Vertical Gardens: Do or Don’t?

Stunning balcony garden with vertical garden by Kate Grace, 'This Balcony', at the Australian Garden Show Sydney 2014

Stunning balcony garden with vertical garden by Kate Grace. ‘This Balcony’, at the Australian Garden Show Sydney 2014

Beautiful vertical gardens. Lush, green walls with all our favourite plants, suitable even for the smallest balcony or courtyard. Don’t we all want one?

Vertical garden made with lovely textured grasses by Rupert Baywill at the Australian Garden Show Sydney 2014

Vertical garden made with lovely textured grasses by Rupert Baywill at the Australian Garden Show Sydney 2014

Following the Australian Garden Show Sydney earlier this month, there appears to be one feature that has stuck in the minds of most attendees.  Clients and friends all seem to be talking about vertical gardens.  Which worries me a lot.

Vertical garden backdrop to the stage at the Australia Garden Show Sydney 2014

Vertical garden backdrop to the stage at the Australia Garden Show Sydney 2014

I don’t actually know a single mad keen gardener that has one. We all oo and ah over them but you wouldn’t catch us actually installing one in our gardens in a million years.  And yet we are the only crazy people who should probably have them.

You see vertical gardens are about as high maintenance as you can get. Essentially you buy 100+ teeny weeny, fragile plants in tiny pots and then commitment to nurturing each on an individual basis forever more. The campaign ‘a dog is not just for Christmas’ has nothing on this!

Each and every plant has a tiny pocket of soil which dries out within seconds of the sun coming up and expects you to stand there drip watering it all day long. But give it one drip too many, or one drip too early and the peat-free potting mix will clog up and kill those plant roots before the week is out.

Small, pretty annuals make up this colourful vertical garden at the entrance to the Australian Garden Show Sydney 2014

Small, pretty annuals make up this colourful vertical garden at the entrance to the Australian Garden Show Sydney 2014

And whilst you are thinking that your automated watering system will do all that for you whilst you sit in your reclining chair, have you ever noticed that watering systems are not very good? They don’t know if it’s been 40 degrees or 20 degrees that day, they don’t shout when one of the holes gets blocks and desicates huge chunks of soil and most don’t turn off during torrential downpours.  Whereas soil in the ground, perfectly fit for its job, will drain nicely, give plenty of space for roots to grow towards moist areas and be resistant to drying out by its sheer volume, our vertical garden isn’t capable of any of this.

Next comes fertilising. Clearly with such small volumes of soil the pockets are very quickly exhausted of nutrients. So we have to keep feeding them. Whatever you do though, don’t feed them too much. With small volumes of soil and imperfect drainage it is incredibly easy to overfertilise, producing toxic conditions.

And we haven’t yet touched on pruning.  Have you noticed that your 100+ plants are not robust shrubs that are happy with a quick bit of secateur action once a year?  No, they are herbs, annuals and ferns, most of which need either pruning, deadheading or de-leafing on at least a weekly basis.  But not with my succulents, I hear you say.  Oh no, no pruning there. The only thing that you will need to do is replant the whole structure twice a year due to soil compaction.

I love anything that gets a non-gardener excited about gardening, but vertical gardens scare me. I can see all these keen, inspired, starter gardeners going out and buying their lovely green wall kits. They spend a small fortune, almost get a divorce trying to attach the frame to the wall and just one month later their beautiful garden is looking terrible.  They will never want to garden again.

Frames to support a single plant growing in a large pot drastically reduces maintenance Photo: Melbourne International Garden and Flower Show 2012

Frames to support a single plant growing in a large pot drastically reduces maintenance. Melbourne International Garden and Flower Show 2012

There are so many better ways of creating a green backdrop, even when you only have a few centimetres of depth. Star jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides) is a wonderful plant across most of Australia.  With just a couple of plants and a few horizontal wires (every 30-40cm) it will fill a wall completely and smother you in beautiful scent for much of the year.   I also love this creative idea by Matt Coggan using star jasmine as a green curtain.

Star jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides) grown in pots and hung from a rail can be moved to suit as the sun becomes too hot

Star jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides) grown in pots and hung from a rail can be moved to suit as the sun alters its angle. Matt Coggan’s ‘Green Curtain’ at the Australian Garden Show Sydney 2014

The wires are attached at the top to a rail and at the bottom to the pot and you can move your screen wherever you want privacy or shade.  Ingenious. Please use bigger pots, for all the watering  and fertilising reasons we have just discussed, but what a fabulous idea.

Alternatively, espalier a plant. A single shrub will fill a wall and be the ultimate in sophistication, using the right frame or ties. It may look tricky but it really isn’t.  It just needs 5 mins attention every few weeks during the growing season to cut and tie and you are done.  Other that that you just treat it exactly as you would a normal plant.

Espaliered citrus and olive by NGINA at the Australian Garden Show Sydney 2014

Espaliered citrus and olive by NGINA at the Australian Garden Show Sydney 2014

And if you really want some beautiful small plants on your wall, place them on a stylish shelf.  Looking after 3 small plants is significantly less time consuming than looking after 103 of them!

Three plants on a shelf can look quite stunning. 'Peninsula' by James Ross at the Melbourne International Garden and Flower Show 2014

Three plants on a shelf can look quite stunning. ‘Peninsula’ by James Ross at the Melbourne International Garden and Flower Show 2014

So please don’t rush out and buy your vertical garden, unless you are sure you want to give it love most days.  There is a place for vertical gardens, but I say leave them to the super time-rich and the Qantas lounge for now.

