You like the idea of having a lush vertical garden...
either for growing your own fresh produce or for creating a stunning wow feature BUT you don’t want a system that demands your attention like a 2 year old having a tantrum, needs constant mollycoddling with specially mixed formula or needs an engineering degree to install. In order for you and your vertical garden to develop a nourishing ‘give and take’ relationship, you need to be aware of some of the common issues around this type of garden system so that you can choose one that’s going to give years of pleasure for very little TLC.
To be successful with any form of gardening, a landscaper friend of mine once told me to “Think like a plant!”
Every type of vertical garden system needs ongoing maintenance but some require a heck of a lot more than others. So what can cause frustrations for you AND depression for your plants when you elevate them from the horizontal?
N.B. The alerts below are meant to inform, support and empower you in your great decision to go vertical – they are not meant to put you off installing one of these stunning landscape features.
1. Small, cramped root space: this limits plant growth. The smaller the root zone, the faster the water will evaporate and the faster the potting media will dry out so choose a system with a good sized root zone to optimize growth, maximise fertiliser and save on water.
2. Root Shock and Root Rot: Small root zones are also subject to extreme swings of environment, not only from soggy to dry media but also from excessive heat to cold which can cause roots to rot and suffer shock which stresses out your poor plants - not ideal for vibrant blooms or zinging veggies.
3. Complex assembly: Some systems require additional hardware such as battens, frame surrounds and gutters which need a professional to install and also add extra cost. DIY systems require no expertise and come as a complete kit with everything you need. A simple dripper irrigation is easiest to manage if you’re into automation but there’s something rather soothing about old fashioned hand watering that lets you ‘dream off’ for a bit.
4. Dis – ease: Some plant diseases thrive and disperse in water so water based systems that recirculate water from top to bottom and saturate roots can help these diseases to proliferate. It can be quite a business to get rid of these pathogens because they must be completely flushed out of the irrigation system by someone who knows what they’re doing if they are not to reinfect all the plants. Could be a costly job if you have to replace all your plants.
These diseases, if present at all, spread more slowly in soil based systems since they are deprived of their superfast reticulated watering highway and can only travel as far as the water is applied to the soil.
5. Tricky Plant Diet: Yes, ‘diet’ applies to plants too, especially if you use a hydroponic, vertical garden system where a plant’s only nourishment comes from nutrients in the water. Getting the temperature and /or the nutrient mix wrong can cause problems.
6. Insufficient light: at least 6 hours a day is preferable for most plants to thrive so before you buy a vertical garden system select the site for your vertical garden wisely. Durable systems can handle strong sun and shade but select appropriate plants for each condition.
7. Complex Irrigation: Systems that rely on electric pumps and auto timers/alarms are mainly used for commercial Greenwalls and auto backup generators may be needed to kick in when the power fails so that plants are not left literally high and dry with a very small survival window. Soil based systems can use simple dripper systems and have days rather than hours of ‘rescue time’ if irrigation is interrupted and again, an old fashioned hand job can always come to the rescue. A good vertical garden system will also work with hand watering alone.
8. Leakage: Some systems leak water from the sides so inspect carefully. You don’t want to end up with moisture trapped against your wall causing dampness, rot, mould, fungus or nose twitching smells in your lush entertaining area. Wall mounted vertical garden systems that have an airflow behind or are freestanding solve this problem. The backsides of many vertical garden and Greenwall systems actually touch the wall on which they are mounted so if you choose one that does, make sure that it is backed with a durable, damp proof layer that will not get easily snagged or torn and cause leaks.
With the most carefully monitored watering, a heavy downpour can cause vertical garden systems to drip a bit underneath. Not a problem if they are installed over open ground but if you plan to install one over pavers it would be wise to cater for run off with a channel between the pavers or a narrow drain of some kind to avoid having to deal with possible fertiliser stains or dirty water marks on your patio (apparently diluted pool chlorine removes pot plant stains but I have a few undiluted white chlorine splash marks on the slate around my pool so try this remedy at your own risk)
9. Plant restrictions: Some systems are only suitable for certain species of plants such as epiphytes and aerophytes which is a factor if you are seeking to achieve a certain ‘look’ with your Greenwall. Certain plants do well in water based vertical garden systems and many commercially produced herbs/veggies are grown hydroponically BUT any chef will tell you that you can’t beat the taste of soil grown produce. It’s all those merry little microbes, worms and bacteria working as a team in the soil that do it! A huge variety of plants will thrive in soil based systems so these will give you much more freedom of choice.
Think like a plant: If a plant’s natural habitat is growing vertically in soil, doesn’t it make sense to provide it with a soil based vertical garden system? Preferably one that also enables it to be planted and EASILY REPLANTED in its natural plane rather than training it on the level and then hoisting it up to suddenly cope with gravity as well as growth.
10. Weight of a system: Once you’ve considered all of the above and decided that the benefits of a vertical garden or Greenwall are worth a little planning and careful selection, there’s one more factor to think about and it’s a significant one. Total weight on your wall. Potting media, plants and water all add to the weight of your basic vertical garden system so your garden could be heading for a Humpty Dumpty act if you overload a dodgy structure. Check that your wall or fence is in good condition and that it can take the fully loaded weight of the system you have chosen - this goes for free standing systems on balconies too! Make sure you use the appropriate bolts or fixings for the material on which you are mounting the vertical garden, you don’t want the horror of collapse onto yourself or an enthusiastically gardening child.
To end on a brighter note, vertical gardens and Greenwalls are here to stay and to bring huge benefits to our surroundings. The wonderful thing is that they are well suited to the smallest of spaces. Cities of the future will see vertical urban farms maximising space to feed the planet, energy savings will rise and the lushness of living green around us will play a valuable role in nourishing our well being. Vertical gardens save food miles, encourage healthier lifestyles and bring gardening joy to young and old. Now that you are equipped to confidently move ahead with your own vertical garden - what are you waiting for?