By Colleen O'Neill Nice
High-rise gardens are everywhere. Traveling in Spain last spring, I was inspired by the work of French botanist and father of the living wall, Patrick Blanc. At the CaixaForum Madrid (a modern art gallery), Blanc painted an exterior wall with 15,000 plants including more than 250 species. Sweeping brushstrokes of intense foliage colors and textures consume a canvas extending four stories high. Last spring, during a visit to Floriade, an international horticultural exhibition in the Netherlands, I photographed several examples of elevated gardens. One simple, yet engaging idea used a stockade fence to display single plant specimens mounted in pots. Although all the plants were green, the use of crisp, clear handwritten plant labels added a botanistic look to the display.
Closer to home, impressive, floor-to-ceiling green walls climb upward in the conservatory at Longwood Gardens near Philadelphia. Packed with ferns, spider plants, grape ivy, philodendron and moss, the fourteen foot walls feature ethereal textures and shapes. Situated in the Atlanta Botanical Garden, an herb wall complements an outdoor kitchen where the city’s noted chefs provide cooking classes during the summer. At Chanticleer, a pleasure garden in Wayne, Pennsylvania, rusty chains spilling with succulents hang in the “ruin garden”. According to Fran DiMarco, administrative assistant at Chanticleer, “We salvaged this hardware from a church being demolished on North Broad Street in Philadelphia, 17 or 18 years ago. It actually predates the ruin garden which was constructed in 2000. The chain and cups were on a continuous loop bringing coal from the coal bins to feed the church furnace.” So gather inspiration from near or far to design your own vertical garden. Probe nurseries and online sources for uncommon vegetation. Use found items or engineered components. Have fun!
Start simple. Many retailers like Pottery Barn, Williams-Sonoma and Lowes offer vertical gardening configurations. The galvanized, stacked pockets at Pottery Barn are great for stashing succulents. Try mounting two planters side-by-side for an easy-to-harvest herb garden. Each planter features ten pockets with plenty of room for all your culinary greenery. Williams-Sonoma stocks copper and reclaimed wood vertical wall planters; indoor/outdoor free standing vertical gardens; and an easy-to-label chalkboard wall planter surrounding ten planting cells. If you are a do-it-yourselfer, check out the garden projects at Lowes. The fence gutter garden, PVC-ring fence trellis or the PVC sleeve planters are creative ways to grow vertical. And if you have not tried the topsy turvy tomato, this hanging marvel is a real space saver. Plow & Hearth sells their version of the upside down tomato with three ports for herbs, so you can grow the perfect pairing – tomatos and basil, if you so desire.
Buy local. Masterson’s Nursery in East Aurora has the perfect answer for greening up a small patio or deck. The Gronomics Vertical Garden is handcrafted in the USA of western red cedar with a small footprint, just two square feet. It includes a drip irrigation system and boasts 17 feet of linear growing space with no assembly required. Quick, easy and instant green! Patti Jablonski-Dopkin, general manager at Urban Roots Community Garden Center in Buffalo suggests, “the Woolly Pocket recycled felt planters or the hard plastic living wall planter.” The new modular design features a vented, hard shell which allows excessive moisture to escape and a self watering tank that lasts up to two weeks, depending on the plants and environment. Made in the USA of recycled plastic, it is available in several colors. Zehrs on the Lake Farm Market & Nursery sells Kinsmen products including hayrack planters, an alternative to traditional window boxes. The hayracks are a classic European design and include a coco-fiber liner. Owner Mark Van Buren and family are magicians with plant combinations and can help you design the perfect hayracks to compliment your home and garden. Go vertical with trees. At Wayside Garden Center in Macedon they grow columnar pear and peach trees, as well as dwarf apple trees – perfect to train on an espalier. They also sell hanging moss globes, living wreath forms and hanging planting bags – great for growing potatoes, strawberries or flowering plants. At Sarah’s Garden Center in Brockport, unique decorative trellises come in all shapes and sizes. Add a clematis or variegated morning glory and let the climbing begin. A prettified antique birdcage overflows with a plethora of plants. Hang it from a tree or shepard’s hook for on-the-spot verticality. At Sarah’s you can find tall, linear urns, tree-form trumpet vines and hanging ‘tumbling tom’ tomatoes.
Just recycle. Take an old croc, line it with sphagnum moss and fill it with a soilless mix. And add a favorite plant or two, then hang it from the heel strap. Creative and easy, this vertical shoe-in will keep draping pineapple or chocolate mint from invading your garden beds. Use bright colors to spray paint your old tomato cages. Flip the cages over and secure the bottom ring to the ground with garden staples. Pull the legs together and add a decorative finial. Gardener’s Supply Company sells an adorable honey bee garden finial set with a terra cotta beehive and six honeybees. They also stock inexpensive garden cane connectors in sets of six to create garden tepees from bamboo stakes. The silicone and rubber connectors hold up to six bamboo canes and are reusable. So create a few obelisks to grow cucumbers, peas, squash or miniature pumpkins for a vertical space-saving vegetable garden. Gardeners Supply Company is 100% employee owned by gardeners. View their online catalog at www.gardeners.com.
