Vertical Farming Grows Skyward
Can Squash Grow on a Trellis? How About Cucumbers?
By Anita B. Stone — Vertical farming has surged in urban areas for one big reason: you can grow a lot of food on just a little dirt.
It is estimated that by 2050 about 80 percent of the world’s population will live in urban dwellings; that’s about three billion people to feed. Given land acreage, that means 20 percent more land will be required to grow the amount of food required to feed everyone. Just as high rises are being built to save space in small land areas, the idea of vines and crops that spiral upward, saving money and producing more flowers and vegetables than a horizontal bed of comparable size, has become extremely popular. What better way to use the land that may enable most crops to triple in size and harvest in a fraction of horizontal space?
Additionally, this type of gardening can provide shade to your yard and help cool off your home.
You can use plants that grow upward to help disguise those unappealing landscape features, such as a tool shed, a chain link fence, trash cans and recycle bins, even a working compost pile. By using trellises or arbors you can create a living wall of plants that will hide ugly and unsightly areas. Additionally, you can add shade to the landscape and help cool off the area, keeping your crops happy and your electric bill reasonable. Growing plants over walls, fences, and trellises, such as morning glories, clematis, hibiscus and other plants can also add privacy to your property. Keep in mind there must be ample light. If you are growing vegetables, it is easy to train them to grow up, not out. Plants will grow wherever there is ample light, nutrition and support. So regardless of whether your vines grow from a pot vertically or up a wall, crops will still yield and even increase productivity for you.
For many of us, vertical farming allows us to work standing up so we can save our backs a lot of wear and tear.
If you’re creative you can use vertical vegetable gardening to produce unusual effects in the garden. Hanging baskets and grow bags are a great way to grow both flowers and vegetables in a small vertical space. These items are very popular with older gardeners who don’t want to stoop to work on plants.
Growing plants in this manner also lessens problems with pests and diseases, as many pests can’t even reach your plants. Keeping your tomatoes off the ground will keep them free of soil-borne pathogens; weeds become more manageable.
Vertical farming is an easy way to irrigate, even capturing and reusing the water from one container to another in certain combinations. These gardens require a much smaller footprint than a conventional garden to grow large quantities of plants.
A new twist on vertical farming offers a chic way to fill gaps that cover both indoor and outdoor areas and spruce up gardens. A type of vertical garden that has grown in popularity is called a “living wall” garden. The living wall is part of an effort to bring green sustainability into the homescape. Imagine covering a complete wall with bean vines, tomatoes, and cucumbers. In many ways, housing has come to recognize this principle—build up, not out—which allows more space and less crowded environments. Giving an artistic and impressive appearance, you can also help the environment if you use an organic approach. Just think what impact urban farmers and homesteaders would have on the environment if hundreds of thousands were to plant organics anywhere in the outside or inside garden.
How to set up a living wall is truly an art. You will need to arrange lighting—fluorescent or grow lights will work. You can also place plants near a window or skylight. Living walls can be complete eco- systems or simpler configurations of plants that thrive in and decontaminate urban environments. Many living walls work outdoors, such as simple exterior walls fashioned with climbing plants that grow from the ground up. Vertical farming moves beyond potted plants, growing a wall of greenery regardless of size and location by experimenting with plants. This alternative type of gardening is great for privacy without having to plant shrubs and hedges that require a large space.
To build a living wall, select plants that absorb and filter out airborne toxins for clean air indoors or out. Those especially good at removing toxins include azaleas, bamboo palm, chrysanthemums, spider plants, aloe vera, English ivy, elephant ear, philodendron, pathos, and peace lily.
Choose a corner of a room and spread a waterproof drop cloth to protect the floor while you strip the walls of plaster or drywall and install exterior grade plywood to the studs. On top of the plywood, you can install bitumen roofing material to protect the walls. The next step would be to staple cork bark over the area. Cut a hole in the cork large enough to fit one potted plant inside the hole. Remove the plant from the pot, packing the sides around the base to compact the soil. Remove any air pockets. “Plants don’t need to grow in pots,” says Michael Riley, Assistant Director of the Horticultural Society of New York. “They can grow in ways that are natural to them.”
Continue the process until the plants have been planted, spacing them as desired. Add water to moisten but not drown them. Stand the panel up vertically and allow the soil to fall, then place the panels inside the wall stand.
Several ideas for wall gardens are using disposable cups or recycled pocket panels. Stackable pots placed alongside a fence or inside an indoor foyer cavity adds a new element to your crops. Each container features a variety of different colors and flowers, vegetables or herbs. You can grow an entire bounty on a wall or fence.
Vertical farming trellis systems have become homesteaders’ best friends. To begin, whether indeterminate or non-bush type, tomatoes will grow and produce fruit late into the fall. Peas and cucumbers can be secured on a trellis system. Bush varieties will not require trellising, but the vine variety may grow to almost six feet tall. Most types of winter squash varieties, especially acorn squash and mini pumpkins, grow well on trellises. Many questions about the weight and size of fruit on a trellis are always asked. The rule of thumb is that if it is smaller than a soccer ball, you can use a trellis.
Think of growing vegetables in pots, only on a wall, and you will realize how important potting soil, temperature, and moisture affect every plant. Plants that become heat stressed or water hungry quickly lose their power and bolt to seed rather than give off high-quality production. This may occur both inside and outside.
No matter where you set out your seeds and crops, what better way to use the land than to go up and up and up…where you may reap the best crops you have ever planted.
Have you had success with vertical farming techniques such as trellising or living walls?
Originally published in the March/April 2015 issue of Countryside & Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.