Grow a Vertical Garden and save space on your homestead. Follow these backyard gardening tips to start your very own vertical garden, and enjoy all the fresh vegetables it will produce in minimal space.
Vertical gardening is another method of square foot gardening that is specifically meant for plant types that are bushy or tend to “vine”. It’s important to work with the strengths of these plants, and that means building them their own special type of garden to thrive. Anyone who has ever grown a tomato plant—and who hasn’t!—will understand the necessity of vertical support for certain plants. No more crushed tomato vines underfoot, no more bushy mess spreading all over your patio or even windowsill.
There are a lot of reasons to use a vertical garden. It can improve the quality and life or your crops. It is yet another way to save space in your yard or garden. It adds a new and beautiful dimension to your garden, one that lasts for years if properly built and maintained. And, as with the rest of the square foot method, it is a low-cost way to improve your garden!
A vertical garden consists of really only two supplies: a steel frame and nylon netting. Just like your square foot garden boxes, you can build and place your vertical garden anywhere in your yard that is the most convenient and effective for growth. Many people choose to put their vertical garden right with their square foot boxes, typically along the northern edge. But you can move yours to any convenient area that gets the specific needs we discussed earlier for your garden—8 hours of sunlight. If it’s more convenient for your family’s needs, you can build your garden next to an existing fence or wall, so long as the area in question can support the frame of the garden.
Having crops grow with the aid of the vertical method is a great way to prevent ground-growing and vining crops from getting crushed or eaten by pests like slugs. It also prevents the spreading plants from suffocating or leaching sunlight from your other crops by covering them up as it grows. Plus, it’s beautiful fun—think of how much it will delight the grandkids to see giant squashes and cucumbers growing up in the air!
Vertical gardens are also a wonderfully ideal choice for those gardeners who may not be able to do the physical work of a more traditional garden. If you or a family member is having trouble bending, kneeling, or squatting to do maintenance in a regular garden, then consider a vertical setup for at least some of the crop harvest. There is none of this kneeling or bending to be worried about while maintaining a vertical garden, meaning your entire family can feel free to participate in the gardening process.
To construct your vertical frame, first you will want to gather the following materials:
- Two 5-foot electrical conduit pipes of ½ diameter
- One 4-foot conduit pipe of ½ diameter
- Two 18-inch long rebar supports of ½ diameter
- Two elbow connectors
- Trellis netting
All these supplies should be available at your local hardware store. Some gardeners may recommend building this structure out of PVC pipe or even more wood, which you likely have scraps of lying around. But the electric conduit pipes are inexpensive and very sturdy, and unlike the previously listed options, they are not going to bend or break over time. Remember, if the vertical garden falls, you will be risking your entire crop being hurt! Since the electrical conduit pipes are not ridiculously expensive, there is no reason to skimp on supplies here. Make sure you give your vertical garden exactly the support it needs to hold the plants and their eventual yield. Built this way, your vertical garden could support even pumpkins and large squash without compromising the strength of the garden. It’s not just tomatoes you can grow on the vertical garden: gourds, cucumbers, pole beans, melons, watermelon, and squash are also great crops to consider.
Once you have gathered these supplies, decide where you want to build your vertical garden. Again, we suggest building it on the north edge of one of your existing garden boxes. Why the north end? Simply because you don’t want the plants and vines on your vertical garden to rob the ground-level garden of any sunlight. Using the north end to build on is the best bet to prevent this. You could also build an additional garden box that you can use specifically as the foundation for your vertical garden—building one at 2×12 and placing it against the house or a fence, then adding the vertical supports, is a perfect way to make the vertical garden its own entity.
First, attach the elbow connectors to your 4-foot conduit pipes, and lay this against the north edge. Take your hammer and hammer in the rebar at the two corners of the north end (outside the box), stopping when about half its height is in the ground. Once this is done, slide the 5-foot conduit pipes over the rebar. Then attach the 4-foot conduit pipes to the top, and use your power drill to tighten the screws in the elbow connectors. Do NOT use your hammer to pound the conduit, as the metal will simply bend and dent and it will prevent the conduit from fitting over the rebar.
