of an issue.

  11. My father would plant sweet corn very early, then when the corn was ready to pick he would plant what the old timers called cow peas (black eyed peas) at the base of the corn stalks about a week before the corn was harvested ! After corn harvest the corn stalks start to dry giving the peas something to climb on ! I guess you could plant a crop of pole beans in the same manner ? ?

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