Patrick Blanc, a French botanist who is credited with popularizing the modern vertical garden, has designed more than 300 vertical gardens all over the world, including in desert locations. In a 2014 interview with The Wall Street Journal, he commented that a vertical garden is like a store window, where you can see all the plants clearly while, in a horizontal garden, what you view is determined by your perspective.
What plants grow vertically? Vining plants - those that send out curling tendrils -- have a natural tendency to grow up and down, but, with proper support, many other plants can do well in a vertical environment. The best options for the beginning vertical gardener are miniature varieties of large plants and trellis or non-bush varieties.
As with a horizontal garden, your choice of plants for a vertical garden depends on lighting conditions. Vertical structures actually can help to expose plants to more available sunlight. Plants requiring full sun should be oriented in a north-south direction, so one side gets morning sunlight and the other gets afternoon sunlight.
When it comes to assembling a vertical garden, you can purchase kits and pre-made systems that range from simple upside-down tomato cages to teepee-type structures, but it is surprisingly easy to create your own vertical garden. You even can use many items you already have on hand to provide the support system for a vertical garden. Here are a few ideas:
Ladders - Vining vegetables will climb an old wooden ladder. At first, you may need to tie them with twine to the first rung, but soon they will establish a strong enough base to continue growing upwards on their own. You can also place planters or pots on the ladder steps.
Trellises - Mount old gates, fence pieces or even bed springs or baby gates to a wall where plants are growing or support and anchor them so that they are free-standing. Train your plants to use the trellis by weaving stems into your new trellis as they grow.
Teepees - You also can create your own free-standing teepee structures by tying bamboo poles or broom handles together in a pyramid shape.
Be sure to anchor the poles and trellises in the ground - perhaps as much as 24 inches -- to protect them from blowing over on storms and to help them handle the weight of your growing plants. Heavier fruits and vegetables can be supported with slings you fashion made from nylon stockings or old t-shirts.
Shutters - For small plants, especially herb, simply cover the back of the shutter with landscape fabric, fill with soil and then tuck your herbs in between the shutter's slots. Other vertical planter options include buckets, cups, burlap bags and over-the-door shoe organizers.
Toys and Bikes - Well-loved old toys, tricycles and bicycles can serve as attractive, whimsical and useful support structures for your vertical garden.
You can even use other plants in your garden, such as strong sunflowers stalks, as vertical supports. The biggest natural support systems you have are your trees. Consider attaching rope or wire between two tree trunks. You can then hang planters to make attractive use of a previously unused space.
Plants that are designed to grow out not up, such as tomatoes and berries, and other may need some training to grow vertically. Just as you would in a traditional garden, you can use stakes, trellises as well as ties and clips to help your plants grow well in a compact space.
Vertical gardens generally require less maintenance than traditional gardens. They are less susceptible to damage from many pests and less prone to weeds, for example. They can be vulnerable to changes in wind and temperature and can dry out more readily than traditional gardens, however.
A hose with a watering wand can work well in most cases, or you can consider installing a gravity drip system. Extra mulch can help compensate for loss of moisture and can help provide nutrients to the soil.
Whether you are thinking small (as in herbs and impatiens), medium (as in tomatoes or roses), or large (as in small melons or hydrangea), it's time to think "up" with your garden. It will open up new opportunities for beauty and bounty.