Growers choose to garden vertically for a number of reasons: maximizing available space, easier harvesting, and maintenance, as well as to grow healthier and more productive plants. Some gardeners just prefer the look of upright gardens – which can range from clean and organized to unruly and a little wild.
Whatever your preference, peas, tomatoes, nasturtiums, cucumbers, morning glory, pole beans, hyacinth beans, winter squash, Malabar spinach, and hops are all excellent candidates for vertical gardening.
Read on for all the reasons to take your garden vertical and how exactly to do it.
Why grow vertically?
The better question is, why not grow vertically? upright gardens are synonymous with healthier plants, increased yields, and overall better use of natural (and human) energy.
The only real disadvantage of a vertical setup is the cost and time required to build and install trellising – which honestly doesn’t equate to much when compared to the potential benefits.
There are many reasons to grow vertically; maximizing space is the most obvious. Urban gardeners and growers without a lot of room can produce an impressive amount of food in vertical gardens.
Nearly any plant can adapt to a trellis, but you’ll want to put some forethought into how you organize your trellises. Avoid shading out any of your crops by placing the tallest trellis north of any shorter-growing plants.
In the Northern hemisphere, the sun movies in an east-west direction – so your southernmost crops will be in between more northern crops and the sun. Minimize shading by stacking crops from shortest to tallest, south to north.
If you’re not sure what full sun, partial sun, partial shade, and full shade mean for your plants, check out this article. Most of our favorite annual vegetables and flowers require full sun, so you’ll want to plan your vertical garden so that most of your plants are receiving at least six hours of sunlight each day.
Plants grown upright tend to be significantly healthier than plants grown at ground level, but why? Vertical gardens promote better airflow between plants, so plants are less likely to acquire foliar and fungal diseases, and pest infestations are slower to spread. According to the Old Almanac,
“Upward growth provides better air circulation, which means that plants dry faster after watering, thereby reducing the risk of moisture-loving fungi like powdery mildew and rusts taking hold (“Vertical Gardening: Grow More Vegetables in Less Space”).”https://www.almanac.com/vertical-gardening-grow-more-vegetables-less-space
In the event of disease or infestation, it can usually be recognized quickly and contained before pests or powdery mildew takes out your entire garden. Having plants at eye level means that sickly leaves or bugs will be apparent well before they would in traditional garden beds.
Keep your plants healthy and minimize disease by pruning foliage frequently. You really only need to leave the top two-thirds of the foliage to promote a healthy plant, so prune the bottom leaves to ensure good air circulation between plants.
Well-organized vertical gardens actually allow more plants to receive more sunlight, and the increase in photosynthesis means that yields are improved and fruits and vegetables actually taste better. Fruits and vegetables elevated off the ground aren’t as likely to rot, so the harvest window is extended and less produce goes to waste.
One point worth noting is that while any vining plant can be grown vertically, some plants might need a little extra support. Beefsteak tomatoes and pumpkins will thrive on an upright trellis if adequate support is provided for the developing fruit.
Tie the vines to your trellis with twine, and tie a piece of netting, pantyhose, or a rag underneath each developing fruit so that the vines don’t break under the weight of the fruit.
It’s no secret that weeding, watering, and harvesting in-ground crops is physically demanding. Vertical gardens remove all of the kneeling, crouching, and hunching out of the regular routine – making day-to-day maintenance nearly effortless. Upright plants and vines are easier to harvest since the fruit is at eye level.
Like all container gardens, vertical gardens take more watering than in-ground gardens. Fortunately, vertical gardens are easier to automate with drip irrigation.
(Read more about passive, automated irrigation systems for container gardens here.)
Attractive and versatile
Vertical gardens are just…gorgeous. What garden isn’t, but upright gardens do seem to have a special flair.
Vertical gardens can take a myriad of forms, and whether you use climbing vines or hanging containers–or both – you’ll add vertical interest to any space.
A common misconception is that vertical gardens are exclusively made of climbing plants, but that doesn’t have to be the case! Hang a series of containers for bushier crops or herbs.
Secure panels of mosses, grasses, and succulents to a fence or upright structure to create a green wall. There is no end to the creative ways that you can grow vertically – using repurposed materials too!
How to train plants to grow upright
With upright gardening, trellises may be the first thing to come to mind, but trellising isn’t the only option. There are other techniques to elevate plants off of the ground, and the Virginia Cooperative Extension enumerates a few: caging, staking, and companion planting (Settlage and Hessler).
