How to Grow More in Less Space with a Vertical Garden

How to grow more in less space with vertical gardening

Interior decorators know the classic design tip: when working with a small space, look up!

Using empty wall space in creative ways can make all the difference in an apartment or small home (I learned this firsthand), and it can work in a garden too! If your outdoor space is limited, these vertical gardening ideas can take your garden to the next level!

What Is a Vertical Garden?

Put very simply, a vertical garden is a way to encourage fruits, vegetables, herbs or flowers to grow up instead of down on the ground, by means of some kind of support or structure. It can be done in the ground, in containers, on a wall, or even without soil.

The best edible plants for growing in a vertical garden have climbing or vining habits, like cucumbers, tomatoes, pole beans, peas, and even a variety of squash and pumpkins (You can also add vining flowers to your vertical elements for beauty, too!).

While lack of space (such as in an urban or apartment setting) usually motivates the vertical approach, there are many other advantages to this creative way of gardening:

  • Disease prevention
  • Ease of harvest (no bending over)
  • Higher yield
  • More shapely produce (no flat side from laying on the ground)
  • Visual interest or even privacy
  • Portability; some container systems can be moved to follow available sun
  • Controlling invasive or wide-spreading plants like squash vines
  • Creates shelter for shade-loving plants (or people)

The possible ways a vertical garden might look are endless, from the very simple and cheap to the breathtakingly complex and expensive. With an indoor growing light and the right system, you could even grow year-round produce in your house!

But this begs the question:

To DIY or Not to DIY?

I first became interested in vertical gardening (beyond just staking beans or caging tomatoes) when a friend purchased a Tower Garden system. They are pricey, but the idea of growing lettuce, kale, cucumbers, beans, and even tomatoes in a few square feet on a patio or even year-round indoors? Tempting. (And for someone in an urban setting and with rising cost of organic produce, possibly worth it!)

Of course, I immediately began to think of ways I could make my own, more economical DIY vertical gardening system, and there are many DIY tutorials out there. If it’s a soilless system you’re after, the list of materials can be long and still around $200-250.

For now, I decided to go a simpler route and see what I could do to adapt our traditional outdoor garden beds and make them more efficient, and maybe add a small indoor herb and lettuce garden for the winter.

Before you decide whether to buy or DIY, do some sleuthing around the basement or garden shed. You’ll be surprised what inspiration you can find. Just look for anything a plant could grow in and up. Pallets, mason jars, old shutters, a broken ladder, construction rebar, a piece of trellis, twine, rope–these can all be made into a vertical garden structure.

So while the jury’s still out as to which approach we’ll eventually try, here are 5 intriguing vertical garden ideas ranging from simple to sophisticated!

Traditional Garden with Vertical Elements

If you have an existing backyard garden, plan to add a trellis and climbing plants on the north side of your plot. This keeps your taller plants from shading the rest of the garden. I also suggest using a support that is portable and not permanent, so you can rotate your plantings from season to season.

Here are some ideas for how to grow your plants vertically in a traditional garden bed:

  • Cucumbers – try this easy tent trellis or hoop trellis
  • Corn, Pole Beans, and Squash – try a Three Sisters Garden
  • Squash (Acorn, Butternut, Delicata) – train the vines up the four legs of a ladder or hoop trellis (huge space saver!)
  • Tomatoes – use sturdy vertical cages or (if you’re handy) an A-frame trellis

Don’t forget to plant lettuce, spinach, and other delicate, shade-loving plants in the shade these trellises provide!

Patio Planter/Container Garden

If you’re confined to a patio or deck, try gardening tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, beans, or squash in containers. You can create your own garden with individual pots, tiered planters, or a raised garden box. (Although they look beautiful, keep in mind that real terra cotta pots are very porous and prone to drying out.)

Use organic potting soil and consider putting heavier pots on dollies so you can maximize sun exposure–the real key to container gardening. Tie plants to tomato cages and support stakes as they grow up for unlimited space.

Outdoor or Indoor Wall Garden

If you are short on horizontal space but have a wall or fence that gets 6 or more hours of sunlight, try a wall garden. These can even be indoors if you have a very sunny exposure or grow light. A wall garden can be constructed out of wood scraps, small pots, or even canvas pockets (like an old over the door shoe organizer). I love this beautiful DIY version made from cedar wood.

As with all container gardens, it can be tricky to keep a wall garden evenly watered and fertilized (yet not overwatered out of paranoia!).

If you are going to try the garden indoors, consider a system made for this purpose. Unless you plan to mount a grow light, I recommend using something with removable containers for the individual plants so you can move them closer to a window if needed.

