Living Walls

Vertical gardens fit small spaces

Living Walls

Even if you don’t think you have the space … here’s how to take growing your own healthy edibles to new heights.

No room for a garden? Think again! That bare wall outside your patio door, the wooden fence alongside your yard, or the railing of your bare-bones balcony—virtually any outdoor vertical surface—can become a lush living wall. Or, better yet, why not grow an upright bed of health-boosting organic edibles, easily snipped for everyday eating?

When it comes to many herbs, vegetables, and small fruits, perpendicular growing opportunities can far outshine horizontal garden real estate.

Vertical plantings are less susceptible to slugs, cutworms, weevils, and other marauders, and high off the ground and better exposed to airflow, they are less inclined to pick up mildew- or fungus-based maladies than earth-bound crops.

Plus, there is no need to crouch or crawl to pick and snip; instead, your harvest is front and centre and at an easy arm’s length.

And it gets better: in addition to providing the ultimate in fresh nourishment, your living wall or edible-flower tower can screen you from the wind, cool you with shade, help insulate your space from noise, and provide increased privacy along with the calming essence of fresh growing goodness.

There are many ways to grow up!

“I always encourage people to think vertically, not horizontally,” says Chris Wong, general manager of Young Urban Farmers in Toronto, dedicated to making edible gardening fun, simple, and rewarding.

“Be strategic about using the space you have. A 5 x 2 ft (1.5 x 0.6 m) balcony, for example, doesn’t give you much room for gardening, but if you use the 6 ft (1.8 m) vertical space available to you, suddenly you have a large area!”

There are many modes for taking your garden up, up, and away—and all have merit, whether you lean to a professionally installed pocket system or something that can be moved in a moment.

Pocket planters

Pocket-planting systems are offered by urban-landscaping professionals for vertical gardens big and small. Starting at roughly $30 per square foot, plant-able synthetic pockets can be adhered to a metal grid or backing board made of sturdy plastic sheeting and are suitable for small to mid-sized organic edibles. Resistant to sun and heavy rain, they are reusable and long lasting.

The irrigation (drip or hand) is supplied at the top row of pockets and wicks down through the felt, says Chris Bribach, inventor of the Florafelt Vertical Gardens System. Pockets are stuffed with soil, or other growing media (such as bark, coco-fibre, or lava) that can be combined with an aquaponic system—where fish waste feeds the plants, and plants oxygenate the water in tanks below, where the fish live.

Self-watering hard-plastic shells, vented to allow air circulation to plants, such as the Woolly Living Wall Planter, are also ideal for vertical harvests. Wong at Young Urban Farmers offers the Minigarden Vertical modular system with pockets that snap together like Lego. Suitable for growing smaller plants such as herbs and greens, these stacked gardens require watering from the top, with a trickle-down saturation of the soil and root systems.

Or—for those looking for an inexpensive DIY solution and not concerned about the seepage of moisture onto the surface backing it—a sturdy canvas shoe rack with pockets plugged full of growing herbs can be soundly hammered up for a very satisfying edible haul.

First things first

When it comes to adding any type of pocket-planter system, Vancouver sustainable-landscape designer Senga Lindsay, author of Edible Landscaping: Urban Food Gardens That Look Great (Harbour, 2012), emphasizes the importance of the following key considerations for condo and apartment dwellers.

Permissions and regulations

Check with your strata or tenants’ association to ensure you are complying with building codes, and be sure your insurance coverage is not jeopardized by the addition of a living wall or heavy planters.

Load

When a living wall is attached to a permanent structure, this will add weight or “load.” Florafelt Vertical Planters, for example, weigh about 5 lbs per square foot (2.25 kg/930 sq cm) when planted and wet. Consult your building manager, a living-wall expert, or architect as required to confirm you are working within your structure’s load limit.

Drainage

Ensure that overflow will drain efficiently without drenching your neighbour below!

