Creating an Outdoor Vertical Garden: Garden Styles for Smaller Spaces

An outdoor vertical garden.

Gardening can be a challenge if you live in a small apartment with a tiny concrete patch of outdoor space. To optimize a limited footprint, try different garden styles to grow vines, vegetables, flowers and herbs above ground with an outdoor vertical garden.

Outdoor Vertical Garden Advantages

Vertical gardens grow upward with the help of mounted, hanging or freestanding supports, as opposed to growing horizontally in the ground. This type of gardening offers a number of advantages.

Maximizes Space

Making use of surfaces like walls, fences, or stair or balcony railings leaves the ground and floor area free for other purposes. You can use vertical gardening to grow more in much less space than with traditional in-ground gardening.

Provides Privacy and Functional Design

On a space without walls, tall free-standing structures can multitask as privacy screens. Or, a bare wall or fence can become an ornamental and even edible living painting, either as a focal point or to cover up an unsightly view.

Easier to Cultivate and Maintain

Growing at eye level means no bending over, which is great for gardeners with physical limitations. You can sit or stand to plant, maintain and harvest your garden.

Finally, because outdoor vertical gardens grow off the ground with more air circulation and better drainage, they're less prone to soil-borne diseases, fungi, pests and rot than gardens in a garden bed.

How to Grow a Vertical Garden

As outdoor vertical gardens grow differently from those planted in the ground, you'll need to:

  • Water more frequently, as vertical gardens may dry out faster. Be sure to always check the seed packet for proper watering instructions.
  • Use a good quality potting medium, not garden soil. This will help retain moisture and isn't too heavy.
  • Choose a structure that's appropriate for the plant type, and ensure it's durable enough to handle the weight of the plant and potting mix.
  • Combine plants with the same growing requirements, either all sun or all shade, to prevent a faster-growing variety from overtaking its companion.

Different Types of Vertical Gardens

Explore different garden styles, such as mounted, suspended or freestanding gardens, using commercially available kits or some of the many DIY solutions.

Pocket Planters

With pockets of breathable textile, these hanging planters work best for shallow-rooted plants grown from seedlings. Once plants get too big, split them apart or replant. If you're looking to DIY, cloth shoe pockets work — just poke some small holes for drainage.

Trellises and Free-Standing Gardens

Both functional and decorative, freestanding supports run the gamut from cages, arbors and tuteurs to trellises.

Trellises can support vining plants and crawlers vertically along their surface. To cover more surface space, position a fan trellis with the largest point at the top and place another upside down next to it.

For an easy project with kids, build a trellis from bamboo stakes tied together at the top with twine. Or use an A-frame trellis for growing squash, peas, cucumbers or climbing ornamental vines.

Pallet Gardens

Try turning slatted wood pallets into vertical gardens by attaching them to a wall or leaning them against one. Plants will grow through the openings and fill out to cover most of the pallet. To keep the soil inside, staple landscaping fabric to the back, bottom and sides of each slat. Fill with potting mix, making sure to tuck the root balls securely in place between slats. For edibles, avoid pallets made of pressure-treated wood or those marked "MB" (methyl bromide) as they could leach toxins.

Hanging Gardens

Use S-hooks to attach pots to a wire grid attached to a wall. Or, try hanging containers from the horizontal rods on an accordion-style laundry drying rack that's easy to fold up and stash away at the end of the growing season.

Upside-down planters and hanging baskets are also perfect for determinate bush-type tomatoes like the 'Sweetheart of the Patio Hybrid' that trail down from the side of the pot.

If you're feeling extra creative, drill some drainage holes into some gutters and attach them to a wall in a pattern, or hang them vertically in rows connected with a chain or rope.

Ladder or Stacked Gardens

Place pots on the steps of a wooden ladder, then lean the ladder against a flat surface.

For a stacked garden, pile wooden crates, rectangular planters or cinder blocks in a grid or pattern. Mix a variety of plants in separate boxes, placing sun-loving plants on top levels to protect shade-loving plants below.

Garden Towers

A garden tower that grows 50 plants makes vertical gardening in very little space simple. Garden towers can recycle nutrients and save water, and some create compost through an integrated vermicomposting system.

Good Plants for Vertical Gardens

Vertical garden plants are either climbing/vining or nonclimbing. Some climbers cling to a structure as they grow, while top-heavy ones need to be gently tied to a sturdy stake or support.

For trellises, avoid woody plants with stiff stems that won't grow upward. Go for trailing plants with soft stems like philodendron and ferns that flow over the edges.

Flowering annuals don't require a lot of soil and provide beautiful color for your space. Climbers that don't become too heavy include morning glory, sweet peas, scarlet runner beans and hyacinth beans.

You can also try fruiting vines such as 'Hardy' kiwi or the edible flower vining nasturtium.

For pocket planters and pallets, choose shallow-rooted edibles such as shallots, radishes, 'Malabar' spinach, kale and other leafy veggies, strawberries and edible flowers such as pansies.

Plant deeper-rooted vining plants like cucumbers, squash, cherry tomatoes, peas and pole beans in a container and train them to climb upward on a trellis along a wall or up a balcony railing.

To elevate your gardening savvy to new heights, check out the Burpee page on staking and supports.

Written by Robin Plaskoff Horton, Urban Gardens

Robin Horton is a home and garden writer and publisher of the award-winning and Webby-nominated design, lifestyle and travel blog, Urban Gardens.

August 30, 2021
©2020 W.Atlee Burpee & Co