Indoor Herb Garden

Windowsill herb gardens are nothing new, but deserve an honorable mention because what is better than fresh lettuce or herbs in the winter? In a warmer climate, a few mason jars on the kitchen windowsill or hanging in pots will do the trick, but in colder climates a grow light kit will almost certainly be necessary.

And I love these ideas on how to use IKEA items for an indoor garden!

Hydroponic Garden

Another type of vertical gardening, hydroponics, has enjoyed a surge of popularity in recent decades. Hydroponic vegetables are grown only in water (no soil) with nutrients and trace minerals added. While this method dates back to the ancient Aztecs, the modern hydroponic method involves a lot of plastic and some synthetic fertilizers, and I’ve held back from exploring it for these reasons. (It can also be expensive, as I mentioned above.)

On the other hand, vegetables grown hydroponically in a greenhouse do not require chemical pesticides. Studies are limited, have even been found to be nutritionally superior (although some would say, not in taste).

If home hydroponics sounds like an experiment you’d like to try, you can make your own if you’re adventurous or check out cheaper alternatives to the Tower Garden system.

What do you think of vertical gardening? Have you had success with these or other methods?

A vertical garden lets you grow more in a smaller space by using planters, wall gardens, tower gardens or hydroponics for plants like cucumbers, beans, etc.

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Reader Comments

  1. I am thinking of having a vertical garden in my courtyard for herbs and small vegetables. I have already made a herb and vegetable garden out of a wooden pallet. Everything is growing so well in that.

    Thank you for sharing

  2. I have started a small vegetable garden in containers in my yard- I love all of your information and find it most helpful. This is my first attempt and I was so pleased as to the results. Nice buds and green leaves. Looks like I was going to have some nice tomatoes. I was so proud until I looked the next day and found the fruit (plums and grapes were eaten by by squirrels and other animals. So , my question is what is the most inexpensive way to keep the small animals from your plants.
    Thanks for your continuing help
    Brenda Neuman

    • I haven’t had that issue so I don’t have much experience with it…

    • Hi! I have a huge squirrel issue and mouse and rabbit… Anyways. My uncle painted a cats face on a rock and that helped save my garden. Since then I added a blow up plastic snake ( I think it’s meant to be a pool toy?) the pattern on the blow up snake matches the pattern of a gopher snake. Every so often I move them around the garden. I also put up a fake owl. Hope this information helps.

  3. I have been a vertical gardener for decades. I use 16′ galvanized cattle panels (from our local feed store) to grow any vining or climbing plant. Tomatoes, Cucumbers, Squash, Melons, Beans, and Peas. I can grow enough for my family of 7 in two 50 x 50 gardens. The panels last a long time, are very sturdy and easy to clean up after the season. Harvest is a breeze with crops being up off the ground.

    Love it, Love it!

    • I’d love to see pictures your vertical garden!

      • There’s not much to see right now. Trellises are up, but plants are just babies. I’ll try to remember to post pictures once things get going….

  4. To see if you even like it, a much cheaper way to try a vertical garden similar to the expensive one: go to a plumbing supply store & get 6″ PVC pipe and “Y” fittings. Dig a hole for the pipe. About 1.5-2 feet is best because it will get top heavy with plants & water. The first piece should be about a foot off the ground .That means your first piece of pipe would be about 2.5-3 feet. Get someone to hold it as you cut-it will roll around !! Your cuts don’t have to be perfect, but make a line all the way around pipe and try to stick to it. Use a file to take off the “burs” as it will make it easier to assemble pieces. A slight bevel with the file is even better. That means you file on a slight angle, so the pipe is not “square” at the cut lines. Again- not necessary- but definitely easier! Drop first piece into hole. Fill the pipe with concrete or gravel up to ground level to anchor it better. Pack ground well around the pipe too. If you do use concrete-drill a few holes around base close to ground to let excess water drain away. Now all you need is to use a hand saw to cut pipe to any length you want based on what you will grow-some things should be spaced wider apart. DO NOT GLUE the fittings on!! This way you can customize it again next season, take it apart for winter storage, or just to clean it and replace the soil. Also, you can adjust the fittings to new direction if you didn’t like the way the plants grew last season. You an get “single Y’s” which are only one branch, or “double Y’s” which have 2 symmetrical branches-what fun!! Just make sure you balance it out all around or it will want to tip over with the weight. That means you will need to prop it up-stills works fine though. Also, if you do use concrete, you might not want to take it out of ground-gravel is easier if you want to remove it. The easiest way to get fittings apart is to tap the “hub” or “fat part” that the pipe slides into, with a hammer or block of wood in a downward motion along the top edge of fitting. Move around the whole edge until it falls off. Sometimes dirt get wedged in hubs, especially when they aren’t glued.Envision the way you get stuck plastic pails apart!
    Now before you are all yelling about plastic-most planting containers are made of the same stuff. I didn’t read what the expensive is made from, but it looks like PVC too. So don’t hate on me. PVC is classified for potable water, which means drinking water.
    If you really love this method-get bigger pipe. It stays moist longer. I have one last suggestion regarding that. If you do opt for really big pipe, I have found that using a smaller 1.5″ pipe with holes drilled into it all the way down total height of planter, can be placed INSIDE of bigger pipe when you assemble it, so that it sticks out the top a bit. Then you can pour water right into it, so that it gets right to the roots. I have found the best height for planters is MAX 6 feet. Have fun.

