5 Designs for Growing Food Vertically

Permaculture changes the way we look at space. For some of us, it opens up pathways to making the most of every inch we’re given. For others, it allows us to relax our demands on the land and ourselves, to put thoughtful design in place and let it play out as nature then sees fit. Whatever way we are moved, without a doubt, verticality becomes a part of how we see growing space.

Like edible lawnscapes and sustainability, due largely to permaculture and its reimagining of urban lots as productive spaces, vertical gardening has become a popular part of producing one’s own food. It doesn’t take much in the way of Google searches to find a whole host of ideas for growing gardens vertically. Figuratively and literally, it’s a beautiful thing.

Be it in simple container gardens on the patio or sprawling beds surrounding the backyard, utilizing vertical space allows us to multiply the amount of food that we can cultivate. In the following few paragraphs, I’d like to revisit some of the common notions of what a vertical garden means, as well as hopefully spotlight some of the methodologies that are sometimes being overlooked.

The Neo-Classic Series of Small Containers

Video: The Green Wall – Educational Vertical Garden Bottle System Project

Whether it’s from upcycled two-liter pop bottles or pallets that have been modified with landscaping cloth, building a network of small containers to climb up a wall or fence, sometimes dangle from roofs, is usually the first option presented for vertical gardening. This can work really well for salad greens, small annual plants, and herbs. At their best, they can be very awe-inspiring, with foliage spilling out all over the place, and in really confined spaces, they enable a person to produce much more than could be done with just pot plants that only utilize the floor space.

On a larger scale, however, container gardens are a much more labor-intensive way to grow stuff. The soil dries out more readily. Natural processes or reproductions of them (with deep mulching and in-situ composting) don’t work in these instances, equating to having to periodically replace the soil and keep on top of garden maintenance, like watering. In short, container vertical gardens only really makes sense for gardeners with extremely confined spaces, where their daily attention is concentrated to a tiny space.

The Techno-Lovers Hydroponic Tube System

Video: DIY Hydroponic Garden Tower

Aquaponics and hydroponics have become equally as talked about as vertical gardening, and it seems with any new (often novice) project the topic of hydroponics comes up. The most readily produced and simple installation I’ve seen of this is via PVC tubing. The system has pipes slanting down the wall to gravity feed water/nutrient solution all the way down to a pump that pushes it back up to the top. This can be done with aquaponics (using fish) as well, with the water being fertilized by the fish, the fish producing a second source of food from the arrangement.

Undoubtedly, like the container system, this vertical system produces much more food per horizontal square foot than traditional gardeners—until recently—imagined. But, much the same, the system also requires a lot of attention and maintenance. Fish have to be fed daily, pumps have to be frequently checked, and water levels regulated. Mostly, though, it really takes the integral soil and plant combination away, which likely leads to less nutritious, less flavorful produce, not to mention that PVC pipes are not safe to grow food in. In the right situation, a somewhat dire one, this seems a justifiable choice (there are safe pipes available), but if another option exists, something more in-tune with natural systems…

The Space-Saving, Trickle-Down Vertical Tower

Video: How to Build a Grow Tower Barrel + Worm Tube

Garden towers are a third space-saving option to consider, and while they are container gardens, we can work these systems a little bit differently. With towers, we are creating one large container that reaches skyward, rather than stringing together several, such as with pop bottles, to fill the space. What’s more is that each tower holds several plants, perhaps dozens, that are all watered from the same spot, which requires less energy from us. Beyond that, it would be possible to use compost teas and composting worms to maintain life in the soil.

However, like hydroponics, towers are often (though they don’t have to be) built using plastics like PVC pipe or 5-gallon buckets. If this is what’s going to happen, be sure to locate used, food-grade plastics to do it. Food-grade five-gallon buckets can often be found, and often for free or cheap, at restaurants. Once the container is found, holes are cut into the sides, and it is lined with something like burlap or landscaping cloth. Then, it’s filled with rich soil, with seedlings planted in the holes. The best versions include a perforated internal tube that stretches from top to bottom and can help with watering and feeding composting worms.

The Original Vine on a Trellis Goes Urban

Video: Climbing Plants on Balconies, Patios, and Decks

In situations where square footage is larger and things like lettuce and herbs are part of a grander garden system, we shouldn’t lose focus on the fact that those patio posts or empty walls still represent production space that we should be using. However, since we have the means to produce our kitchen veggies elsewhere, we can use those spots like trellises, growing vines up them: grapes, kiwi, passion fruit, scarlet runner beans, chayote, and lots of other fruit and veg will happily scale posts to the rafters or cover a pagoda or create a green wall to provide a little summer shade.

This vertical idea is simple and much less work to create: These plants are climbers by trade, and they aren’t usually particular about what is there to be climbed. Planted side by side, they can cover a fence, or they’ll follow the lead of strings tied between two posts. They work well in the ground, but most of them do fine in containers if necessary. By and large, these perennial options are much less of a maintenance concern than hungry annuals. Once established, even in containers, they require only annual pruning and occasional soil amending.

The Food Forest as a Vertically Layered System

Video: Backyard Food Forest Layers

Food forests are the ultimate way of gardening vertically, as they are self-sustaining bio-diverse systems that, if we want them to provide larger harvests, only require a bit of pruning and the occasional tweak to invigorate or modify the eco-system to be more favorable for us. Many people feel they don’t have the space for a food forest, but even a quarter-acre of suburban lawn is plenty of space to fit in a multi-storied, highly productive food forest.

It starts beneath the ground with root vegetables, moving up onto the surface with edible groundcovers. Then, the stakes raise a little with an herbaceous layer of plants, perhaps pest-deterring or flowering for beneficial insects, that fill in between larger woody shrubs, perhaps nitrogen-fixing so that they can keep the soil fertile. The woody shrubs are compliments to an understory of productive trees, which in small spaces might equate to dwarf or semi-dwarf varieties. Then, even in a normal suburban lawn, there might be room for one or two over-story trees to fill in yet another layer of production. There might be vines crawling up the trees or fence posts. There might be a stack of mushroom logs in the shade somewhere.

The point with the food forest is that by combining plants that occupy different vertical levels we can produce much bigger harvests, varied animal habitats, and more diverse diets with less maintenance and less space than most imagine. This is the most productive, most efficient means of vertical gardening.

Feature Image: Grapes on High (Courtesy of Peter Burka)

Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.


  1. Fabulous video of the food forest… especially the stop and names of the trees, herbs, berries.. to recognise what is what… more like this would be very much appreciated, especially for cool climates like Tasmania for instance where the growing season is a bit shorter.. Thank you

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