Whatever your vertical garden dream may be, you're probably wondering whether it's going to be too difficult to maintain in the long run. We're here to help with some answers.
Here's a quick estimate of the time needed to maintain a vertical garden:
- With an automated watering system: 1 hour a week.
- Without an automated watering system: 2-3 hours a week.
Vertical gardens are generally easier to maintain than a regular garden. Physically, working at eye level will just be easier than having to bend over. Also, the fact that the plants are in containers means you'll need to devote less time to fighting pests and disease.
The exception to the rule would be regarding fertilization, where an outdoor vertical vegetable garden may need more frequent fertilizing than its flat in-ground counterpart.
How did we get to the time estimates listed above?
To reach that assessment, we took a hard look at what you will need to do on a weekly - and sometimes daily - basis. Here's the quick list of vertical garden maintenance tasks:
- Pruning & Trimming
- Moving plants that outgrow their root space
- Dealing with pests and disease
Keep reading to see what these entail. A lot depends on the type of vertical garden you'll have. Will it be small or large? Outdoors or indoors? Will you be growing vegetables, herbs or flowers? These things all matter, so if you're trying to assess just how hard maintaining a vertical garden will be, do read the entire post.
And keep in mind that this post is about maintenance - not set up. This is what you'd need to do after you've finished setting up your vertical garden properly.
The challenges of maintaining a vertical garden
In terms of maintenance, two unique aspects separate vertical gardens from regular in-the-ground gardens:
- The plants grow in rows, one above the other. This allows for easy access from the same spot and also affects the watering system you're going to have in place.
- Plants grow in containers. This affects issues such as fertilization and risk of pests and disease.
Let's start with a concise list of maintenance chores and see how it affects your needs. Remember, maintenance is ultimately about creating effective routines. Technology helps us reduce the need for daily maintenance - but it never makes it go away completely.
Maintenance Concern #1: Watering
The first issue is inevitably watering. When we think of any garden at all, we picture watering as the fundamental chore. Which is good thinking because that is exactly what it is.
But having said that, we often find ourselves dealing with plants which have varying water needs. When our living rooms sport a gorgeous silver succulent or two in the middle of a group of orchids and water-loving plants, do we adjust our watering appropriately?
And how, if for example, we run an automated system, do we adapt that to our specific plants' needs?
In an outdoor garden do we water the growing and thirsty tomatoes and descending watermelon vines the same as we water the desert plant Sages we want to develop? What do we do about rain?
Obviously, we adapt.
We very much need a rough idea of each plants’ watering requirements, in the end. Trial and error can work but it can be costly in terms of mortality and expense unless the beginning is at least somewhat planned out.
The good news?
Vertical gardens actually have the advantage when it comes to controlling the amount of water each plant gets. And that saves you time as well as conserves precious water. By saving time - we're talking about reducing maintenance.
So, let's take a look at these systems.
Outdoor Watering Solutions
First, let's get something out of the way: Mixing plants with radically different watering needs is completely possible either manually or in automated systems.
Because vertical gardens mostly consist of artificial pouches to hold the soil of the plants, rainfall or over-watering for thirstier plants is hardly an issue.
It simply runs off.
The small pocket theory is even more relevant with more drought-tolerant plants which require less than constant watering.
Maintenance tip for watering
If manually watered, simply miss them on alternating days or at a frequency they end up thriving in. Almost all plants allow some experimentation and a period of adjustment. Generally, mistakes do not always produce disastrous results if we are attentive enough.
For example, mixing Geraniums with cascading succulents is a study in contrasts. But together, they make an incredibly colorful and sensual pairing. Manually, you simply put more water at more regular intervals into the Geraniums. Likewise, if you chose Begonias or New Zealand Hybrids.
Manual watering allows you to apply the correct - but radically different - amount.
What about automated drip irrigation?
Having said that, an automated system can also adapt.
Emitters - the parts of drip irrigation which actually dispense the right amount of water - come in varied gallons applied. There are variations allowing a quarter of the amount of one emitter to the other. In indoor automated watering, some physical adjustments in terms of locations and, perhaps, raising the plants from the bottom of trays can be done.
The above can all help you put in place an automated watering system which will conserve water and most importantly - save you precious maintenance time.
Heat and light also affect the water needs of plants. Over 85 degrees is typically a measure which calls for additional watering. Plants in the radiant sun also factor into these considerations because they too dry out quicker. The truth is, really hot days can require multiple watering, even 3 times on seriously oppressive days.
Plants requiring abundant watering, such as lettuce, cucumbers, celery and radishes contrast with growing peppers plants, rosemary or even potatoes, and especially with some herbs. In the end, trial and error will inform you the most as you advance. Vertical garden plants - like any other - will thrive if watered correctly.
Maintenance Concern #2: Fertilizing
What sort of fertilizer to use and how often is the next issue. Let's quickly recap the basics of fertilizing so we can try and assess the amount of maintenance required.
Fertilizers come in two categories: Organic and synthetic.
The relevant contents of fertilizers are broken down into 3 major categories - nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous. Numbers are applied to fertilizers which indicate the balance to be delivered.
For example, a 15-15-15 fertilizer will have equal quantities of each element, while 12-3-8 fertilizer will have a high nitrogen level, lower phosphorous and medium level of potassium. Each chemical has a specific area of each plant which it affects.
Since Nitrogen's role in plant development regards the plant outside of the ground, it promotes the healthy development of leaves, branches, and the blades we so often see in perfect lawns, which always require a high nitrogen content to stay lush and green.
