If you’ve been trying to grow a vegetable garden in a small apartment or backyard without much success, a vertical vegetable garden could be the answer. Vertical vegetable gardens offer several advantages to the urban gardener; you can maximize your space, pick your soil, and grow more vegetables. They can also be an attractive addition to a bare wall or fence.
I love the satisfaction of picking and cooking a homegrown zucchini but had to give up my raised bed garden when I moved into an apartment. Once I learned how to grow a vertical vegetable garden, I could have that same joy of gardening even without a backyard. If you, too, want to grow anywhere, vertical vegetable gardens could be the solution for you.
What is a Vertical Vegetable Garden?
A vertical vegetable garden is one in which everything is grown upwards. Simply put, plants grow towards the sky, rather than across the ground. Whether they’re in cages, on a trellis, or growing up a fence, vining and spreading plants can be grown without hogging up all your garden space.
What You’ll Need to Grow a Vertical Vegetable Garden
You can grow a vertical vegetable garden in something as simple as a one-liter soda bottle with the top cut off. However, even the simplest of vertical vegetable gardens require materials.
A planter box, raised garden bed, or other containers
If you’re planning on growing on an apartment balcony or deck, the planter box or raised bed is where you’ll put your soil. With one of them, you can create a growing space in almost any environment. Think outside the box, though. Vertical vegetable gardens also take the form of hanging bags for tomatoes, or shelves.
Urban gardeners have shown a wide range of creativity with vertical gardens. Flower boxes or metal tins suspended through metal chains hung from the ceiling. Clay pots with holes drilled in them hung at intervals or drilled into fences; though that option is better for herbs. We’ve also seen containers drilled into painted wood pallets that are propped up against a wall, pots stacked on ladder rungs, and the minimalist holes or tops cut off liter soda bottles.
Creativity is the limit when choosing your container, but you do want to consider some safety and practical concerns. Make sure that water can flow through the planter easily, that your basket or bucket has a strong enough bottom to support the weight of soil and plants, and that a strong windstorm won’t knock everything over.
Important Safety Note When Choosing a Container
Before planting, check that your container isn’t painted with anything toxic that could leak into the soil to be absorbed by your vegetables. Depending on their age, those cute, vintage pots or baskets on Pinterest could have been painted with paints containing up to 50 percent lead content. Always ask the age of anything you’re considering buying to grow vegetables in, and if it’s older than 1970 go with another option.
If you’re just dying to use that adorable, painted wood bucket, but can’t determine its era, consider using it to double pot. Plant your vegetables in a smaller pot that you can place inside the larger container. A cuter, but possibly unsafe, planter can disguise the uglier pot.
Plants or seeds
What you want to grow will influence your container selection, soil selection, and the type of trellis or vertical structure you’ll need.
Vegetables with deeper roots than others, like asparagus, tomatoes, and parsnips, need a container whose dimensions accommodate them. If you’re growing upright on a trellis, buy climbing beans, not bush beans. Herbs to accompany your veggies can be grown in small pots, but dill and mint spread aggressively if you put them in a container with other herbs. You’ll want to know all this information before heading to the nursery or ordering seeds online.
Many vegetable seeds do well in vertical vegetable gardens. I’ve had great luck with almost every kind of squash seed, including zucchini and butternut squash. Climbing beans, tomatoes, and cucumbers also all grow well from seed. Peppers, on the other hand, have never grown from seed for me.
Ask a gardener at your local nursery which plants do well when grown from seeds in your area. There are pros and cons to planting seeds versus putting plants in your garden. Buying plants shorten the time between starting and harvesting your garden, but seed packets cost much less. However, mice, squirrels, and birds often dig up and eat seeds before they can grow.
Which vegetables you’ll plant in your vertical vegetable garden also depends on your growing conditions. Kale, spinach and leafier, green veggies will still thrive in the shade. Basil withers in direct sunlight, whereas cucumbers thrive. Taking the time to research the vegetables you want in your vertical vegetable garden will ensure success
Even if you have backyard space, you may want to look into a raised bed that you fill with carefully-selected soil. Vegetables grow best in soil rich in organic matter and slightly acidic in the base. The bare dirt in your backyard isn’t guaranteed to have the right nutrients for your plants.
