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Vertical Gardens - A New Look From an Old Idea

by Nel Newman

Look up, gardeners! Vertical gardens lift everyone’s spirits as plants, pots, and plaques move upward on walls, fences, and trellises. Some say it’s a hot new trend in gardening, a response to our desire for more places to decorate outdoors. I respectfully disagree. In truth, we’re following in classic footsteps. From the hanging gardens of Babylon to thatched roofs sprouting edible vines in Africa to concrete planters adorning old apartment buildings in Amsterdam, human beings have long enjoyed growing ‘up’. There’s surely a practical consideration: sometimes the wall gets the best sunlight, and in crowded spaces may be the only place to grow. But soaring lines are optimistic and inspiring and using them to decorate the garden can make them part of our life everyday.

On a recent visit to Europe, I toured both home gardens and commercial enterprises. Without exception, they showed me how adding the vertical dimension can work in our homes and gardens.

Start with a simple trellis made of wood, iron, or even wide mesh wire (5" [12.7 cm] concrete reinforcing wire works well). Paint it a bright shade for an instantly upright feature. Put these anywhere you want to create a view or screen out one you don’t like. Or use a collection of trellises as focal points along an otherwise long and boring wall.

Hanging baskets brighten lots of porches, hang from eaves and spill off apartment balconies. Hang one beneath another for an easy tower effect; repeat the color or contrast it, use the same size or graduate up from large to small. In growers’ greenhouses, they take off the saucers so water can drain from one to another; try it to conserve water on your tower.

New styles in hanging pots include sturdy forest green tubes with planting holes on all sides. Add soil to the level of the first hole, put in a plant, then add soil to the second hole, and plant that one. When they grow together, the result can be a blooming flower column, or a hanging herb garden.

Bird feeders and nest boxes get hung up every year, so use them to add another upright dimension to the garden. Sink a sturdy pole into a hole filled with concrete. Then attach 2'x4' (60.96 x121.92 cm) arms to hold feeders; a collection of tubular, platform, and fruit holders will welcome a host of birds to your garden. Feathered friends also love water, and you will, too. A weekend project to install a simple recirculating pump in a small fountain on the garden wall repays you most generously with soothing water sounds.

The design difference between a collection of hanging pots and a vertical garden may be the accessories you hang with them. Your Growise Center may feature a wide variety of sentimental plaques, terra cotta sun faces, windchimes, and flagpoles to express your personality right there on the wall. They make fabulous gifts for gardeners, but so do plaster and wooden shelves, columns, and tiered kitchen baskets. There must be a hundred different kinds of pot hangers, too. Some attach directly to the pot with a clip, others are a ring that the pot sits in. Both will support more weight if you attach them to the post, not the fence. But use the fence to twine a vine.

Look at found objects differently and you’ll see art where others see recyclables. An old lamp base becomes a dramatic outdoor candle holder, a wooden crate turns into a display box, and the sign from a long ago business finds a sentimental new home. It’s your garden: let your imagination run wild and hang up everything from antique tools to outgrown children’s toys.

Be sure to use the right tools for these jobs. Concrete nails are designed to be driven into mortar between bricks; other nails won’t do. Protect walls by hanging a strong board across the top of the wall, then hang pot braces and chains from that support. Or build the trellis in front of the wall and attach everything to that.

Pick out plants that thrive in containers, and withstand both rainfall and your watering practices. If you water everyday, don’t grow cacti; conversely, if you aren’t likely to remember to water, look for drought tolerant plants. Many European wall gardens use flowering annuals exclusively for summer color; hard features from gargoyles and signposts to the planters and columns supply enough winter interest by themselves.

When you use a wall or fence as the backdrop to baskets and vines, put up a feeding tower or a tall sculpture, that part of the garden becomes a natural magnet. Attach a few personal accessories, put up a shelf, add a chair below, and this ‘trend’ becomes a delightful statement only you can make.

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