Phosphorus levels can determine both root growth and development as well as the healthy blooms and fruit production from food and flower plants.
Potassium is a strong cellular developer. High levels of potassium can be found in fertilizers used in the "winterizing" of plants where cold temperatures prevail but also protect against extremes of all kinds, from heat and cold to stresses from pests and diseases.
Organic Vs. Chemical Fertilizers
Fertilizers are also categorized as organic versus chemical compositions. The primary differences here are in the delivery.
Inasmuch as organic fertilizers require the inherent bacteria in soils to break down the various components, they also tend to take longer to show results. Their benefit, however, lies in their longevity. An organic fertilizer can still produce nutrients long after the inorganic fertilizer gets exhausted. It just doesn't happen as fast.
The other factor in inorganic fertilizers is "leaching" - the nutrients also tend to wash away.
How much fertilizing is required for maintaining a vertical garden?
In most vertical gardens, owing to the small bed size of the pockets involved, fertilizing is done a bit more often than in gardens based on the ground.
Outdoor vertical gardens will require more fertilizing than their horizontal counterparts because of the small packages the plants are contained in. Vegetables are particularly voracious in using every available water and nutritional resource.
Generally speaking, an outdoor vertical garden dedicated to food, flowers or herbs will require fertilizing once every 2-3 weeks.
Indoors, you'll probably need to fertilize your vertical garden less often, especially if you grow plants other than veggies. Once a month would be relatively often and most likely every two months for most indoor plants will keep them perky and gorgeous. In fact, indoor plants are nearly perfect for organic fertilizers which distribute nutrients over a longer period.
Maintenance Concern #3: Pruning & Trimming
Outdoor vertical gardens require only the pruning and trimming which lead to desired results. In other words, the time you'll have to invest in pruning and trimming maintenance tasks depends on the type of plants you'll be growing.
Obviously, if you grow flowers, "deadheading" or removing spent blooms is necessary simply for appearance.
Herbs often require consistent pruning to keep them from flowering.
Vines and branched plants
Likewise, vines or branched plants which have become damaged in some way should probably be dispensed with because their weakened state can invite bugs and disease. It also pays to bear in mind the watering and nutritional needs of plants as they mature. Needless to say, the longer the vines, the more watering they will need as well as fertilizing.
Outdoors, because so many food plants are vine-grown, such as cucumbers, melons, squashes, and grapes, pruning them is only useful in the event that they are too numerous to support from their homes in planting pockets. Sometimes eliminating a couple of long vines is necessary.
Maintenance Concern #4: Replanting due to limited Root Space
A less frequent maintenance task - but still an important one - is that of monitoring just how much root space your plants have. This is important in any container-based garden, including a vertical one.
Root space considerations over longer periods of time are always a factor in all planting - even more so in a vertical garden. A mature plant can outgrow its home, and in cases like that, the solution would be to transplant it to a larger vessel.
You need to monitor the growth of all plants in your vertical garden and be prepared to move plants as may be necessary. This is a challenge that can even be fun to deal with - depending on the imagination and abilities of the owner. Even so, it's a maintenance chore you should take into account.
Maintenance Concern #5: Plant pests & disease
All of our plants are vulnerable to local issues regarding pestilence and local diseases.
Generally, the best rule of thumb in dealing with all of these threatening situations is: Attention to detail is absolutely necessary.
Close periodic inspections cannot be replaced as preventative medicine for vertical garden plants. Here are some of the things you'll be looking for:
- Aphids - tiny little suckers whose damage can be seen rather early and whose existence is not a threat if treated soon enough.
- Systemic illness - which could be brought on by bacteria or virus (yes, plants suffer from them as well1).
- Caterpillars and snails - more of an issue with an outdoor garden than an indoor one.
- Molds - types of parasitic fungi that can attack a plant - including underground.
Almost all systemic problems in plants have cures and remedies. Millions of gardeners have shared information about these issues over the years. The result has been a fount of information applicable to all categories of problems.
But - and this cannot be stressed enough - close attention is the best medicine. Just as preventative medicine is so healthy for humans, so it is with plants.
Which means one of your maintenance chores is to closely inspect your plants, looking for early telltale signs that they're sick.
Why maintaining a Vertical Garden is Actually Easier
Just because a garden is vertical does not mean it should be more difficult to maintain. Quite the contrary.
There are several reasons why vertical gardens are generally easier to maintain -
1. You're working at eye level
No need to bend or get down on your knees just to tend to your plants. If you wish, you can design your vertical garden so that plants only begin at waste level - giving you the ability to tend to them while being entirely upright.
Anyone with back issues will appreciate this point.
2. Your plants are in containers
The fact that you're working with containers means you have better control over the plant's root environment. The risk of disease is actually smaller, even if the garden is outdoors.
Just remember that if you're growing vegetables, the advantage may be offset by the need for more frequent fertilizing.
Taking advantage of such a brilliant mode of gardening requires a similar diligence to horizontal gardening on the ground, but with quite a few advantages.
3. Your plants can have an economical watering system
A vertical garden lends itself very well to an automated drip irrigation system. You can set your system so that excess water will go down the rows. If you're using a reservoir-based system, any excess will get recycled back into there.
That means you're conserving water and don't need to deal with watering the plants very often.
Being next to upright beauty is always a wonderful surprise. Plants change daily and monthly, offering an always developing living work of art which can truly beautify and enhance our lives.
And it is far easier when dealing with a delicate vertical garden, than when using shovels and rakes.