Vertical Gardening

When Content that Works asked me to write several pieces for their gardening category, I knew it would be a challenge since at that point in my life I never had a garden. Here is my first-ever gardening article.

If your garden is small, you’re out of room or you just want some shade, try the hottest trend for 2005 – vertical gardening.

“Gardens are getting smaller,” says Nicholas Staddon, director of new plants for Monrovia, one of the largest growers of premium ornamentals. “As land values go up, people seem to want larger houses, which means less garden. That’s partially why columnar plants are so in vogue.”

No matter how large or small your garden, you can spice it up by using vines and climbers. They don’t take up much ground and air circulates better around them, meaning less fungus and other diseases. They’re great for hiding an ugly building or aging fence, and make any hanging basket look beautiful.

Climbers draw the eye up and away from the ground and soften otherwise hard surfaces. They’re great for saving space, blocking wind, and can add value to your home (think arbors and arches).

“Vertical gardening is like living artwork on a wall,” says Dr. Cindy Haynes, assistant professor of horticulture and extension specialist for consumer and urban horticulture at Iowa State University. “You can be more inventive and still have something green and growing. Or you can use it to add more fragrance, so when you’re home after dark you can sit on your porch and take in the scents.”

So how to begin? First, make sure you have support and a good container. Great spots for vertical plants are a trellis, arch, gazebo, pergola or the walls of a barn or garage. You can also use wire cages, netting, wires or stakes. When using a trellis, you can stake it to the ground and attach it to the exterior wall of the house. Just leave a good space between the back of the trellis and the wall for air circulation and repainting.

“Vertical wall gardens are really great,” says Gene Rothert, manager of the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Buehler Enabling Garden. “We use them as a means of positioning gardens at a working height for people who can’t get down on their hands and knees.”

After you’ve chosen your support, start looking at plants. Use common sense and ask the salesperson at the garden center about good combinations. A young tomato plant, for example, won’t work with a single stake – after it produces 20 or 30 tomatoes, it will fall over.

“For the black-eyed Susan, any little trellis would work, because it’s not a really aggressive vine,” Haynes says. “But a morning glory needs something a little more sturdy.”

Figure out whether or not you’re going to be planting in the sun, shade or a mixture of both. Buy your plants accordingly.

Vines that thrive in partial-shade to full-sun locations include roses, clematis, black-eyed Susan vine, nasturtium, morning glories, cross vine, passionflower, sweet peas, trumpet vine, porcelain berry vine and Virginia creeper.

The best vines and climbers for shadier spots include wisteria, silver lace vine, climbing hydrangea, bittersweet, woodbine and ivy.

If you’re a gardener that loves to eat what you grow, think about vegetables and fruits that climb. Peas, beans or cucumbers, can be trained to grow on string or twine interlaced between a series of dowels that are lashed together in an upside-down V and anchored firmly in the ground. Staddon recommends taking three bamboo stakes, placing them three to 15 inches apart, and then training tomatoes, sweet peas, raspberries or blackberries to grow on them.

When you’re deciding what plants to buy, think about how long they’ll last.

In general, annuals aren’t going to get very big, while perennials can get quite large by the end of the season. Annuals grow fast, but since they’re only there for a season, that means your trellis is bare for part of the time. Yet, since popular wisteria is such a vigorous, long-lived perennial with beautiful hanging flower clusters, the vines become stronger and heavier each year. Think massive support to prevent disaster.

Annual vines grown from seed can be started in pots, then moved outdoors. Or you can directly seed them. Plants growing in pots can be set out any time if they are kept watered until well established. Hanging baskets are one of the easiest ways to go. A new trend is the hanging ‘planting bag,’ a container of soil in mesh that’s planted all over with seedlings, which then grow to cover it in a solid mass.

Or take several tall containers and put them into the same area. These can be tall urns, vertical wooden boxes, or wooden garden carts. Fill them with flowers and foliage.

Among Staddon’s picks are Boston ivy, which has a “magnificent fall color,” ‘Texas Purple’ wisteria, columnar evergreen trees, which “take almost a mathematical appearance.” He says to also think about what you’re using the plants for.

“Some people use upright plants, like juniper, as hedging to block their neighbors out,” Staddon says. Upright juniper works well in a container by itself, he says, and is often used as an accent on a doorway or beside a garden path.

Rothert, of the Chicago Botanic Garden, says to use a plant that tops out or cascades, as opposed to one that just climbs. He recommends annuals that give long floral displays, like fan flowers, garden geraniums, petunias, creeping zinnias, sweet potato vines, sweet alyssum and heliotrope.

When choosing plants, sometimes it’s easiest to remember landscapes you’ve admired in the past. Use your imagination and have fun.

“Truly great gardens move your spirit and move your soul,” says Staddon. “Just remember, you’ll remember a garden by its smell before you notice how it looks. It’s so emotional.”

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