If you’re planning on growing some of the larger crops such as watermelon and pumpkin, you may want to add additional reinforcements to the strength of your frame. To do this, buy a steel fence post of about 3-foot size and drive it into the ground before your rebar. Then, attach your conduit to the fence post with three pipe clamps. This will give your vertical garden the strength to withstand even the heaviest crop yields.
After your frame is built, take the trellis netting and hook it over the two corners with the elbow connectors. Then cut the netting at each connection to give you one long strand. Take these long strands, loop them over the top of your garden frame, and tie a firm knot. Try as best you can to keep the knot levels uniform so that your garden trellis is not crooked. Repeat this process with the netting at the sides of the frames. Ideally we recommend purchasing nylon netting for your garden trellis, as it is superior to even fencing or the typically used synthetic twine. Nylon netting keeps its stark white color, meaning you won’t have to deal with it getting dirty or yellowed over time in the garden. It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to break the strings of the nylon netting, which gives you peace of mind that your crops will be safe even in wind and rain. Get your toughest friends to try breaking the nylon for a test—it won’t happen!
You also have the option of building vertical garden supports to other areas like your patio; they can be built to accommodate even areas where gardening typically cannot happen, like an apartment balcony. This guide suggests only that you keep your vertical garden no taller than 4 feet. Instead of using rebar, you can use large clamps to secure the frame to a garden box, or even attach the frame using screws to the side of the box.
We definitely recommend thinking about your vertical garden for more than just crops. There is a wide variety of gorgeous flowering vines that can add a beautiful accent to your garden. Plants such as honeysuckle, climbing roses, or trumpet vines are perennial, meaning you won’t have to worry about providing much care or annual replanting to enjoy their blooms.
But which fruits are the best to consider—and how will you know if a certain species is vining or bushing? Not all seed packets bother to include the information. However they all do usually include contact information, which you can use to your benefit. You can also simply Google the plant you want to investigate and find out whether or not it is a bushing or vining plant. Most vining plants you can begin just like the rest of your garden crop, by planting a seed in the garden. Tomatoes are the only exception here—again, they take so long to reach maturity that planting them from seeds is unreasonable. That’s why you typically purchase already-grown tomato bushes from the garden store.
Maintenance for the vertical garden is just like the square foot garden—simple and easy. The only maintenance you need to worry about—aside from watering, which you are already doing for your other plants– is doing a weekly inspection of your vining crop. You need to tuck the tops of your plant into openings in the netting, then weave it back out a different one, to encourage the climbing vines. Many vines won’t need your assistance, like pole beans. They will weave themselves in and out. However some of the crops like tomatoes are “blind” and will need your help to find the best path through the netting.
There are a few safety precautions with the vertical garden that are worth discussing. You may find, depending on what you plant, that your crops begin growing thickly and may even overtake the majority of the space on the 4-foot frame as your growing season winds down. Adding an extra support before or at this point is never a bad idea. You will want to find something like fishing line or a strong twine. Then tie this material from the top bar of your vertical garden frame to the south side of the garden box. After the season is over, you should be able to remove the frame and hang it somewhere else on your property to keep it safe and dry for the winter. Of course, if you live somewhere with mild winters, there may not be any reason to take it down at all—use your best judgment! The vertical frame is multiuse, so when you’re not growing plants on it, there’s no reason you can’t use the space to liven up your yard with lights or decorations for the holiday season. Surely the grandkids will enjoy helping with that chore!
Since it’s very likely that gardeners reading this guide are going to be interested in growing tomatoes, let’s spend a little time talking about this extremely popular plant. There is a particular pruning method that is used by gardeners with tomatoes called the Single Stem Method. This method says that all the plant’s energy travels up the main plant stalk, so it advises that you prune all other stalks aside from the main stalk. Oftentimes, gardeners wait too long to do this important pruning for various reasons, until the plant has grown so mature that the extra stalks aren’t small anymore—now they’re thick and difficult to cut. Ideally you do not want to make this mistake. Prune the extra stalks on your tomato plants early! To give you extra incentive, remember: once you prune them, you can actually turn them into another tomato bush by rooting them. That means that you can get started on next year’s tomato crop early, and save your family even more money!