Trellising is the most involved technique but does offer the most support. Simple stakes like tobacco sticks or T-posts go in the ground beside a growing plant. Metal cages work especially well for vines that produce heavy fruit like tomatoes, cucumbers, and winter squash.
When you install the trellis depends in part on which technique you use. It’s helpful to build a trellis before you plant seedlings, but after the beds have been tilled and prepped. You can leave trellises in the ground season after season, but T-posts are relatively easy to move should you decide to.
Cages and stakes go in the ground after planting. You can add them immediately or wait until the transplants are established and start to lean over.
10 climbing plants for vertical gardens
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but the following ten vining plants are ideal for vertical gardening.
A cool-weather crop, peas thrive in the shoulder seasons of spring and fall. Peas make excellent companion plants, as they fix nitrogen in the soil, making the essential nutrient available to other crops. While there are some varieties of bush peas, the vast majority are vining.
There are three types of peas: English pea (also called shelling or garden pea) snow pea, and snap pea. English peas are a traditional pea grown for their plump, round seeds cased in inedible seed pods. Snow peas are characterized by flat, edible seedpods usually cooked whole. Sugar snap peas are a hybrid of the two, and their fat, sweet seedpods can be eaten raw.
Peas do best directly sown in the ground or in containers as soon as the soil is workable in spring. You can soak pea seeds the night before you plan to plant them to speed up germination. Check out this article for more pea-growing tips.
The obvious first choice for vertical gardens, tomatoes are vigorous climbers that require trellising to be manageable. Tomatoes come in two general types – indeterminate and determinate. The former type will continue growing until killed by frost or blight, while the latter type tops out around three or four feet.
Native to the Americas, tomatoes are heat-loving annuals that bear edible fruit. Tomatoes are a close relative of peppers and potatoes and are an incredibly diverse species. With thousands of varieties in cultivation today, there’s something for every palette and garden.
Another annual plant native to the Americas, nasturtiums come in two types: compact and trailing, and both types produce edible flowers. Compact nasturtiums are excellent for hanging baskets or containers, but trailing types are much better suited to trellising – some of the tall vining varieties can reach up to ten feet long!
Not only do nasturtium blooms make a lovely edible garnish for salads and drinks, but the plants themselves are very beneficial in the garden. Planting nasturtiums in your garden may actually repel some pests, or at the very least, may divert them away from your more susceptible vegetables.
Direct sow nasturtiums after all danger of frost has passed. Once the seeds have sprouted, nasturtiums require very little maintenance.
Cucumbers are another heat-loving annual that prefer to be direct seeded, but you can transplant mature seedlings with care. Native to India, cucumbers are close relatives of melons and squash and have a similar growth habit.
Plenty of growers don’t trellis cucumbers, but the plants really benefit from being grown vertically! Most cucumbers are vining, but there are compact varieties as well. Check out this article on trellising cucumbers.
Vining cucumber types can reach seven feet, so tall trellises are a must. Bush varieties will do well with a cage, but a cage won’t quite contain trailing cucumber vines, resulting in stunted growth, as well as fewer and smaller harvests.
5. Morning glories
Native to Central and South America, annual morning glory is often confused with its perennial cousin, bindweed. Morning glory, white a vigorous grower and prolific reseeder isn’t the noxious weed that some gardeners think of.
However, the lengthy vines do have a tendency to sprawl, so if you choose to grow morning glory keep it contained in a pot or raised bed, or cut the plant roots back regularly to minimize their spread.
Morning glories get their name from their blooming habit – the flowers open early in the day and close back up before afternoon. The trumpet-shaped blooms are often boldly colored, and the nectar-rich flowers draw pollinators to your garden from midsummer until frost.
6. Pole beans
Pole beans are another commonly trellised vegetable. There are three different types of pole beans: flat, round, and yard-long, and while beans are treasured around the world they originated in the Americas.
Yardlong beans are heat lovers, and the seedpods on some varieties do in fact reach nearly three feet in length! Seeds are harvestable when the seedpods reach between eight and 12 inches long.
The longer yardlong beans grow, the tougher their seeds become, so harvest seedpods before full maturity for the best flavor. Most varieties are so productive that they need to be picked daily.
