The Small-Space Gardening Solution Experts Love (It Looks So Good!)

published Jun 10, 2024
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collage of vertical planting
Credit: Photos: Shutterstock, Lauren Kolyn; Design: Apartment Therapy

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Starting a garden can seem impossible when you’re short on outdoor space. However, vertical gardens are the perfect solution when you don’t have a lot of square footage to work with. They’ve gained popularity for their ability to grow plenty of plants while taking up very little space. Also known as living walls, a vertical garden can instantly beautify outdoor spaces with a lush plant wall. 

Curious about how to start one yourself? We tapped four gardening experts for their insight on what constitutes a vertical garden, and how to set one up. See what materials you need to construct a thriving (and tall!) garden, tips for maintenance, and which plants thrive best in a vertical garden. Once you’ve got the basics down, you can get to work on a vertical garden for your own balcony, deck, or patio.

What Is a Vertical Garden?

“A vertical garden grows on a vertical surface, a wall, or a trellis created to support plants,” says Marie-Helene Attwood, founder of Edible Petals. There’s no one way to create a vertical garden — there are many possibilities! “They can be indoors or outdoors, be as simple as vines, or an elaborate system that covers a massive space,” says Far Out Flora founder, Megan Speckmann. “I’d even consider a wall of shelving filled with potted plants a vertical garden,” she adds.

One thing all vertical gardens have in common is their space-efficient design. “[This allows] plants to grow upwards rather than the traditional horizontal method many of us are accustomed to,” says Quilenthia Wingfield-Accime, founder of Dearest Garden

“There is no limit to what type of plants can be grown in this fashion,” Wingfield-Accime says. “From flowers to vegetables, many plants are well suited to vertical growing.” She adds that the “tough decision” is deciding how to display all your plants.

Credit: Amy Stewart

Where to Plant a Vertical Garden

Vertical gardens’ superpower is their ability to thrive in areas with constraints to traditional growing. “Smaller spaces where planting area is limited is my preferred space, as opposed to the large living wall installations,” Speckmann says. “Simplicity will give you the longest-lasting results.” 

Small patios, decks, and balconies are prime candidates for a vertical garden. Of course, if you have ample outdoor space, you can still construct a vertical garden against a wall. That’s the beauty of this method; you can make it work almost anywhere! “Outdoors, it can be used to create a focal point or to disguise the blind side of a shed or a retaining wall,” Attwood says. “Inside, it can be a welcome sight when you come home or a source of herbs and greens in the kitchen.”

Even if your patio or balcony doesn’t get much sun, Wingfield-Accime says you can choose plants suited to growing in full and partial shade. “You could place the plants that require more sun around the edges of the patio,” Wingfield-Accime says. She recommends using hanging and wall planters to make the most of your space, adding that “free-standing vertical planters would work as well.”

If you have your choice of where to face your vertical garden, Parrish recommends one of two options. “A sweet spot would be east-facing (morning) or west-facing (afternoon) sun, as those areas aren’t too harsh on plants,” she says. “But again, it really varies with the type of plants you’ll be using.” 

Credit: Annara/Shutterstock

What You Need to Construct a Vertical Garden

Once you’re ready to start creating your vertical garden, you can either opt for a kit or go DIY. “If you prefer something a little more modern, there are pre-built vertical gardens out there that have simple setups right out of the box that will have you growing vertically within the hour,” Wingfield-Accime says. To create a more elaborate setup, you can get specific kits to build trellises or install self-watering containers. 

“There are also vertical hanging felt pockets that you can attach to any flat surface to create a vertical garden,” says plant consultant and content creator Britt Parrish. You’ll also want to look for specific features in the containers that will house the plants before opening your wallet. “Light materials like recycled plastic, stainless steel, or aluminum will allow you to scale [up],” Attwood advises.

When it comes to the framing, which is often a trellis, you can use items you already have. “I have seen gardeners go the DIY route using upcycled materials, such as gutters and foraged sticks, made into a trellis to grow vining vegetables on,” Wingfield-Accime explains. “Currently, I am using railings from my son’s old crib to grow cucumbers. The railings are in their third season of use and are quite worn, but they still get the job done.”

Once you have a frame, you’ll need soil, mountable garden pots/containers, and, of course, sunlight, water, and plants. 

Credit: dmf87/Getty Images/iStockphoto

The Best Plants for a Vertical Garden

“The beauty of vertical gardens is that you can customize it to your liking and play around with different types of plants,” Parrish says. If your space (indoors or outside) has southern or western exposure with lots of sunlight, Attwood recommends plants that “thrive in dry, temperate habitats,” like orchids, petunias, and nasturtiums, and herbs like thyme and oregano. Succulents are also good candidates for very sunny spots.

However, if you only have space facing north or east, you might only get “two to three hours of direct sunlight per day,” Attwood says. “You should [plant] subtropical forest dwellers, like Boston fern or pothos.” Other good options for low light include pansies, foam flowers, carex grasses, and annuals like lobelia, begonias, or coleus. 

Speckmann recommends using epiphytic plants, which grow on another plant or object for support, for vertical gardens. “Staghorn ferns, orchids, and many bromeliads look wonderful mounted on a wooden surface with sphagnum moss,” she says. (Speckmann notes these plants are particularly great indoors.)

Craving some edible plants in your garden? Wingfield-Accime’s picks include strawberries, bush beans, runner beans, lettuce, and herbs. “Growing strawberries in this way is a sight because the runners will cascade down the sides of the planter, allowing for a beautiful display of fresh strawberries,” she says.

Wingfield-Accime suggests interplanting flowers with vegetables — like a combo of peppers, petunias, and marigolds — for ideal growth. “Not only does this promote pollinator activity for vegetable plants, [but] it is also a beautiful display of color and edibles,” she says. Pro tip: If you want to grow tomatoes in a vertical garden, Wingfield-Accime recommends “micro dwarf or dwarf varieties.” 

Finally, Attwood suggests using vines to tie together your design. She likes climbing hydrangea and creeping jenny while layering annual vines for summer flowers, like mandevilla. She notes to avoid wisteria or trumpet vines, which she says are beautiful but can “grow to be absolute menaces.”

How to Maintain a Vertical Garden

To help simplify what can be meticulous upkeep, Attwood installs narrow planters at different heights with a trellis connecting them to allow for space to grow. “It still creates the softness of living plants, but without the constant humidity,” Attwood says. She adds that this setup helps you water less and allows the plants to thrive longer. 

Experts agree that a drip irrigation or self-watering system is ideal for outdoor vertical gardens. Wingfield-Accime says they can help take the guesswork out of the process. “Drip-irrigation also delivers water directly to the roots, eliminating accidental over-watering, which a lot of us, myself included, can be guilty of,” she says. “Most self-watering planters keep the water away from the roots, which prevents root rot,” Wingfield-Accime adds. Attwood suggests scheduling the irrigation for 5 a.m. so the roots can absorb moisture before the sun shows up.

If you’re keeping things simple with mounted shelves and pots, you can hack your way to less daily watering. “I added a fabric wick to the bottom of the pots and only needed to water once every two weeks,” Speckmann shares. “That system also allowed me to move the plants around easily. All I needed was a small ladder and a watering can,” she says.

“The rule of thumb with watering indoor plants is that you’ll need to give about 10% to 15% of the volume of the pot every week — more in the summer, less in the winter,” Attwood says. She suggests choosing resilient indoor plants that can handle a little neglect. Indoors, Speckmann is partial to a heart-leaf philodendron because “it tolerates low light and water conditions.”

Whatever you plant, make sure you have a strategy: The experts advise grouping plants with similar watering and lighting needs for easier maintenance.