Sunday, July 10, 2011

Book Review: Vertical Gardening by Derek Fell

Book Review: Vertical Gardening by Derek Fell.
Grow up, not out, for more vegetables and flowers in much less space.

We will be moving to a new house with a much smaller yard, so I have been looking into container gardening and small-space gardening books recently.  I found this book and it was full of information that I will be able to use in my new garden.  I especially like the chapters that go over vegetable gardening since that is what I do.

Chapter 1:  What is Vertical Gardening?

Growing plants up, not out, in beds with a small footprint, less soil preparation and digging, more plant variety in much less space, many opportunities to create bottom-up and top-down plantings, less weeding in verticals beds, spaces and pots, many space-savings container and stacking options, fewer maintenance chores, improved air circulation and less risk of plant diseases and pests, easier tending and harvesting - all at eye level, less bending, larger yields in a compact space, and there are top-performing vertical vegetables, fruits and flowers - especially vining types.

A vining vegetable is capable of continuous yields - the more you pick, the more the plant forms new flowers and fruit to prolong the harvest.  A bush variety, by contrast, will exhaust itself within 2-3 weeks.

Situ composting: Put down newspapers to suffocate existing weeds and grass, pile on layers of organic waste, such as spoiled hay and kitchen scraps, as mulch to decompose and then plant directly into this compost.  The author usually lays down a newspaper layer at least 15 pages thick to kill grass and weeds.  On top of this, he puts a 6 inch layer of grass clippings or shredded leaves and then a layer of kitchen waste (often including banana peels, eggshells, fish bones and potato skins).  This stack is then topped off by a 1/2 layer of wood ashes.  Other good composting ingredients include well-rotted animal manure (like cow or horse), sawdust, shredded newspapers, pine needles and hay.

When growing edibles against a support system mounted on a wall, you need to project the trellis or garden netting away from the wall by only about 6 inches, to allow plants to produce yields in back as well as in front of the support.

A soil depth of 6-12 inches is preferred.

You can use a drip or soaker hose to water your entire garden.

Choose a sunny location with good drainage.

Indeterminate = vining plant

Foundation plants can be grown around the vining plant.  (ex: eggplants, herbs, lettuces, onions and peppers).  Low-growing French Marigolds are natural insect repellents.

Chapter 2: Choosing a site and preparing the soil.

Soil must drain well, must provide at least 6 hours of direct sunlight per day for sun-loving plants like tomatoes and pole beans and the soil must not be too too alkaline or too acidic (although a slightly acid soil suits most vining plants)

A vertical garden against the house may benefit from house heat.

To test for drainage, dig a hole 6 inches deep and 6 inches wide and pour in a bucket of water.  If the hole puddles and takes several hours to drain completely, then the site has poor drainage.  Either pick another spot or improve the soil texture.  For a raised bed, lay down crushed stones before adding soil.

Early morning sunlight and noonday sunlight are most important.  Mirrors can be used to reflect light towards a plant.

Avoid a north-facing exposure because of the limited direct sunlight available.

Walk your property after a snowfall or heavy frost and observe where the snow or frost lingers.  Plant where the snow melts first and avoid planting where snow lingers.  Usually snow first melts along the south wall of the house.

Instead of looking at the USDA Frost zone map, find information from your local County Extension office or garden center to get more specific dates and information.

Obtain a soil test mailing pouch from your local garden center, collect several soil samples and mail it in. They commonly charge less than $10 to have it tested in a professional lab.  Let them know that you would like to grow vegetables.  They will tell you what your soil is lacking and how to fix it.

Chapter 4:  Planters and Support

A product known as builder's wire, mostly used for reinforcing concrete floors, makes a strong, inexpensive trellis for mounting between two posts or attaching to a wall.  Hardware stores sell it in 5x10 foot sheets and in 5x50 foot rolls costing about $25.  The product uses a heavy-gauge #10 mesh, creating a framework of 6x6 inch reach-through mesh that plants can climb or twine through.  If you buy builders wire in rolls, cut the sections with bolt cutters to create a flat sheet ideal for heavy vines like pole beans and vining squash, or cut and roll it into a cylinder to support individual tomato vines.

Upside-down planter (Topsy-turvy): fill with a commercial potting soil, not garden topsoil.  Use a granular or liquid fertilizer every 3 weeks.  Water daily.  You could also grow cucumbers, strawberries and peppers, but (vining) tomatoes work best.  For best results, he found that 'Sungold', 'Sweet 100' and other cherry tomatoes were highly productive, as was a medium-fruited variety like 'Early Cascade', with fruit about the size of a billiard ball.  Use  indeterminate varieties (those with long vines) exclusively for best results; some indeterminates (such as 'Better Boy') can reach 15 feet.  Avoid determinate tomatoes (those with short vines), like 'Patio'.  Secure a bracket about 6' high to hang planter on.  Secure to a south-facing wall to prolong the growing season.

Secure top and bottom of garden netting with brackets.

Maypoles:  a sturdy pole with strands of string that radiate down from the top, creating a tepee support for twining plants like pole beans.

Chapter 6: Composting.

1/2 brown matter to 1/2 green matter ratio is ideal or 2/3 brown to 1/3 green.

Chapter 7: Seed starting and propagating

Open-pollinated or standard seed: bees or wind transfer pollen from flower to another.

