How to Grow a Vertical Garden

Here’s how to get started with the latest green-thumb trend.


Decide on the Type of Garden

Photo by Will Heap (c) Dorling Kindersley/Getty Images

There are many different varieties of vertical gardens to choose from. One easy option is a container-style garden, which means potted plants are attached to a wall or displayed in rows, or planters are stacked. Another is a “pocket” garden, featuring plants tucked into pockets made from felt or canvas. Vertical gardens can also be grown in a large plastic or wooden wall planter with slots or panels, or in recycled wooden shipping pallets—for these systems, the soil is less contained, so wire mesh is occasionally used to prevent the contents from spilling. In wooden pallets (which you can purchase at Walmart or other home renovation stores), landscaping fabric is stapled to the back, bottom, and sides of the pallet. The inside of the pallet is completely filled with soil, and plants are grown in the slat openings.


Think About Placement

A vertical garden can go just about anywhere – indoors or outdoors. Let the type of sun exposure the plants will need determine where you place the garden. For example, if you’re planning on including succulent plants (like cacti), Brian Sullivan, Vice President for Gardens, Landscape and Outdoor Collections at The New York Botanical Garden, suggests choosing a space that has “half-exposure,” as opposed to full shade or full sun. “Some of the containers available are modular so you can hang them outside for the summer and bring them indoors for the winter,” says Sullivan.


Choose Your Plants

In addition to succulents, you can try growing herbs, vegetables, trailing varieties like philodendron, native perennials (plants or flowers that are naturally grown in certain regions), and ferns, suggests Janice Goodman, President of Cityscapes Inc. in Boston. You’ll want to be aware of the “flexibility” of these plants since you’re growing them vertically. “I would be inclined to try herbaceous plants more so than woody ones, because the herbaceous kind are a little more flexible in the way they fall,” says Sullivan. Woody varietals—like trees, shrubs, or vines—have rigid, wooden stems, so they’ll grow parallel to the floor and stick out instead of flowing down. On the other hand, herbaceous plants, like flowers and ferns, have soft, green stems, so they’ll “droop” down.


Mix Plants with the Same “Habit”

“In general, you’ll want to choose all-sun or all-shade plants,” says Sullivan. “You also want to use ones that have the same rate of growth. Let’s say you put one that has slow growth next to one with faster growth; the more aggressive kind is going to take over and shade out the other.”


Start With Planting Basics

“Use potting soil – that is key,” says Chris Lambton, a professional landscaper and host of DIY Network’s Yard Crashers. “Vertical gardens dry out quickly just like pots will. Potting soil helps retain the water and hold in the moisture.” Another important factor is gravity, which pulls the water down. “Plants that don’t need as much water are recommended for the top part of the garden, since that part dries quickly,” says Goodman. Place the ones more suited for wetter conditions at the bottom of the system.


Prep Beforehand

If you’re using a wooden pallet or container with panels, you’ll want to grow the plants horizontally for a few weeks to let the roots establish themselves and help hold the soil in place. “If you try to plant it vertically first, the roots have to grow still so you’re dealing with gravity pulling your soil,” says Sullivan. “Sometimes people use wire and glue to hold things together, but I find that when you grow it flat at first and then stand it up, the plant does the work.” You can also slowly elevate the container to a vertical position over the course of a few weeks to secure the garden.


Consider a Drip Irrigation System

At first, your vertical garden might need more maintenance than a regular in-the-ground garden or container plant. These living walls are more compact and therefore have less soil, so they may need to be watered more often. “Watering can be tricky and the bigger the living wall, the more I would recommend incorporating drip irrigation,” says Becky Bourdeau, landscape designer at Potted in Los Angeles. These drip systems range from sophisticated with hoses and timers to more basic in which holes in the bottom of planters or pockets allow for water to drip down. You can also use a watering can as you would with containers, but you’ll want to be sure that water is being evenly distributed.


Keep Some Extras on Hand

Of course, some greens will die out. “You might lose a couple of plants, so you’ll get holes and it will start to look ugly,” says Sullivan. “Keep a few extras on the side as a backup or insurance, so you can just plug in the new one.” This is especially easy if you have a container-style garden where there’s more of a separation between the plants.