The inside story

No outdoor access? Most vertical-garden suppliers offer indoor options. Grow edibles in your kitchen, or create living art anywhere with beautiful ornamentals such as peace lilies, spider plants, Boston ferns, or ivy—all of which will pump fresh oxygen into your home’s atmosphere. Plus, the millions of active organisms in the soil will help neutralize toxins, says Florafelt’s Bribach, who emphasizes that for good health it is crucial for all of us to reconnect with plants and bring them into our lives wherever we can.

Trellises, towers, tall wall planters, and lots of pots

Alongside pocket systems, there are many flexible and fun options for outdoor vertical gardening, from windowsill pots (plants grow up) to hanging baskets (plants grow down) to wall-garden shelving units. Another effective strategy is to plunge stakes or trellising into a trough or raised bed and tuck in peas, eggplant, container-sized zucchini, and other edible ramblers.

But there is one caution, says Wong: “Sometimes our eyes are bigger than the stakes provided, and tomatoes or cucumbers outgrow their supports and flop over!” He emphasizes investing in robust supports that won’t buckle beneath your beans.

Another investment for success, says Wong, is in self-watering containers. With a reservoir that wicks water into the soil, a self-watering pot allows the gardener some forgiveness if they get busy or take a trip. Self-watering patio planters range from the EarthBox, ideal with trellising, to the smaller Balconera railing kits, to the stately stand-alone Cascadia tower.

Think big!

When choosing pots for vertical plantings, pick the largest pot possible, says Wong, “and consider the mature size of the plants you want to grow.” In addition to allowing for more robust plants, increased soil volume means more nutrients up front, so you don’t have to worry about fertilizing as often.

DIY planters and stackers

Don’t be afraid to DIY when it comes to vertical gardening. Look online for hundreds of impressive pallet-to-wall-planter conversions. Or search DIY hanging or stackable gardens to turn a barren wall into a bountiful work of living art.

Right plant, right place

When planning your garden, remember that golden rule of gardening: sun-loving plants need sun—at least six hours of it—best delivered between 10 am and 4 pm. This includes most herbs, vegetables, and small fruits. If you’re working with a dimmer corner, though, there are edibles—such as lettuce, peas, chives, cilantro, and mint—that are content with less and your best bets for success in a lower-light setting.

Companion planting

A key component of organic growing in dense vertical plantings, says Wong, is companion planting: alternate your edible greens with marigolds to deter infestations of aphids and other pests. Or, conversely, plant nasturtiums in the far reaches of your vertical garden as a trap crop—aphids love nasturtiums and will bunch onto them in clusters rather than latch onto your lettuce.

Soil & supplements

As herbs, vegetables, and small fruits in vertical gardens are often compartmentalized into a small pot or pocket, invest in the best organic soil for container plantings your local nursery offers. And provide ongoing nutrient boosts—sprinkle in worm castings, drizzle in compost tea or worm juice (the runoff from your worm composter) or add mushroom compost and/or organic granular or liquid fertilizers balanced in macro- and micronutrients.

A worm bin is the ultimate apartment-friendly composter, says Chris Wong—the worms last all year long, don’t smell or attract insect pests and require only a few minutes of care a week, and the castings you can collect provide outstanding organic nourishment for your vertical garden.

Moisture matters

No matter which way you garden vertically, each plant will be within its own small space and vulnerable to drying out. For ease of mind, opt for self-watering pots or set up an irrigation system. Or, if it works for you, make it a daily Zen ritual to commune with your plants while you give each pocket or pot a top-up (being careful not to overdo it and flood their roots).

“When planning your vertical garden, there is a strong correlation between time and money: the more time you can spend on your garden the less money is needed,” says Wong.

Weather wise

Gardeners in the warmer western zones of Canada may be able to overwinter many of their edible plantings outside, while those in colder spots may be wise to harvest what they can before plants die back in late fall.

For those in colder zones, cold frames or other protections may ensure the survival of kale, carrots, perennials, hard-neck garlic, onions, and many herbs into November and December, says Wong. January through March, however, are tougher for plants to survive. If possible, he recommends bringing plantings inside. Some containers, like the EarthBox, have the option of wheels that make out-to-inside transitions easier.

