I’m a firm believer in practical gardening and keeping it cheap, fun and simple. Grand-scale gardens are great if you can maintain them, but it requires time, space and long-term commitment. Renters may not have the option to dig up a corner of the lawn, and conventional containers fill up small balconies and patios in no time. But don’t let a lack of acreage or spare time thwart your desire for lovely green things. If you can’t dig down, go up: for dwellers of small spaces, vertical gardening presents a world of creative possibilities.
Technically, vertical gardening is any procedure or structure that uses vertical, rather than horizontal, growing space. If you have a balcony with a railing, a fence, an empty wall or rafter to hang things from, a thin strip of turf to push stakes, posts or a trellis into, or even a fire escape, you can create a productive garden. Commercially available systems are useful if you have a big project and more money than time or know-how, but for the DIY-minded it can be much simpler, cheaper and more efficient using items you already have around the house.
The basic idea is to establish plants in self-contained “cells” that can be stacked or strung together vertically, or laterally along a vertical surface like a wall or fence, from small terracotta pots, plastic containers and coffee cans to burlap pouches or sausage-like rolls of heavy-duty trash bags. Found or altered, the best containers have planting holes that face up and out–a canvas shoe organizer, for example: fill it with soil, plants and hang from a wall or rafter. Cover the back and sides of a wood pallet with landscape fabric, fill with dirt, plant between the slats, give the roots a week or two to get a toehold and stand it up. Take a hint from those seedlings that sprout in your rain gutters: prefab gutters or 6-inch PVC pipe with small drain holes drilled in the bottom and 1-2 inch planting holes cut every 4-6 inches can be mounted in rows to a wall, fence or rafter. PVC also works for a self-supporting vertical installation, either directly in the ground, in a weighted base or suspended vertically.
There are lots of designs for plastic bottle towers: they’re plentiful and easy to cut, stack and secure to a post, railing or even vertical wires in a window to create a simple and productive growing space. Look for non-toxic PET or PETE plastics, like water and soda bottles, or perhaps milk jugs–anything labeled with recycling code 1 or 2 should be fine. Most designs include a funnel at the top for easy watering, and gravity does the rest.
The beauty of going vertical is the range of materials, structures and environments that can be adapted to maximize your growing space. All you need is something that holds enough soil to support the root and plant mass, and allows for adequate water retention and drainage. Integrate some drip lines.
Select appropriate plants: succulents and epiphytes (ferns, bromeliads, orchids) are obvious, but leafy greens, trailing herbs and small flowering plants work well, too. Look for plants with a mass of small roots as opposed to deep-growing taproots or large tubers. Many people swear by suspending tomatoes. The only limitation is your imagination–not the size of your patio.