Vertical gardening may sound a little odd. But when gardening in small spaces, it is vitally important to think about filling the vertical space as well as the horizontal space. When we think about the vertical plane as well as the horizontal plane, we can dramatically increase the yield of our polytunnels and the amount of food that we are able to grow.
If we think about layout only on the ground then we are neglecting a large proportion of the usable space in a polytunnel. Through design and planting we can make sure that we use the whole polytunnel, including the space further towards to top of the structure. Crop bars and other bracing structures and staging structures can help you to make the most of the space and implement vertical gardening plans.
What is Vertical Gardening?
Vertical gardening is all about how we can move into three dimensions and make the most of the space we really have at our disposal. It can involve creating structures to allow plants to grow in a more upright configuration, so they require less space on the ground. It can also involve creating vertical structures that will support tiered gardens. In a polytunnel, with its metal framework, vertical gardening practice can also involve creating hanging gardens, to use space that is usually lost towards the top of the structure.
Why Adopt Vertical Gardening Techniques?
However large a polytunnel you are able to place, you will always want more space. Vertical gardening can significantly increase the amount of food that you can grow, so whether you have a small polytunnel or a much larger one, adopting vertical gardening techniques can dramatically increase yields.
Increasing yield is always a good thing. The more food you are able to grow at home, the more resilient you will be as an individual, and the less negative impact you will have on the wider environment. By choosing to grow our own organic produce, in as sustainable a way as possible, we can begin to withdraw our support for the world’s damaging agricultural practice. We can reduce our carbon footprints and reduce the waste we produce as households.
Vertical Garden Ideas for Your Polytunnel
Vertical garden ideas should ideally be included from the beginning stages of planning your polytunnel layout. Giving some thought to how to use all of the vertical as well as the horizontal space in your garden, however, is something that you can do at any time. The good news is that it is relatively inexpensive and easy to install vertical garden structures in a polytunnel and creating vertical garden structures will require only limited DIY ability.
Each of the broad categories of vertical garden described below should give you plenty of ideas. Many of these ideas can be implemented over the course of a weekend, and one of the wonderful thing is that they can also make use of scrap or waste materials that you may have lying around:
It is easy to make trellises and other frameworks for plants in your polytunnel to climb. The simplest trellis ideas are those which are constructed from a basic wooden frame and fencing material or netting, or created using thin bamboo canes or other branches from your garden.
When placing trellises or other such structures, it is a good idea to consider the shade that these will cast on other areas of the polytunnel throughout the day and throughout the year. It is also a good idea to affix them in such a way that they can easily be moved when you require to be able to do so.
Bear in mind that the shading from a trellis may sometimes be beneficial in a polytunnel, and also that trellising could be used to compartmentalise a larger tunnel to create different growing areas with conditions suited to different plants. For example, you may create an area towards one end of a polytunnel that is more humid than the rest of the space.
Cordon Wires & Canes
Simple cordon wires suspended from the polytunnel structure, or garden canes planted in the growing areas could also allow you to grow more plants in a smaller area by allowing plants to be tied in and grown vertically rather than being allowed to bush-out and sprawl. Tomatoes, for example, are one common polytunnel-grown plant that can do well when cordoned.
Another simple vertical gardening structure that can work well in a domestic polytunnel is a tipi or wigwam-like structure created from bamboo canes or other branches tied together at the top. Tipis can can effective ways to grow a range of beans, as well as other vining plants.
Hanging Baskets & Other Hanging Gardens
Hanging baskets can be bought in a range of different styles, shapes and sizes, though polytunnel gardeners should also consider their options for creating their own hanging containers. A range of reclaimed and recycled household items can be used for this purpose, such as long kitchen colanders, or old plant pots wired up with garden wire.
Plastic packaging from food and drink can also be used to create a range of hanging gardens. For example, you can string milk containers by their handles along a garden cane, with their top quarters removed, in order to create a more substantial hanging garden for crops such as herbs or salad leaves, or string half plastic drinks bottles along a wire.
Polytunnel gardeners can also make sure that they are making the most of the space in their polytunnels by creating hanging shelves which can be suspended from the crop bars and raised and lowered as required throughout the year. This sort of flexible staging can be particularly beneficial in smaller polytunnels where space is at a premium. This shelving can be easily raised out of the way when no longer required for seedlings, in late spring, and lowered again after crops from below have been harvested later in the year.
It is a good idea to make sure that this shelving does not exclude too much light from plants growing below. You could make a shelf out of mesh, wire or even leftover polytunnel plastic stretched over a wooden frame, though a simple wooden plank shelf may also be suitable for certain scenarios.
Shelving Based Vertical Gardens
One of the very simplest ways to create a vertical garden system is to create shelves, which offer different levels for pacing containers, or which can be planted up with salad crops and other quick and easy edible crops. When creating shelving, polytunnel gardeners should remember that the lower shelves should still have access to enough light to allow plants to grow. However, it may be possible to take advantage of greater shading on lower shelves to prevent certain plants from bolting during the summer months. This can also create different micro-climatic conditions for a wider range of species.
Shelving created from wire netting or mesh could allow you to place small plant pots higher up while still allowing plenty of light to reach lower shelves. Porous shelving of this type could also reduce the amount of water you need. Water could drip down from higher shelves to sustain plants down below.
When creating vertical gardens of any type, it is a more sustainable and eco-friendly option to avoid buying new materials. Instead, utilise materials that you may already have lying around, such as reclaimed bricks or stone, logs or reclaimed timber, or even household rubbish.
Pocket Based Vertical Gardens
A vertical space can also be used to create vertical garden structures with planting pockets. There are a range of different examples of vertical gardens with pockets that can be created easily and cheaply in a polytunnel.
Many people, for example, create vertical gardens from wooden pallets lined with a fabric backing – the spaces filled with a growing medium. Fabric shoe organisers with the pockets filled with compost are also often used. You can buy these from a range of manufacturers. Alternatively, with some basic sewing skills, you can make your own using scrap bedding or other material you may have lying around.
You can use all sorts of household rubbish and reclaimed items to make stackable containers or tiered growing systems for your polytunnel. For example, you can make simple stacks of plastic drinks bottles with holes cut in the sides for planting into, wired together using garden wire, to make flexible towers to plant up with a range of crops. These towers could be stacked from the floor of the polytunnel right up to the crop bars and other elements of the support structure at the top.
These are just some of the ways that vertical gardening techniques and structures could help you increase your yield and make the most of your polytunnel. Have you successfully used the vertical space in your polytunnel? What challenges have you encountered in your vertical gardening efforts? Let us know and share your thoughts and suggestions in the comments below.
Elizabeth Waddington is a writer and green living consultant living in Scotland. Permaculture and sustainability are at the heart of everything she does, from designing gardens and farms around the world, to inspiring and facilitating positive change for small companies and individuals.
She also works on her own property, where she grows fruit and vegetables, keeps chickens and is working on the eco-renovation of an old stone barn.