Flat beans are a type of bean that has wide, flat seedpods. The seedpods are edible, but can also be left to mature on the vine and then shelled for a dry bean. Round beans are the traditional green beans that we all know and love.
Most pole beans are harvestable 55 to 65 days after germination. Beans are a versatile crop with shallow root systems that thrive in containers and raised beds, as long as they have something to climb!
7. Hyacinth beans
Mix your edibles and ornamentals with a few plantings of the gorgeous hyacinth bean. Lavender-colored seedpods dangle down from glossy, deep green leaves atop a vigorous vine. Technically a legume, hyacinth bean is known to invigorate the soil with nitrogen, just like peas. While the immature seedpods are edible, hyacinth bean is typically grown as a decorative crop.
Plant hyacinth beans at the base of a pagoda or arch, or let them climb a fence beside a bench. Come midsummer, you’ll have a magical shaded seat where you can rest and enjoy looking over your garden.
8. Winter squash
While some may find it hard to believe, winter squash is an excellent candidate for vertical gardening. Winter squash vines grow in excess of ten feet, but with sturdy materials, everything from the smallest acorn squash to the largest butternut can thrive on an upright trellis.
Winter squash thrive in full sun and fertile soil, so consider their placement in your garden before building a trellis. Direct sow squash seeds after all danger of frost has passed.
Tie the vines to the trellis with twine, and when the flowers give way to developing fruit, tie a rag under each small squash to provide support as the plant grows.
9. Malabar spinach
Bet you didn’t know that there is a vining variety of spinach. Though technically not related to its namesake, Malabar spinach is a perennial vining vegetable that produces edible green leaves that puts one in mind of true spinach. The University of Wisconsin-Madison offers a detailed description of its flavor and use in the kitchen:
The edible leaves (and shoots) of Basella alba resemble spinach with a mild, slightly peppery flavor with a hint of citrus and are used in the same way. The young leaves can be eaten raw mixed in a green salad, and steamed or boiled to be used like cooked spinach (Mahr).
Even if you don’t love the texture of Malabar spinach (said to resemble okra), the perennial vine doubles as a gorgeous ornamental.
Whether or not you are a craft beer connoisseur, hops are a beautiful ornamental to add to the garden. Hops thrive in most temperate regions of the world, but the plants do need about four months of frost-free days to produce a usable crop. Female plants produce the flowers that are the foundation of America’s favorite adult beverage.
Hops are perennials vines that thrive in fertile, well-draining soil. According to Penn State Extension, properly trellised plants can reach lengths of up to 20 feet long–but home gardeners probably won’t see as vigorous growth as commercial growers (“Hop Production – Articles”).
Hops are generally grown from cuttings, so check your local nursery or extension office for plant starts. Whether or not you intend to harvest the hops, the flowers themselves draw pollinators to the garden, and the thick vines provide privacy and shade during the summer months.
Vertical gardening is an excellent option for growers looking to maximize their space, or folks that want to add vertical interest to their patios and gardens. Whether you grow edibles, ornamentals, or some combination of both, a trellised garden is a lot easier to maintain than in-ground gardens.
Vertical gardens are as creative as they are functional, and can be easily customized to fit your preferences and needs. Build something permanent, or create something movable that can adapt to different crops from year to year–it’s all up to you!
“Hop Production – Articles Articles.” Penn State Extension, 1 March 2021, https://extension.psu.edu/hop-production. Accessed 18 July 2022.
“Malabar spinach, Basella alba – Wisconsin Horticulture.” Wisconsin Horticulture https://hort.extension.wisc.edu/articles/malabar-spinach-basella-alba/. Accessed 18 July 2022.
Settlage, Katie, and Alex Hessler. “Vertical Gardening Using Trellises, Stakes, and Cages.” Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Tech, 2015, https://www.pubs.ext.vt.edu/content/dam/pubs_ext_vt_edu/HORT/HORT-189/HORT-189-pdf.pdf. Accessed 18 July 2022.
“Vertical Gardening: Grow More Vegetables in Less Space.” The Old Farmer’s Almanac, https://www.almanac.com/vertical-gardening-grow-more-vegetables-less-space. Accessed 10 July 2022.
About the author:
When not writing content or growing flowers in her native Virginia, you can find Sarah hiking a long-distance trail deep in the woods. Follow along with Sarah’s adventures at http://sarahcolliecreative.com.