Chapter 9: Controlling weeds, watering, fertilizing and pruning.

Vertical gardens need more nutrients since it is a denser garden.

Chapter 10: Vegetables for vertical gardens.

Grow vining plants, not bushy compact plants.  You could use the bushy, compact plants as fillers by planting them around the taller, vining plants.

Many of the climbers (like cucumbers) have tendrils that will grasp a pole or trellis work for support, or they may have stems (like pole beans) whose lead shoots twine and pull themselves free of the ground in an upward spiraling movement.  Other vegetables with long stems (like tomatoes) climb with assistance; the most common way to help them climb is to use twist ties to secure their stems to an upright pole or trellis.

4 types of plants in a vertical garden: climber, foundation, container and tower pot, and support.

Beans, Pole:  Best vining plant for vertical gardening.  Use poles, trellis or garden netting.  Will continue to produce the whole summer.  Blue Lake Beans can grow 6 feet tall.  Grow 6 inches apart.  Plant 1 inch  deep.

Carrots:  Can grow in tower pots or as a foundation planting in front of the climbing plants.  Stump-rooted carrot lie "royal chantenay' or 'Nantes" is preferred for tower pot culture.

Cucumbers:  Can grow up thin poles, garden netting or trellis for support.  There are slicing and pickling cucumbers.  Direct-sow seeds 1 inch deep and 18 inches apart.  Usually has male and female flowers on each vine, but some have only female.  If a seed packet or catalog description says "seeds of a pollinator included" that means the female plants are incapable of pollinating themselves.  The male pollinator can be a slicer or pickle variety.  There are also self-pollinators.

Harvest cucumbers when they are a glossy, dark green color.  For continuous  harvests, and to promote longevity of the vine, pick cucumbers every 2-3 days.  Cucumbers left on the vine will turn yellow, indicating over-ripeness, and will drain the plant of energy.

'County Fair'  (48 days) is a high-yielding hybrid pickle cucumber.  Self-fertile and highly productive.

'Marketmore 76' (58 days) is a development of Cornell University.  It is a good standard slicing cucumber with excellent disease resistance.  This is probably the most popular cucumber grown by home gardeners.

Supports: A low, slatted A-frame structure (4'long x 3' wide x 3' tall), or a bamboo scaffold, trellis or heavy-gauge reach-through garden netting.


Grow as foundation plants or in pots.  Try this sweet variety: 'Gypsy Hybrid', it is the most cold-tolerant sweet pepper, ensuring a harvest of yellow, orange or red peppers.  Up to 2' tall.


Mini pumpkins such as 'Jack-be-Little' are mostly decorative and will hang from their vines without slings.  Supports must be strong, such as a wooden trellis, builders wire and heavy-gauge reach-through
nylon garden netting.  Grow up to 15 feet tall.

Summer squash

'Climbing Black Forest' zucchini:  up to 5 feet tall.  pick when fruit is 6 inches long, bears all summer if fruits are picked regularly.  It's easily supported by a single bamboo stake (use twist ties to keep the vine erect), or y planting it inside a wire cylinder.

'Climbing Trombone zucchini':  Also known as 'Zucchino Rampicante) (80-85 days)  Climbs unaided.

Grow up strong trellises, heavy gauge reach through garden netting or chain link fencing.


Need assistance in order to stand erect.  It needs a strong pole (such as a bamboo cane) with twist ties to secure the tomato's main stem in several places, so the vine stands tall.  You could also use a tomato cage, up a trellis or up garden netting.

Early producers = small variety tomatoes = 60-70 days
Mid season producers = medium size varieties = 70-80 days
Late producers = Large fruiting varieties = 80-90 days or more

These figures are not the number of days from seed to harvest, but from transplanting to harvest.

Tomato plants are self-pollinating.  Pick ripe fruit often to encourage continuous flower formation, and pick cherry tomatoes the moment they turn red, prior to cracking.

'Better Boy' Hybrid is a heavy producer and can have vines up to 25 feet, but usually stay around 10 feet.  Produce large fruits. (75 days).

'Trip-L-Crop' (also known as the Tree).   Produce large fruits.

'Early Cascade' (57 days) is a mid-size tomato.  Great flavor and an early producer.

'Jubilee' (70 days) produces large orange fruit, highly productive.

'Sun Gold Hybrid' (55 days) bears cherry-size fruit.  Heavy producer and sugar-sweet fruit.

'Super Marzano' (70 days) is an Italian paste tomato.  Produces large, plum-shaped fruits.

'Sweet 100' (56 days) is a popular red cherry-size tomato, producing fruit in generous clusters, as many as 100 fruit on a single stem.

Supports: Preferably a wire mesh cylinder up to 6' tall with the tomato positioned in the middle, so it can grow up and spread its side branches through the mesh to be self-supporting.  However, tomato vines can be grown up single poles (like bamboo canes), trellises, and heavy-gauge reach-through garden netting.  Twist ties are generally needed to keep the vines erect.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants to garden but only has a small space to do it in.


  1. Thank you for the awesome post. I have a wonderful vegetable garden at home. I spend a lot of time at my daughters home and they do not have a yard. I have planted some tomatoes in large pots and they are doing just ok there is not much sun on their balcony so I am going to set up a couple mirrors like you suggest and see if this helps.
    New follower from Almost Friday.
    Hope you follow back.

  2. Thanks! I am following you back.