Vertical gardening tips: Add beauty and function to a small yard

For Chesapeake Home + Living
When you're short on space, grow your garden tall. Vertical gardening tips:

When Sarah Trautvetter bought her Federal Hill row house in 2004, the backyard was not among its finest features.

But Trautvetter was not intimidated. As a landscape architect and owner of Traut Landscape Studio, she knew the space had potential. Initially, she spruced up the small area with potted plants and morning glories. About five years after moving in, she made several more substantial changes, adding a raised planter box and a wood-and-steel-wire trellis that’s home to flourishing Japanese honeysuckle.

The structures do double duty, hiding unsightly siding on the back of the house and an awkward pipe while adding color and warmth to the space as a whole. “I turned a horrible, vacant concrete pad into a little outdoor room,” says Trautvetter. “I love being outdoors, and it really extends the living space.”

At only seven by 11 feet, Trautvetter’s backyard is “intimate,” as she puts it — perfect for relaxing with a glass of wine in the evening. The space’s petite size also makes it ideal for vertically oriented approaches to gardening, like her honeysuckle-covered trellis.

In the garden, taking a vertical approach can mean a lot of different things, from trellises like Trautvetter’s to arbors, pergolas, planted containers and self-sustaining “green wall” systems.

Vertical gardening is “nothing new,” says Peter Bieneman, general manager of Green Fields Nursery and Landscaping, noting that vegetable gardeners, in particular, have been making the most of vertical space for years. But Bieneman also observes that vertical gardening is a trend on the rise. “We’ve noticed an uptick because of urban yards and tight spaces,” he says.

For home gardeners considering expanding upward, the first step is to determine your goals, say garden experts. Trautvetter was looking for something pretty to disguise the “hideous” back of her house; other homeowners may want to add privacy between their yard and a neighbor’s, or to subtly divide the yard into different spaces.

“I like to look at what a landscape is supposed to do, first,” says Bieneman. “Do I want screening? Something that looks pretty? I think about how the vertical gardening can achieve the landscape goals.”

In a Towson backyard, Chuck Sells of landscaping company Rooted in Nature  used clematis to cover a custom-built pergola that acts as an entrance to his client’s garden. Not only does the plant look pretty, it also establishes a distinct point of entry. “It directs people to the backyard,” he says.

For “hiding” unsightly elements of the yard, Richard Sweeney, of Walnut Hill Landscape Co., loves living, or green, walls. With these self-contained structures, which are outfitted with irrigation systems, “you can add something visual of interest and create patterns,” he says. “It’s like a vertical canvas — like a blank canvas where you can ‘paint’ with different plants.”

Clients who live in the city are often interested in vertical gardening to enhance privacy, says Peter Bieneman. “They’re looking for screening and adding green to a hardscape.”

Space plays a role in screening options, he says. “Sometimes you can’t put a plant somewhere because it’s just too tight and skinny,” he warns. Some customers, he says, have fences between their yards and their neighbors’ yards, but want additional screening from plants. Often, because of space constraints, the best move is to place plants in pots in front of a fence, rather than planting directly in the ground.

Container gardening, Bieneman says, is ideal for small backyards in the city. “You can line up a bunch of containers and get a nice vertical accent and a little screening,” he says, noting that when gardeners place containers on shelves or benches, they also leave the ground below the pots open. That space can be planted, too.

Plant choice is dependent upon a few factors, including space constraints, sun intensity, maintenance requirements and what you think is most attractive.

Bieneman lists numerous favorite upright plants, including the buckthorn rhamnus fine line; tall, narrow bushes, like sky rocket juniper; and vegetables like pole beans and sweet peas, which he says do well on trellises and even railings.

“Breeders and growers have caught on to customers looking for smaller, more upright growing plants,” he says. “To that effect, they have introduced or reintroduced a lot of plants that are vertical.”

He warns, though, that not all plants are equally easy to maintain. “Trimming is an important thing if you have a small space,” Bieneman says. “You may fall in love with a crape myrtle and be OK with the fact that it gets 25 feet tall, but will you be willing to keep it pruned so it doesn’t get 25 feet wide? It all depends on the level of care you’re willing to give.”

Experts also warn that some plants have downsides. Roses, though beautiful, are thorny and can attract bees, says Sells. Plus, he says, “you’ll see dead sticks in winter. That adds visual interest, though, so it’s not horrible.”

Quick-growing plants like bamboo, ivy and wisteria might seem like a good idea, but each has drawbacks. “A lot of people like ivy on homes, but it will get into the foundation and allow bugs in,” says Sells. “With wisteria, you have to be careful because it’ll climb under siding.”

Bamboo is not as invasive, but it spreads, says Bieneman. “I warn people against anything that grows quickly. Try to evaluate what it will be five to 10 years from now.”

Before building a trellis or buying containers to plant, do your homework, he suggests. Take measurements and photos of your yard and ask a local landscaping expert, or visit the websites of reputable landscaping schools and botanical gardens. “Read and learn about your plants,” he advises. Then build, plant and watch them grow.

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Structures to Help You Go Vertical

Thinking about going vertical? There are a variety of structures available to help gardeners send their greenery sky-high.

Trellis: Flat structures designed with open areas that allow plants to grow up and around, trellises can be placed in front of walls or built to hide unsightly objects, like air conditioners.

Arbor: Often used in entryways, arbors are archways that can help establish “rooms” in larger yards or gardens.

Pergola: Pergolas are roofed structures with open sides; plants can grow up their posts and over their roofs to create shaded outdoor spaces surrounded by green. Like arbors, they can also be used to differentiate between different parts of the yard.

Fences and railings: Gardeners can train vines to grow along existing fences and deck railings, adding a green element to existing structures like balconies.

Containers: Containers including tall plants, or multiple containers stacked on shelves or on terraced land, can create a vertical effect that is easy to maintain. Peter Bieneman of Green Fields Nursery and Landscaping notes that containers are especially useful in small, urban backyards, where they save space and offer flexibility in terms of design.

Green/living wall: Green walls, or living walls, are vertical units outfitted with irrigation systems that allow living plants to thrive while on the wall. Numerous companies manufacture these walls, which can be placed inside or outside. Because living walls are irrigated, they offer some flexibility, says Richard Sweeney of Walnut Hill Landscape Co., though they are often hardier plants that can handle the heat of the sun.

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