If you’ve ever spent the summer in the Massachusetts Pioneer Valley, then you know just how hot those long, humid days can get, despite the tempering effect of the northeast. It was on one of those days that I first discovered the recreational advantages of vertical gardening.

It was a warm afternoon, turning towards evening, and I was enjoying a glass of wine on a friend’s porch. The porch was covered by a wooden pergola, but what caught my eye were the grape vines trellised all around it, blocking out the last rays of the afternoon sun and filling the air with the heady scent of ripe grapes. Combined with a glass of wine and good company, the atmosphere created by that grape covered pergola remains one of my favorite memories of the Valley to this day.

Vertical gardening does more than simply save room in your garden; it also captures the imagination and can create beautiful outdoor living spaces for you and your family to enjoy. From edible shade gardens to subtle greenery, here is how you can get started planning your shady summer retreat.

Structures for Vertical Shade Gardens

Underneath most successful vertical shade gardens are sturdy structures. Pergolas and arbors are the most practical bases for a vertical shade garden for several reasons. They are stable, aesthetically pleasing, and easy to construct or purchase from a local garden supply or hardware store. They also fit seamlessly into most garden plans and won’t raise your neighbor’s eyebrows.

Pergolas

Pergolas are at home anywhere outside your home, but if you want to add a pergola to your deck, you may find that you have to improve the soil around it or build raised garden beds at the base for the best growing conditions. As with any garden, you want your soil to be loose, balanced, and full of good organic materials like composted manure. Pergolas can turn patios, decks, and grass into outdoor sitting and recreation areas for your family, and are typically larger than standard arbors.

grape pergola

Arbors

Arbors offer tempting entryways into gardens, and can also be a great spot for a garden bench. Vining flowers like morning glories, roses, and clematis thrive on arbors, and their fragrances offer another relaxing benefit. These are ideal in areas that receive full sunlight, and they can be easily put up and taken down as needed.

arbor

Plants For Vertical Shade Gardens

The types of plants you want to include in your vertical shade garden is entirely up to you. Plants with a tendency to creep or vine work best for this sort of gardening style, but you'll need to think about whether you want to establish an annual or perennial shade garden. There are advantages and disadvantages to each.

Perennials will give you shade for years to come but may require more care when it comes to pruning. Annuals, on the other hand, give you the option of changing your mind from year to year and experimenting with different blooms or vegetables, but that also means that you have to replant them every year and wait for them to fill out and grow.

Flowering vines, fruits, and vegetables can make beautiful shade gardens and edible gardens provide you with welcome snacks as the season progresses. Here are some varieties to get you started on your planning process.

Flowers

Vining flowers have a long history of providing shade and beauty. Roses, morning glory, wisteria, honeysuckle, trumpet vine, golden hops, climbing hydrangea, and jasmine, just to name a few favorites, all trellis well and bring color and shade to your garden.

wisteria

Non-Flowering Plants

If you want something subtle for your vertical shade garden, or if attracting pollinating insects with stingers isn't your idea of a relaxing afternoon, then consider a non-flowering vine for your vertical shade garden. The ivy family is full of vigorous vines that will quickly give you shade and greenery, but Virginia creeper, climbing fig, greenbriar, and fatshedera vines are also options. Just remember that these all will require pruning and may try and spread to nearby structures.

ivy

Fruits

Something about the idea of reclining in the shade and reaching up to pluck a ripe fruit is innately appealing to me. Luckily, there are quite a few fruits willing to oblige. Of these, grapes are the most adaptable to a variety of growing conditions, but melons, kiwi, and passion fruit also offer shade and fruits in their respective growing zones. If you plan on growing fruits, however, remember that ripe, rotting fruit that is not cleaned up can attract a wide variety of insect life.

passion fruit

Vegetables

Trellising vegetables offer a number of benefits, from weed management and air circulation to ease of harvesting. The list of vegetables that vine is quite lengthy, including cucumbers, squash, gourds, beans, peas, and tomatoes, giving you plenty of options to choose from.

gourds

When it comes to vertical gardening, the sky really is the limit. Experiment with some of these varieties this summer to give yourself shade, beauty, and a bountiful harvest.