Planning for Vertical Garden Space

In the midst of winter, as you reflect on last year’s gardening challenges and plan for this year’s successes, consider “gardening up”.  Providing opportunities for plants to grow upwards can be both practical and decorative.  Vertical gardening creates more functional space and gives the eye a pleasant place to rest in an otherwise horizontal world.
Besides aesthetic appeal, growing vertically provides other benefits.  Exposure to soil-borne pathogens is reduced when plants are raised up off the ground, and as air circulates freely through the vegetation, infection by fungal diseases is minimized.  Also, produce is more easily harvested without back strain.
Plants grown up and over a vertical structure will create shade in your garden.  Avoid this potential disadvantage by locating structures on the northern edge.  Or, orient the structure north to south and place shade tolerant plants in the shadows.  However, do remember plants suspended in air will dry quickly, so keep them fully watered.
Any vining plant can be trained to grow vertically.  Certain vegetable crops are particularly well suited for this.  Peas and pole beans have tendrils that will attach the plant to a structure.  Cucumbers, squash and tomatoes need help attaching—garden twine can help secure them as they grow.  Melons can be trellised if you choose small cultivars. Make a sling with nylon hose to support the maturing fruit.  Regardless of what you plant, always keep in mind the eventual total weight of the mature plant and produce.
There are several vertical gardening systems available commercially but before you buy, search your garage and outbuildings. Often expensive new garden systems can be replicated with re-purposed items—an old wooden ladder is now an arbor for clematis or gourds, odd scraps of lattice become a trellis for peas, bamboo poles strapped together at the top create a teepee for pole beans and a row of wires bent into arches becomes a tunnel of cucumbers.  Even an existing fence or the side of a building can be converted into a vertical growing space.
Relatively new to the garden scene is the concept of “green walls”.  Fabric soil pockets secured to an outdoor wall, trays hung with planting cells positioned at 30 degree angles, wire pot hangers clipped to a fence or even old rain gutters arranged in rows on the side of a building; these can all create a living wall. To view an existing green wall up close, visit the Greater Des Moines Botanical Gardens.  It’s a welcome oasis on a cold February day.

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