Big on ideas but short on garden space? Maximize your yard's potential by growing up -- not out -- with vertical gardening.
Long a staple in Europe, vertical gardening is blooming among U.S. landscapers, designers and home gardeners looking to transform skinny side yards, bitty balconies and cramped courtyards into living, breathing masterpieces.
"People are trying to maximize every square inch of their property, and more and more people have smaller properties or just a balcony or courtyard, but they still want to have a garden," says Rebecca Sweet, co-author with Susan Morrison of Garden Up! Smart Vertical Gardening for Small and Large Spaces (Cool Springs Press, 2011).
The options are endless. Arbors, trellises, lattice frames, fabric pockets, trellises and obelisks, along with unorthodox methods and materials, such as rebar and even old filing cabinets.
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But don't be daunted.
Vertical gardening is surprisingly beginner-friendly, and experts say supplies are cheap and easy to find at big-box stores.
Sweet, of Los Altos, Calif., and retired horticulturist Tina Aur of Memphis, Tenn., break down the main elements of vertical gardening and offer tips to get your green thumb in gear this summer.
The trendiest vertical gardening technique is living walls -- fences, patio walls or other surfaces covered in plants, flowers, succulents, even fruits and vegetables.
There are two main ways to do this, Sweet says. The first involves modular, mountable tray planters, and the second uses breathable fabric "pockets" that can be hung on a wall.
Sweet suggests starting small with one pocket garden from a manufacturer like Woolly Pockets ($39) that will hold three or four plants. Hang it along a wall or fence that gets partial sun to avoid drying out the smaller amount of soil.
"Instead of flowers, consider planting herbs or vegetables," Sweet says. "Mixing trailing herbs like thyme and oregano with upright red and green lettuces will not only look great, but because your garden will be off the ground, you'll have fewer problems with pests."
Succulents, which don't need as much soil, work better in tray systems because they need better irrigation than the pockets provide, she says.
Aur prefers to train plants and flowers to wrap around lattices, arbors, trellises and other frameworks to give her small gardens more vertical structure and shape.
She uses a combination of Italian cypress trees and trellises coated with clematis vines to create a cozy, outdoor room in her back yard. Aur bought the iron trellises at Lowe's, and under-plants them with roses, columbines, irises and other perennials to take full advantage of the space through layering.
She grows vines on vinyl-coated wire available at hardware and some big-box stores, and hooks the wire onto fences, making it easy to take down for painting or repairs.
Aur also uses the technique with vegetables, using elderberry sticks in stainless steel tubs bought at Home Depot to grow early-season sweet peas with later-producing cantaloupes. She grows cucumbers up a trellis on the back of her greenhouse and under-plants whatever is growing up the poles with strawberries.
"You try to use every inch of space you have," Aur says. "You don't just grow something up, you grow something out of it."
Awkward side yards and other skinny spaces often turn into dumping grounds for toys, old barbecues and other oddities, particularly in the city. Uneven lighting and lack of soil can make these areas challenging for growing. But Sweet says she has yet to "meet the bed that is so skinny you can't plant in it," and suggests layering to create a lush look.
The top or back layer is the backbone of any vertical bed. Sweet suggests vines easily trained to grow flat against a wall like black-eyed susan and clematis, or vase-shaped shrubs and trees like boxleaf azara and flowering maple that allow plenty of room for planting below.
The middle layer should feature perennials with tall, delicate flower stalks or finely textured ornamental grasses such as flowering tobacco, vervain, Scotch heather and yarrow.
"By choosing plants that can be 'seen through,' your skinny space will appear larger and more lush than it really is," Sweet says.
Small-scale grasses, ground-hugging shrubs and compact perennials anchor the bottom layer, she says. Foliage plants are particularly effective in this layer, and provide more months of interest than flowers alone.
"By creating your layers vertically instead of horizontally, even beds a few feet wide can rival the most lavish perennial border," Sweet says.
Turning an old metal filing cabinet into a planter is a cheap, environmentally friendly way to incorporate containers into a vertical garden.
In Apartment Gardening: Plants, Projects and Recipes for Growing Food in Your Urban Home (Sasquatch Books, 2011), author Amy Pennington instructs readers to remove the drawers and lay the filing cabinet on its back. Cut out three pieces of 2-by-4-inch lumber measured to the width of the filing cabinet and, using construction adhesive, glue one on each end and one in the center for structural support.
You can drill locking and swiveling casters into the bottom corners to make the planter portable if you wish.
Then spray-paint the exterior with two coats of primer and two coats of a finish color and allow it to dry completely. Fill it to the top with soil and flowers, or deep-rooted vegetables like tomatoes, kale or rhubarb.
* Online: Somewhere In The Garden, http://morrison-sweet.com/index.html; www.woolly pocket.com; www.verticalgardensolutions.com