According to the United Nations, the amount of arable land per person has decreased from about one acre per person in 1970 to approximately half an acre in 2000; that number is expected to be roughly one-third an acre by 2050. The U.N. also estimates that the world’s population will reach 9.7 billion by 2050. Given that, we need to explore our options with regards to food production, especially in cities. Horizontal space is becoming a premium, meaning that the best option might be for us to grow our food vertically.
Commercial Vertical Farms
There are at least 200 commercial vertical farms currently in operation, utilizing aeroponics and hydroponics technology. Converted factories become towering growing spaces that look like something out of a science fiction novel – in fact, a lot of this technology originated for experiments in Antarctica and the International Space Station.
Commercial farms in urban centers like Japan and New Jersey state that vertical farms save valuable land space and reduces pesticide use while making efficient use of water and nutrients. These spaces look more like factories than farms and have found varying degrees of profitability. So far, most plants have been able to produce short-term crops with shallow root systems, i.e. lettuce. Proponents say that there is no difference in taste in the final crop, but this is by no means a perfect solution.
Growing indoors means that you have control over the quality of water and nutrients in an artificial system, but without a natural light source, you have to construct a large complex lighting system, which can be expensive to both establish and maintain. Energy and infrastructure costs have proven to be a key blockage for profitable vertical farming thus far, although there are experiments underway using low-energy LED lighting.
In addition, long-term crops and heartier edibles with more complex root systems either don’t grow well or are not cost-effective for commercial production due to time constraints. Although vertical indoor farming may eventually become a necessity, it is still big business agriculture, which often overpower small farms and family-owned farms.
Vertical Gardens at Home
Growing vertically on a home scale looks dramatically different, and much more approachable. With a little bit of ingenuity you can turn vertical spaces into an attractive living wall or an addition to your garden.
Where can you grow?
You can grow plants on stairs and platforms, stacked containers, upside-down hanging containers, and walls. The possibilities truly are only limited to what you can fill with soil. If you choose the right plants, they will be happy with adequate soil, water, drainage, and light. Vining and trailing varietals can both save you ground space and also provide a beautiful curtain of foliage.
Wooden shipping pallets are relatively easy to acquire, especially if you live near a city. These pallets are easy to turn into functional walls of small plants. To achieve this, start by attaching some type of breathable material to the back of the pallet, as well as what will be the bottom and sides when the pallet sits upright.
Pack the pallet with soil; treat this like you would a container garden. At this point you can begin to set your plants between the front slats. You may need to keep your structure somewhat horizontal for a short time while your plants get established, but you may also be able to use mesh or cloth to help secure
If you aren’t so keen on the DIY approach, retailers sell ‘living wall’ systems, typically designed for internal use. These living walls are reinforced for indoor installation, and some even have internal watering systems and built-in lighting. While beautiful, these pre-constructed systems can get pretty expensive, and if you don’t have enough natural lighting in your home you will need growth lights to compensate, increasing your energy consumption.
During the summer I see many of my neighbors turn to hanging plants and upside-down planters. There are upside-down planters available from retailers, but it’s easy to make your own out of buckets. Cutting a hole in the bottom of the bucket will provide the planting space, but make sure you have a protective layer of mesh to ensure soil won’t fall out. Carefully place your plant upside-down through the hole, fill the bucket with soil, and water from the top down. I’ve personally seen success with tomatoes and strawberries.
Choosing your Plants
It’s important to take care when considering vertical gardening. Vertical soil systems tend to drop loose soil if root systems have not yet established themselves. Some vining plants can be trained to grow on trellises, such as cucumbers and squashes, but it’s important to make sure you give them adequate support.
Instead of building structures upon which your garden can grow, consider the viability of using natural structures. I have personally had success using my balcony railings as a trellis, and last year I had an unruly cucumber vine grow out of reach using a small neighboring tree.
If you’re consider going vertical, plan ahead for changes in lighting conditions. As plants grow, up (or down), they may begin to block natural light from the rest of your garden. Keep this in mind particularly when growing hanging plants or suspended systems. If you can, align your vertical gardens with available walls. Vertical systems can also offer a second layer of growth, perfect for plants that prefer indirect light and shade.
As arable land becomes a scarcer commodity, growing vertical may become a necessary technique. It’s a great way to save on valuable ground space or make the most out of a limited space. Have you had success with any of these home methods? Are there other vertical growing techniques that have worked for you? Don’t forget to share your comments!