  5. I have some of the vertical garden planters but worry about the effects of the plastic. Cant be as bad as the rusbish and chemical laden allotments though !!!!!

  6. I bought some inexpensive rose arches (30 dollars each) online and put them between beds for my beans and other climbers. I have small community garden plot, so this saves some space, as I can walk underneath, makes it easier to pick beans and looks quite nice. Much better than lots of sticks and lots of string I had before. They still create some shade on beds as well, so I just plant lettuce and greens next to them.

  7. I’m so glad you mentioned the vertical garden by juice plus. I have been off and on about this product for several years. My only fear is the “food” that you are supposed to feed the plants. I’ve read several websites about this food (I”m FAR from experienced about gardening) and it doesn’t seem so organic. What are your thoughts? Would you just use something different?

  8. What are your thoughts on the “food” that the tower gardens use? From what I understand, the juice plus towers grow food very quickly- not sure if it’s from the style of the gardening or the food they feed the plants. I’ve heard mixed things about the food and wanted to see your thoughts.

  9. Hi Katie,

    I was wondering please if your friend had any more input on the Tower Gardens that you can share please? Like how long has she been using it and what kind of things has she been planting in the tower inside? Also, did she find that the 20-gallon reservoir at the base of your Tower Garden with a mixture of Mineral Blend and water is enough for all of those plants? Is she adding water all of the time to keep up with it? Seems hardly enough. Just comparing it to a fish tank type of setting so curious on that. Very interested in investing in that tower garden since we are in a setting where organic produce is always raising in cost, traveling over an hour to get to a decent store and only to find they don’t have certain things on your list. Very frustrating! Thank you in advance for any feedback you can give.

    Regards,

    Nicole

  10. Loved this post! We are in our second year with a gutter garden.

  11. Hello,
    Wellnessmama website is a blessing indeed!
    This has nothing to do with the post. I just need some help and have no-one to talk to.
    I’ve been paleo/primal for about 4 years. Recently I’ve been feeling down and sad frequently. Got bloodwork done. The nurse called and said “everything normal except vitamin D and thyroid are borderline” I don’t know what that means. She also said to take synthroid(i think thats what it’s called). I haven’t taken it yet because I’m confused as to what to do. Picked up a copy of the blood work and below are the results of items in bold print (abnormal resultsi guess). If anyone can please tell me what I should do about this situation it would be greatly appreciated.

    Creatinine, Serum .50 (low)
    BUN/ Creatinine Ratio 32 (high)
    TSH 5.030(high)
    Vitamin D, 25-Hydroxy 25.9(low)

    I’m assuming the creatinine represents lots of protein (paleo) ? I started taking regular Vd pills recently. Not sure of any healthy versions. Also, i can take synthroid but is that bad for your health?
    Please any help would be appreciated.
    Thanks in advance

    Faith

  12. Thanks so much for linking to my arch trellis for growing cucumbers! I love growing vertically, so thanks for all these fun ideas! 🙂

  13. My wife and I have been needing to do something different with our garden. Last year, our harvest was not ideal, I think the water table is too high keeping the roots constantly wet. We have been discussing the idea of doing raised beds or some sort of vertical garden. Being able to grow fresh, organic produce and know the quality of it/where it came from is so important to us. Love the idea of a wall garden and would like to try and see if we can set one up on our wooden fence. Thanks for these tips!

  14. I just purchased the Garden Tower 2 despite the cost. It has a worm composting system built in and feeds the plants on a constant basis once the compost is built up and the roots have grown long enough to reach it. It is a column in the middle of the system which can rotate like a lazy susan. How awesome is that! There is space for 51 plants plus or minus depending on what you grow as some will take two spaces to flourish. Check it out! Happy gardening!

  15. I just purchased the Earth Tower for my Mother’s day present. It looks like fun. I’m hoping my 8-year-old daughter will be excited about helping. I purchased it on Amazon along with all the components for the soil-less soil. I have to be able to hit the easy button and get it all at once or I won’t complete the project. Thank you for the idea. I think it is a great solution that will fit on our patio.

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