Amazing vertical gardens at the Qantas First Class lounge in Sydney Airport

Amazing vertical gardens at the Qantas First Class lounge at Sydney Airport

15 thoughts on “Vertical Gardens: Do or Don’t?

  1. Adriana Fraser says:

    Agreed Janna – never underestimate the sales opportunity, even in the hallowed halls of gardening! A great article – I love your ‘give it to em’ approach – please keep it up, we need gutsy horticulturists out there to tell it like it is.

  2. Sue says:

    If any one has the vertical garden company name, Could you please give me the name of the company on the picture above. I bought 10 pots in the garden show. Need to get more, but I have lost the company name.I am very happy with that product. If the correct plants used it is wonderful .
    ,

  3. Susan says:

    I can’t disagree with anything you wrote here, but am wondering about native grasses in vertical gardens?? I’m tossing up whether to ditch my pocket-style vg and put in star jasmine or replace the current batch of dying things with native grasses – something inexpensive like tussock grass, perhaps. Have a very ugly wall to hide.

    • jannaschreier says:

      Hi Susan
      You should certainly find it easier with grasses rather than vegies, although, personally, I would always go with planting in the ground, in a pot, painting the wall etc if I could. The roots just don’t have enough space for long term survival in most of these systems.
      Having said that, if you already have the pockets and can plant it up quite cheaply, you really don’t have much to lose in trying. If you do find it is low maintenance and looks good in the medium to long term, do let me know – it is always good to experiment and learn.
      Good luck!
      Janna

      • Rebecca says:

        I brought the 4 pocket style one at Kirribill Market. They grow excellent and healthy, I just water them once a day even in the hot summer (38 degree), they produce a lot of flowers, make my backyard look very beautiful, i wish I could send you some photos, I really happy I have brought them. Now i have my breakfast and dinner at my courtyard and enjoy the beautiful environment.

        Cheers,
        Rebecca

        • jannaschreier says:

          Hi Rebecca. Thanks for your comment. I am so glad you are enjoying your vertical garden. With the four pocket system it all sounds very manageable and if you are sitting by it every day you won’t either forget to or resent watering it. I’d love to see a photo of it – perhaps you could email one to me at janna@jannaschreier.com. Maybe I should do a follow up blog post on vertical gardens?

  4. Rebecca says:

    Yes sure and will send to the above email address. I would like to share this amazing product with you and other gardeners. They just so easy to look after. I love it.

    Cheers,
    Rebecca

  5. Jeremy Finkelstein says:

    This is just such a terribly one-sided argument here and is clearly written by someone that has only taken a cursory look into vertical gardens. Really disappointed, I thought I was going to read an unbiased guide to the pros and cons about vertical gardens, but you’ve just focused on the worst stuff and then acted like because you don’t like them, that therefore no other serious gardener should – whereas that just isn’t the case either here or abroad. Vertical gardens CAN be a lot of work, but that doesn’t mean they always will. It is a largely new technology and great strides are being made in that field. A proper vertical garden should not be any more work than a proper garden – in fact, with the correct planning and understanding, it can be a whole lot less.

    • jannaschreier says:

      Thanks for your comment, Jeremy, and I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy the article. I aim to keep my blog lighthearted; I’m half way through a Master of Horticulture and this is my escape to a very different style of writing! I completely agree with you that a serious gardener may well enjoy a vertical garden. However, I spend most of my days talking to people who want very low maintenance gardens and aren’t sure how to achieve that. I take a very keen interest in developments in the horticultural industry and encourage anything that makes gardening more enjoyable and engaging for people. I look forward to the day when vertical gardens are as easy as in ground gardening (especially with an increase in the ratio of apartments to houses), but, personally, I’m not convinced we are there yet. Always interesting to hear others’ views though. I’ll shortly be writing up a wonderful vertical garden, kept in beautiful condition by its extremely skilled, horticulturist owner. The reality is that I love almost any plant, displayed in almost any way; I’d just like people, new to gardening, to be set up for success so they all get the gardening bug, just as I have!

      • Jeremy Finkelstein says:

        Thanks for quite reply. I think most of that is fair and reasonable, and I completely agree that big installations and particularly the higher end installations are of course going to be very expensive to maintain and a lot of work to keep looking fantastic. I think there is another side to vertical gardens though and they are the much lower maintenance residential vertical gardens and these seem to be much less intensive in terms of time and money, but can still bring a lot of aesthetic benefit and joy to the owner. It’s important to remember that most people don’t see and hear about them everyday! Therefore they are able to enjoy them for what they are without needing them to be too perfect. I have built and seen quite a few vertical gardens that only require watering (or with irrigation, just turning on the tap) and will only need some food and some new soil or some replacement plants once a year. That to me is a reasonable input cost – with the added bonus that you can quite easily change your style and design every year, as it is all modulated!

        I certainly wouldn’t recommend a geofabric vertical wall to an inexperienced gardener, or anything like that – but a lot of vertical gardens are modulated and much easier to maintain and work with. It all comes down to species selection and environmental factors that make a vertical garden either a hassle or a joy to work with.

        • jannaschreier says:

          I think the phrase is ‘horses for courses’. There is a place for all types of garden; we just need to match the right type (with the right plants) to the right person.

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