How your vertical garden can save bees

Humans rely on bees more than any other creature on earth, says Vancouver’s Lori Weidenhammer, author of Victory Gardens for Bees: A DIY Guide to Saving the Bees (Douglas & McIntyre, 2016), the 2016 winner of the Nature & Environment category of the National Outdoor Book Awards.

Yet bees are also one of the most threatened creatures on earth, says Weidenhammer, and their populations can crash quickly because of pesticides, disease, and loss of habitat. European honeybees are only one species out of 20,000 in the world that require our protection. More than ever, native bees such as bumblebees, leafcutter, and mason bees need help.

Every bit of forage—on porches, patios, balconies, or in backyards—helps create life-saving pollinator corridors for indigenous bees.

Edible herbs that flow over the edges of a tower garden, such as Greek oregano or trailing rosemary, provide energy for honeybees and bumblebee queens. Varieties of nasturtiums that have nectar spurs at the back spill out of vertical gardens beautifully and nourish bees and hummingbirds.

Some of the best climbing/trailing food vines for bees are scarlet runner beans, perennial sweet peas, and adorable mouse melon with tiny watermelon-like fruit. And thyme and wild strawberry plants tucked into pocket gardens provide a life-saving pit stop for tiny bees that cannot travel long distances to find nectar and pollen.

Bees need blooms, so when pruning your plants or snipping your supper, be sure to leave some flowers for famished foragers.

Pick a theme

Wondering which way to go with your plantings? These planting palettes are sure to please.

Healthy herbs

full sun

With the exception of basil, these tasty, health-boosting herbs are all perennial in warmer climes or when given adequate protection through the winter—and are excellent bee plants too.

  • basil (any of the many delicious choices)
  • herb fennel (if kept small by cutting back)
  • oregano (Greek)
  • rosemary (creeping)
  • sage (variegated, purple, or green)
  • thyme (Mother of Thyme)

Greens for salads and smoothies

part shade or cool season

Plant many colours of kale, chard, and lettuce—from green to red to purple—along with zippy chives, radishes, sorrel, and more.

  • arugula (annual)
  • chard (biennial)
  • chives (perennial)
  • French sorrel (perennial)
  • kale (biennial)
  • lettuce (annual)
  • parsley (biennial)
  • peas (annual)
  • radishes (annual)

Bee and beverage garden

full sun to part shade

Enjoy refreshing hot or cold tea made with lemony herbs or one of the many flavourful mints: apple, chocolate, ginger, peppermint, or spearmint. Grow borage for its bee-loved blossoms and freeze a few of its tiny blue flowers in ice cubes for a gorgeous garden brew.

  • borage (self-seeding annual)
  • mint (perennial)
  • lemon balm (perennial)
  • lemon catnip (perennial)

Sunshine flavours

full sun

Celebrate summer with the taste of sunshine.

  • basil (cinnamon, holy, lemon, lime, and Thai)
  • tomatoes (Black Cherry, Sun Gold, or Super Sweet)
  • rosemary (Huntington Carpet)
  • strawberries (alpine or ever-bearing)

Snip and snack

Whether you’re growing lettuce, kale, chives, or chard, instead of yanking out a whole plant for salads or smoothies, simply snip some leaves. Taking no more than a third of the plant at once and allowing time for regrowth before harvesting again, you can gather greens from the same plants for months on end. Meanwhile, your living wall will remain lush looking and the trimming will discourage plants from becoming leggy and going to seed.

Weeds to leave

Are unwanted green guests digging into your vertical garden? Don’t panic! Get to know your weeds and you will find that some of these drop-ins are nature’s version of a free lunch. Chickweed, wild sorrel, and dandelion, for example, are three very nourishing common callers to any garden and can even look quite smart if trimmed regularly for adding to salads and smoothies.

Recipe: Minted Kale with Peas and Blue Cheese

“Minted Kale with Peas and Blue Cheese” recipe excerpted with permission from The Book of Kale & Friends: 14 Easy-to-Grow Superfoods, 130+ Recipes, by Sharon Hanna and Carol Pope (Douglas & McIntyre).

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