After you cut off the side stalks, there are several ways you can get them to sprout roots. You can stand them in a glass of water until their roots sprout, then transplant them into the ground. You can also stand them in a cup of vermiculite, which you should have on-hand, then sit this on a plate of water—this will also help the stalks sprout roots.
There is a special method to growing tomatoes that we will now discuss called the “lay down method”. Since we’ve already discussed how a tomato plant’s main stem can sprout new roots, the lay down method takes advantage of this biological fact by growing the tomato plant in a shallow, horizontal trench. This method encourages the growth of a huge amount of roots all along the stem, meaning your tomato plant will be larger and more productive than typical tomato plants.
To perform this method, you will need a square foot in your garden box dedicated to the tomato plant. In the square you’ve chosen, take your trowel and dig a trench that is shallow (3-4 inches) but long enough to lay down the plant with the root ball at one end. You’ll want to give the end with the root ball just a bit more depth. On the opposite end, use your most delicate touch and bend the top of the plant to point up—use your best judgment and the plant’s elasticity, just be gentle! Use a bit of soil to encourage the propping up of the plant’s end. The idea of this is that only this end of the plant will be above soil, so make sure the very tip is just a bit higher than the trench level. Once you’ve done this, fill in the trench with your optimized soil and water the area.
You should see within a week’s time that the top you’ve left above ground will begin to straighten and become more rigid. New roots should begin sprouting all along the main stem. This is the beginning of a very healthy and productive tomato plant! The lay down method should also produce tomatoes for you much faster, because the plant’s length will be fully warmed by being in the soil, instead of being exposed to the air and elements. After the plant begins growing larger, simply treat it like a usual tomato plant. If your plant reaches the top of your vertical garden structure before the growing season has ended, you have a few options as to dealing with it. You can chop the top vines off to stop the growth, which will send the energy of the plant into any tomatoes that are currently growing. Or you can let the top grow and hang over the side, and the plant will continue growing until winter. Protect it from frost by laying a plastic tarp or blanket over the frame during the evening, and this will extend the production of your tomato plants for a few weeks after it should have typically stopped.
Tomato plants, of course, can attract pests. There is one in particular probably every reader will be familiar with, and that is the dreaded tomato worm. These worms are fat green things with grasping legs that allow it to perfectly waddle up the stems of tomato plants—their favorite foot source. They typically have a “horn” on their rear end, a little appendage that almost resembles a bee stinger, though these guys are harmless to people. They’re actually gentle creatures, and if you pick them up they will not harm you—you might find your hands with a stinky residue, however, a defense mechanism to discourage you from eating it! The worms can be very well camouflaged, as their green color blends right in with the tomato leaves. However they leave tell-tale signs, like their droppings, which are black little specks you will notice on your tomato leaves and stems. If you see these droppings, immediately check the surrounding leaves (including underneath) and you will probably find the culprit. Typically a single plant will never house more than one or two worms, they are quite large.
To prevent yourself from messy hands, we recommend you pull out your trusty scissors and snip off the leaf where the worm has taken up residence. Then you can simply through the whole thing away in a paper bag. Or, if you have curious kids or grandkids, get yourself a glass jar, poke some air-holes in the lid, and create a tiny little habitat for the worm. Since the worms don’t actually want the tomatoes, but just the leaves, you can keep him alive for quite a while by feeding him discards you prune from your plants. Your kids will enjoy being able to hear the little guy “crunch” on the leaves, and may even be able to witness the process of his transformation into a five-spotted hawk moth!
Hopefully this chapter has convinced you that it is well worth the time and money to consider adding a vertical garden to your square foot garden set-up. It will not take up any extra room in your yard that you haven’t already dedicated to the garden, since it’s growing “up” and not down or out. It will allow you extra space in the garden, since you can relegate the vining crops such as tomatoes, beans, and squash to the vertical space. It simply looks interesting and beautiful. And it allows all members of your family, regardless of their physicality, to participate in the gardening—no more bending, squatting, and kneeling to do maintenance and harvest. For just a few additional dollars and perhaps an extra half-hour of building time, you are adding enormous benefit to your gardening experience and your harvest yield.
That was Chapter 7: Vertical Gardening from our Homestead Handbook: How to Grow All The Food You Need In Your Own Backyard