If you’re using pots or containers, consider mixing your soil with peat moss or perlite. Gardeners add perlite to improve aeration and drainage and keep soil in pots from compacting. Peat moss maintains moisture in the soil, too, but it also adds organic matter. Buying a pre-mixed potting mix with these ingredients takes the guesswork out of the proper ratio.
There is a difference between potting mix and potting soil. A potting mix typically won’t contain any actual soil; its ingredients are specifically chosen to be ideal for container plants. Look at the bag’s ingredients, or pick up the bag! A heavier bag likely contains actual soil for a raised bed.
The best vertical structure for your vertical vegetable garden depends upon the vegetables you want to grow. Squash and heavier root vegetables require more support than climbing beans, peas, and green beans which will grow on a lighter weight upright trellis.
A trellis can have one side and extend upwards like a wall, or it can be an A-frame shape with two sides. It’s typically a wooden frame in a square or rectangular shape with wire inside the frame. Your vegetables grow up and through the wire. Other vertical structures that can be used to grow a vertical vegetable garden include arbors or fences. I’ve grown twining beans up my chain link fence. As noted above in the containers section, the sky’s the limit.
Step-by-Step: Growing a Vertical Vegetable Garden
Once you’ve done all the research, it’s time to get started growing your vertical vegetable garden!
All plants require sunlight to grow. Unless you’re also investing in LED grow lights, look for a spot that ideally gets six hours of light a day. Shadier locations suit spinach and leafy vegetables. Consider water supply and availability when picking where to put your vertical vegetable garden. Will your backyard hose reach? What about carrying a watering can out from the kitchen, how far is it? Choose a location that will make maintaining your garden easier.
If you’re growing in a box on a balcony or deck, see if you can place the box next to a wall or railing. You can train many vegetables to grow up and over the structure. A wall takes the weight off a trellis. Consider that, wherever you place your vertical structure, it’ll cast shade on nearby plants and impact their growth.
Move your planter to wherever you have decided to put it. Try your container out in several places before filling it with dirt; it’s much harder to move a garden box once you have filled it. Anything that spills over will make a huge mess, too.
Secure everything properly before filling with soil. Drill through and fasten your lattice to the wall with screws. Check all hooks and chains. Pull and push on everything to test for any weaknesses.
Once you’ve got your box or containers in place, it’s time for the vertical part of growing a vertical vegetable garden. Always plant and situate your vertical structure before you’ve planted any vegetables or seeds. Shoving a wire trellis between seedlings or plants can damage them.
If you have two to three feet of footing of the container to bury in the dirt, wedge wire cages or trellis directly into the ground. To secure a trellis to a wall, you’ll have to drill holes and then hammer in trellis hooks, check your lease if you’re renting. Make sure that when you put something up against the wall to leave space for air circulation.
Cut a hole in a bag of potting mix and pour it in, use a shovel to fill a garden bed or a spade to fill a pot. I’d recommend doing it in a place where it’s easy to sweep up, or any spills will fall on the ground. If you live in an apartment with carpet, try to plant everything outside and carry it in.
When planting plants and seeds, check their spacing requirements. A tiny little zucchini seed grows into a huge bush that will crowd out other plants. Eyeball or measure it, and follow the plant’s guidelines even if your vertical vegetable garden looks a little sparse at first.
Vegetables grown in a vertical garden will need more attention than vegetables grown on the ground because they’re exposed to more sunlight, rain, and wind. You’ll likely have to water them more often and give them fertilizer. Normal gardening tasks like pruning and weeding still apply.
Now Get Growing!
Now that you’ve installed your vertical vegetable garden you can watch as your plants grow, and eventually harvest your garden’s bounty. There’s nothing like sitting down to fresh-baked butternut squash dusted with cinnamon and announcing,“I grew this!”