Off the wall: vertical gardening

Break away from traditional gardens and go vertical.

If you thought the vertical gardening fad was going to go away, a visit to the Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show would have changed your mind. Green walls were everywhere and even if, like me, you don’t quite get them, they were fascinating all the same.

The concept of growing plants on walls – invented by a rather gorgeous, green-haired Frenchman called Patrick Blanc (should have been Vert) – is alive and well in Australia, as well as many other countries around the world.

The green-haired Patrick started the trend close to 50 years ago when he began training the aquatic plants in his aquarium to grow up his bedroom wall. A strange pursuit for a 13-year-old Parisian boy, agreed. As the plants grew, he developed different support methods for them, pumping water from his aquarium to irrigate what was becoming a bedroom jungle.

Since then, he’s designed and installed amazing vertical gardens in San Francisco, Singapore, Hong Kong, Bahrain and Berlin, and is still exploring the concept with a brilliant flair that has evolved as organically as the walls themselves. His walls are a fusion of science, art nature, and above all else are breathtakingly beautiful.

Those of us who are lucky to have large pieces of land probably have no need for vertical gardening, apart from as an artistic pursuit. But globally, there are plenty of places where it’s just about a necessity. In a vertical garden, vegetables, fl owers and fruit all grow and spiral upwards using columns, walls, trellises and arches as support.

They can be used to transform a roof garden or balcony, create a feature wall in a courtyard, or cover the massive walls of commercial buildings – and they’re sprouting almost everywhere. On a more practical note, vertical gardens use less space and are easier on the back. They create a greenscape where you might not otherwise have room for one. They give a high yield for little effort and are less susceptible to pests – perhaps because bugs will only climb so far for a feed.

There are hundreds of varieties of vegetables, fruits and flowers that will happily grow upwards. Many are best grown vertically, such as tomatoes and beans. The key to a successful vertical garden is selection.

Vine-style beans are likely to yield better than bush beans, giving continuous produce. This is because the more you pick, the more the plant forms new flowers and fruit to prolong the harvest. I’m keen to test this theory with a pumpkin – a committed vine plant. I just haven’t figured out what to do when the pumpkins form 6m up the wall.

There are lots of ways to grow plants vertically. The easiest is to clear a strip of soil – about 25cm wide – against an existing wall and assemble trellis or attach some netting to it. If you want free-form vertical gardens that don’t start from the ground, you can use Gabionstyle boxes. These will act as soil-filled building blocks, and enable you to plant a living wall of art.

Other gardeners have used plastic pipes, trays fixed to the wall, and timber frames for their vertical walls. Remember, soil-based systems which are not grounded are basically just pot plants and need to be maintained in a similar way.

There are also landscaping companies in New Zealand who will design and build you a vertical garden if you are stuck, but if you just want to try something creative and different, make your own.

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