How to Build a Vertical Vegetable Garden
If you don't have a lot of space for a vegetable garden, vertical gardening may be the perfect solution for you. You may not realize it, but you can grow and harvest great crops of vegetables in 3 to 5-gallon containers. You can even grow great little herb gardens indoors in small containers on window sills. Pole beans and cucumbers are perfect plants for vertical gardening. Plum, roma, and cherry tomatoes can be grown in hanging baskets. I've also grown pumpkins, yardlong beans, potatoes, yellow crookneck squash, and zucchini in my vertical gardens.
In this guide, I'll show you how to put together some vertical gardens of your own and share some tips for how best to maintain them.
Supplies and Instructions for Building a DIY Vertical Garden
Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to build a vertical garden (as pictured above):
What You'll Need:
- Wooden pallet
- Staple gun and staples
- Hammer and nails
- Landscaping paper
- Planting soil
- 1/4-thick medium-density fibreboard (MDF)
- Sand down any rough patches—along with all the corners—on the pallet.
- If the pallet has no backing, nail the MDF to the back using about 12 nails. (This is to prevent the soil from spilling out of the back.)
- Double up your landscaping paper and staple it along the sides, bottom, and back of the pallet.
- Lay your pallet down flat and fill it with potting soil. Press the soil down firmly, but leave enough room for planting.
- Begin planting, starting with the bottom of the pallet. As you work your way up, make sure each of the plants are packed in tight before moving on to the next layer.
- Once all the plants are secured, water them thoroughly.
- Leave your pallet horizontal for two weeks to allow the plants to take root.
- Stand the pallet upright and enjoy!
How to Support Your Vertical Garden
In the photo below, you can see exactly how a vertical garden needs to be built. For one, there needs to be plenty of support for the weight of the plants you're growing. Remember that the vegetables that you're growing vertically can easily be pulled down by strong gusts. So the better support you can have for your vegetables being grown vertically, the better off you will be.
Some people stick their supports in the soil, but I strongly suggest attaching your supports to the containers by screws or nails. That way, you won't have to worry about your vegetables falling down or getting blown over by strong winds or thunderstorms.
You also need to set up the bed for your plants and put the growing supports in place before you ever plant your vegetables in the beds.
Build a Simple Frame
If you need an idea for a place to start, you can just build a sturdy frame like in the photo below (or just a standard cube-like structure). If you build it in a 12' x 12' square, you'll be able to grow all the cucumbers you—and several families—will be able to use. Once you have the frame built, be sure to create a door and cover the sides and top with hog wire.
Be sure that you use treated lumber for your grow frames and for your containers. I put my growing containers around the bottom of the frames, and I put thick black plastic down in the floor of the enclosure to block out grass and weeds. I often set an outdoor chair inside the enclosure and just go out there and sit for a while in the evenings. When the enclosure gets covered with cucumbers, it looks like a cucumber house.
Note: If you're using treated wood boxes for your containers, they should be set on 4" x 4" timbers, or even on railroad ties, so that they will be up off the ground.
How to Encourage Vertical Growth
In many cases, you can just plant something as you normally would and then move the vines to encourage them to grow up and over your vertical supports. I often use cotton gardening twine to tie mature plants to their supports, encouraging them to grow vertically.
Hog Wire Works Great for Added Support
You can also use what is known as hog wire to build great support walls to grow cucumbers on. If you grow your cucumbers this way, you'll be able to walk along the wall of hog wire that they're growing on and pick off the fruits.
To do this, you can put up 4" x 4" wooden posts about 2 feet in the ground with 6 feet sticking up above the ground and fasten hog wire across the poles like a fence. Then plant your cucumber plants along the bottom, about a foot apart. As the cucumber plants grow, train them up onto the hog wire. You can weave the growing plants into the hog wire. The cucumber plants will keep growing, and you'll be rewarded in time with lots of delicious cucumbers along your vertical wall.
Prepare Your Containers and Soil for Vertical Gardening
If you're doing your vegetable gardening in containers, it's important that the containers be prepared correctly with proper drainage and a good mixture of topsoil and fertilizer.
