The sky is the limit: vertical gardening tips and tricks

Photo by Alison Feetham


No space to garden? I prove that even in a small, urban garden the sky really is the limit when it comes to growing your own food…

With the threat of food shortages looming, our gardens and green spaces have never been so important when it comes to food production. In the future, growing our own fruit and veg could become a routine part of everyday life – for everyone – as much as a trip to the supermarket.
But not everyone is lucky enough to have a sprawling vegetable plot, and if you’re a city dweller with little more than a raised bed or a couple of pots, kitchen garden produce can seem a little out of reach. The solution? It’s time to take your gardening to a whole new level.
Forget conventional beds and borders – walls, fences, climbing frames and shed roofs can all be transformed into growing spaces, and the benefits to you and the environment are manifold.
“Urban greening is the solution to future city living,” says Armando Raish, managing director of Treebox (, the UK’s leading living wall designer and supplier. “Living walls can improve air quality and food production, increase energy efficiency (keeping the heat out in summer but retaining it in winter), create habitats for wildlife, and reduce noise and storm-runoff.
“And, in terms of social gains, biophilic design has been proved to increase productivity in the workplace, reduce stress, improve mood and give an area a sense of identity and community spirit.”

Reach for the sky

But while the idea of turning your house wall into a jungle façade like that of The Rubens at the Palace Hotel in Victoria might seem a little ambitious, there are plenty of small scale, cost-effective ways you can green up the perimeters of your own garden.
Hanging baskets and window boxes are an obvious place to start, but cane wigwams and obelisks also offer space for cucumbers, squash and climbing beans to clamber above ground level. Even if you only have a balcony, a trellis set against the railings, an outside wall or even fixed as temporary shutters over the windows can provide vertical growing space.
If you’d like more homegrown fruit, consider growing espalier apples, plums and pears up walls, or thornless blackberries and other climbing fruit. You can make rudimentary frames from wire and train them anyway you wish.
Or get crafty, and create your own vertical planters. Pallets make fabulous mini living walls if you staple-gun landscaping membrane to the back and back-fill the gaps with potting compost. Lay it on the ground to plant between the slats and leave for a few weeks so the roots can weave a tight carpet, then lean it up against a wall.
Alternatively, construct your own trellis from timber, with hanging pots attached, or fix half drainpipes to fences and walls for growing salad crops. Self-watering bottle towers – used in desert regions as a cheap and eco-friendly way to garden vertically – are easily made by slotting recycled drinks bottles inside each other with the caps off.
And who said hedges always have to be made up of conifers and privet? Consider a new hedge as an extension of your kitchen garden by planting nuts, fruit and berries such as hazel, crab apples, hawthorn or rosa rugosa (for the hips). You will provide a fabulous feast for birds and insects, even if you don’t get around to eating them all! March is a great time to plant, but make sure you get them in this month while the plants are still in their dormancy. Prepare the ground thoroughly with some well-rotted compost and water for the first year if conditions are dry.
Even flat-roofed sheds and out buildings can become high-flying horticultural havens. Use timber to create a raised bed, with membrane and pond liner at the base, and fill with a mix of soil and grit. Plant small herbs and sedums or, if your shed roof is a suntrap, experiment with peppers, cherry tomatoes and strawberries. Just be careful how much weight you put on the structure – and consider how much wet soil might weigh, shoring it up from underneath if necessary.

Maintaining your hanging garden

One of the major considerations when it comes to vertical gardening is irrigation. While climbing plants will get their moisture and food sources from the ground, plants on living walls or shed roofs will need some help.
“Consider installing an irrigation system on a timer to ensure you don’t overwater and can keep water levels high during summer but reduced in the colder, winter months,” says Raish. “Felt systems tend to generate a larger amount of water runoff than trough systems so this might affect what type of plants you choose too.”
While vertical gardens are often used to harness more natural light, particularly in shady corners, you also need to be more aware of the drying effects of the sun, especially if it radiates off a wall. West facing walls are particularly bad as they get the sun almost all afternoon in the summer and young plants can bake. Ensure plants have plenty of room, and depth, for their roots so they don’t dry out, and go for patio or dwarf plants that don’t need as much headspace.
“Planting established specimens can lead to a higher success rate, and, unlike conventional horizontal gardening, a living wall tends to develop microclimates between plants, which means shade loving plants such as ferns can grow extremely well on south facing walls,” adds Raish.
And think about how your finished living wall might look. Garden designer Christine Wilford, from Green Arden Design, based in Surrey (, created a beautiful living wall in a city centre garden recently (see photos) with herbs, strawberries and bright foliage that has transformed a previously dull fence.
“If plants within a living wall are arranged in certain patterns they can be artworks in their own right,” says Christine. “They are architectural and yet they bring scent, texture and colour throughout the seasons.”
Above all, whether you’re embarking on a living wall or a simple bottle tower, vertical gardening can turn dead, ugly spaces, or difficult to pant areas, into a haven for you – and for wildlife.
“Vertical gardens provide a contact point with nature for the urban dweller,” says Raish. “As nature is generally squeezed out of our streets to make way for roads and buildings, living walls are able to squeeze some of that life back in.”

High rise plants

Best high-rise plants

Whether you’re planting a hanging basket, edible hedge or living shed roof, these high fliers will get you started…

With their compact and quick growing habit, strawberries are great for edible walls as they like a free draining, sunny site and are not too fussed about soils (they can even be grown hydroponically). Placed up high they’re luscious fruit are also less likely to be eaten by slugs and snails! Plant out in late spring, and top up with fertiliser during the growing season.
Try: ‘Scarlet Beauty’ (, which has smaller fruits, or a wild variety such ‘Baron von Solemacher’ (, which doesn’t have runners.

No kitchen should be without this herby stalwart, which is great as a pesto or salad ingredient. Grown from seed direct in March, it can be slow to germinate, but eventually the plants can provide tasty leaves for up to two years – and it’s a great choice for a shady wall.
Try: intensely flavoured, flat leaved types such as ‘Italian Giant’ (, which has large leaves and remains productive through winter.

Cut-and-come-again salad leaves are perfect for containers and edible walls, as they have shallow roots (they’re another plant that can be grown hydroponically) and crop in as little as 10 days. Sow a few times over the summer to get succession harvests.
Try: Salad mix ‘Asian Leaves’ ( contains Bok Choy, Mizuna, Mustard Purple and Golden Frills, which are cold tolerant and can be used in stir-fries too.

Originally published in Vegetarian Living 2017

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