Illuminating experiences from my travels bring it all home. My own vertical garden started a few years ago when I needed to soften a brick wall adjacent to my back porch. The first year I staggered three Kinsman wall baskets attaching them with brick clips. Lee Valley offers three sizes of clips to fit the height of your brick (www.leevalley.com). Baskets can then be removed easily for filling and repositioning. My living wall added an interesting backdrop for my outdoor dining space with activity from dragonflies and hummingbirds. After the summer annuals faded, I filled the baskets with fall seedheads from my garden including astilbe, quaking oat grass and pardancanda. I used panicles from hydrangeas and sedum to add additional color for the fall. In early winter, I tucked in small red bows and evergreen cuttings from my Christmas tree. Once spring arrived, I removed the dried arrangements, added fresh soil and planted cheerful, fragrant pansies and sweet alyssum. For the first time in ten years my pansies were not decapitated. Thankfully, the rabbits in my neighborhood don’t own stilts yet.
Last year, I expanded my vertical garden with four more Kinsman wall planters.To create cohesion within the display, I used a mélange of ferns as my primary plant. The textures were glorious. The climbing maidenhair ferns (Lygodium microphyllum) cascaded down and climbed throughout the planters. The Japanese painted ferns (Athyrium niponicum ‘Pictum’) sparkled in soft shades of purple, grey and silver green. Begonias, caladium, coleus, fuschia, ivy, New Guinea impatiens, plectranthus, and sweet potato vines joined the party. Birds wedged nests between the foliage, while the bees enjoyed the flowers.
Plants, plants, plants. When selecting plants to use in full sun, drought tolerant sedums and succulents mean minimal watering and low maintenance. For vertical gardens with drip irrigation or self watering tanks, try edibles like strawberries or leaf lettuce. Vegetables specifically designed for growing in pots are vertically friendly. Renee’s Garden features an impressive list of gourmet vegetable seeds suitable for container gardens (www.reneesgarden.com). Herbs can be grouped together for easy access from the kitchen. Be sure to include oregano, thyme and mint which provide a draping disposition. Create a tropical living wall with orchids, hoyas, ivies, calla lilies and bromeliads. Use sun loving annuals. Mix in cascading plants like trailing geranium, lantana, cascading petunia, calibrachoa, dichondra and verbena. Include mounding plants like annual grasses, salvia, gazania and angelonia. Add fragrance with heliotrope, stock, sweet alyssum, four o’clocks and sweet peas.
For a vertical shade garden, experiment with foliage favorites like dwarf caladium, needlepoint ivy, coleus, perilla, hypoestes, sweet potato vine and plectranthus. Add floridity with fuschia, new guinea impatiens, begonia, torenia, browallia and viola. Mix in divisions from your perennial garden including miniature hosta, ajuga, lamium, hardy geraniums and liriope. Many perennials like astilbe, columbine, corydalis, hellebores, heuchera, lady’s mantle, pulmonaria, and violets reseed, so use the babies to fill in. Add ferns like the deer, maidenhair, dre’s dagger or American wall fern for texture. Split your tropical ferns like the Lemon Button or boston fern and mix with hardy, perennial ferns. Remember to group plants together that require similar cultural conditions by considering exposure, water and fertilizing needs.
Vertical gardens take advantage of limited ground space while invigorating plentiful vertical space. Make use of elevation to deter rabbits that nibble on your strawberries or devour your blossoms. Create additional habitats for birds and insects. Smartly position plants near front entrances or on balconies to clean air of pollutants and offset your carbon footprint. Improve air quality both indoors and out, garnering positive health benefits. Create a shield with plants that helps insulate buildings from noise, heat and air pollution. Use tepees, arbors and pergolas to create microclimates. Shade loving plants will thrive under the structure, while the sun lovers clamber over.
Vertical gardens are ideal for growing food in urban settings or on patios. They are more productive than horizontal gardens and practically weed free. Uniquely designed planters allow the garden to be brought up to the gardener, especially for those with bad knees and backs or anyone with limited bending abilities. Vertical gardens bring relaxation and peace, adding a living art form to your garden. Structures like pergolas, obelisks and arches create garden rooms, adding height and depth. Privacy screens of greenery disguise unwanted views of compost areas, sheds and air conditioners. Window boxes and hanging baskets add character, variety, structure and color, thus increasing curb appeal.
But most importantly, vertical gardens expand your garden space, giving you the opportunity to nurture even more plants. So if you are running out of real estate, consider creating a vertical green space and use inspiration from your travels to make it your own.
Printed in the Upstate Gardeners’ Journal, March-April 2015
Succulents grow happily in salvaged ironware hanging in Chanticleer’s ruin garden.
A close-up of the living wall at Longwood Gardens near Philadelphia.
A recycled, hanging croc welcomes visitors
with cascading cuphea.
A series of wall planters, similar to this one,
are filled with shade loving plants
to create a living wall.
At Floriade 2012, pots mounted on a fence display a variety of foliage plants.
A birdcage chock-full of plants at Sarah’s Garden Center in Brockport, NY.
Hayrack planters increase curb appeal by adding color and character at window height.