Make Sure Your Containers Drain Well
It's a good idea to bore plenty of drainage holes into your containers and line the bottoms with screen wire (to keep those holes open). I also usually put 4–6 inches of crushed gravel and small stones in the bottoms of my containers—about 1 inch for every 5 inches of soil. I usually purchase the larger crushed gravel, because it allows for more drainage and I like to pack my gravel in.
Once you've packed the gravel in, you can fill the containers to the top with good-quality topsoil and a compost/manure mixture as outlined below.
Use Only Well-Rotted Manure or Compost
Be sure that any manure or compost that you use is very well rotted, or you'll burn your vegetable plants up. Mix 80 percent topsoil and 20 percent well-rotted manure or well-rotted compost for best results. I like to mix my soil in a wheelbarrow when I'm filling up new containers.
How to Prepare Your Soil
Before I plant my vegetables, I add a pound of 5-10-5 fertilizer to the soil every 20 feet along the row of plants. This is in addition to the 20 percent of well-rotted manure or compost.
If you do it this way, you'll find that your plants will start off very strong and grow up and over the vertical supports quickly. When my plants first start to grow vegetables, I side-dress them with another pound of 5-10-5 fertilizer for every 20 feet of plants.
Note: About every three years, I take all the soil out of my containers (down to the gravel) and mix it with more well-rotted manure or well-rotted compost. By "doing the soil over," as I call it, I keep my vegetables growing well. This process is greatly aided by my compost bin, which I highly recommend putting together in your home if you don't already have one.
When Should You Water Your Plants?
Be sure to water your vegetables only when the sun is not shining on them. You really need to water before sunrise or after sunset. I have my sprinklers on timers. They come on at about 10 pm and go off at 10:30 pm. I try to ensure that any soil where I have vegetables planted gets at least one inch of water a week. If it rains this much, then I don't have to water.
Tips on Growing Various Fruits and Vegetables
There are so many different, wonderful foods that you can grow in your vertical garden. Here are just a few that I've had some success with:
Cucumber vines growing up in the air on strong supports will produce huge amounts of scrumptious fruits. If you pick them off with regularity, you'll be rewarded with a bounty of cucumbers to produce tasty pickles with. I like to pick them when they are a little bigger than a man's thumb and make delicious dill pickles with them.
In the early spring or late fall, before it's time to plant other vegetables, you can plant various varieties of potatoes in your containers and grow bumper crops. They will grow very fast in the prepared loose soil.
All types of tomatoes are wonderful for vertical gardening. In the last few years, I've started to grow mostly heirloom tomatoes, including many varieties of cherry and pear tomatoes. While there are many delicious modern tomatoes, nothing beats the flavor of heirlooms. I like to search for seed companies and order their catalogs in the spring. Nothing, and I mean nothing, beats the flavor of heirloom tomatoes that you grow yourself.
Note: When I grow my tomatoes, I also plant marigolds in hanging baskets overhead in my growing enclosures, because tomato worms cannot stand marigolds. The mere presence of marigolds should be enough to keep tomato worms, and various other garden pests, far away from your precious fruits.
I've even had success vertically growing big pumpkins. I did, however, have to use 2" x 4"s to support them. I'll also often add mesh nets under the bigger pumpkins when they get growing to provide them with additional support. I've grown some this way that have weighed over 100 pounds hanging 8–10 feet in the air. I promise you it's quite a sight to see.
In the video below, you'll see how to grow pole beans on a teepee made out of bamboo poles. This is a great way to grow pole beans, especially if you remember to anchor your teepees well with tent stakes and rope so that they won't blow over in a strong wind or thunderstorm.
Be sure to leave enough room to walk in under your teepee and pick pole beans from the inside (as well as from the outside). And don't forget to do your own research and find various varieties to grow, such as yardlong or purple pole beans. Children especially love to see the yardlong pole beans growing, and the beans are so very tasty.
Do Your Own Research
Vertical gardening is vastly superior to row crops in some ways. Pole beans, tomatoes, and cucumbers all grow much better in vertical gardens than they do when planted with the conventional method. Every year, I grow huge amounts of cucumbers, pole beans, and squash using various forms of vertical gardening, and so can you.
Do your own research, and plant things that you and your family like to eat. I keep a journal every year about my gardens so I can refer back to it in the years to come.
Have You Ever Grown Vegetables in a Vertical Garden?
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2012 Thomas Byers