In 2020, like many of you, I decided to start a garden. With my childhood friend Jocelyn, I tested the efficiency of the vertical farming techniques that I have learned and written about in the past couple of years.
We wanted to see if the vertical garden model could be a better alternative to a traditional garden. Moreover, we tried to optimize the available space stylishly. Inspired by the Plant Charmer’s A-frame system, it was designed for a quick and easy build, to grow high yields on 20 square feet while requiring minimal work.
Although some crop yields were fantastic, some amateur mistakes prevented us from reaching optimal results.
Nevertheless, this tryout was an opportunity to identify some flaws and areas for improvement. By sharing this vertical gardening experience and other growers’ experience, you will learn that growing your food can be easier than you think.
Identify the location for the vertical garden. Our system used 20 square feet and was in a North-South position to get optimal sun exposure. As the sun is traveling from East to West, each side had an equal amount of sun.
You could also consider building a one-sided vertical garden for an apartment balcony facing south rather than the a-frame option. However, we didn’t test this option yet.
You can easily find the material to build the vertical garden in your favorite home hardware store. Those who are not familiar with woodworking can get some insights from the Beginners’ Guide to Woodworking by BuildEasy.
Here’s the list of the material used for my model:
- Seven framing lumber (2″ x2″ x8′)
- Three PVC rain gutters (10′ long, 3.5” or 4″ deep)
- Twelve PVC gutter end cap (optional, for aesthetic purposes)
- Two Back Flap Hinges – Steel – 2″ x 4 1/4″
- Bag of 14″ cable ties
- Box of screws 4″ long
- Twelve screws 1″ 1/2 long (to fix hinges)
How to build the vertical garden
- Start by cutting five 8′ framing lumber in half to obtain ten pieces that are 4′ long.
- Take two 4′ pieces of wood and mark the measures as indicated in the step 2 image.
- Join the two lateral pieces with three 4′ horizontal pieces screwed at each measured point to form a ladder shape frame, as indicated in step 3 image.
Repeat steps 2 and 3 to do the other side.
- Cut the two remaining 8′ framing lumber in half. Then, cut with the following measures: two pieces of 2’8″ long; two pieces of 2′ long; and two pieces of 1’2″ long, as indicated in the step 4 image.
- Lay down both sides. Put them head to head (the heads have the 6″ measures). Add the hinges, as indicated in the step 5 image.
- Then, flip the a-frame to put it on its feet. To stabilize and support the rain gutters, screw the support pieces as indicated in the step 6 image.
- Cut the three 10′ rain gutters in half to obtain six pieces of 5′ long. Then, drill holes as indicated in the step 7 image (to tie them to the frame with cable ties and irrigation).
- Add the rain gutters to the a-frame and tie them up with the cable ties, as indicated in step 8 image.
- Add potting mix, seeds, and or seedling.
That’s it! Your a-frame is ready to grow. In such a system, you should use a potting mix that allows the roots to develop quickly and easily. I used the Promix Premium Organic, with mycoactive. You could also use the Promix High Porosity (HP) with Mycorrhizae. It gave me excellent results in the past while growing spicy peppers in containers.
Avoid using topsoil or black earth in rain gutters, as it is too dense and compact for the roots. It will slow growth and will not irrigate well.
We used 100% natural fertilizer pellets (4-6-8) to feed the plants, made of hen manure, bone meal, and natural potash.
What crops to grow and how to grow them
The easiest thing to grow is by far lettuce. We planted some Boston, Romain, and Red Sails lettuce. The results were fantastic. You should note that spring mix, Rosaine, Cegolaine, and little gems lettuce, as well as arugula, spinach, kale, and swiss chard, are also sure shots.
Growing strawberries is also a must for such a system. You can grow up to 10 strawberry cultivars per 5′ rain gutter planter. Depending on the type of cultivar, you can expect up to 1 pound of strawberries per plant. The Albion neutral day is highly recommended for best results.
As there was growing interest in gardening in 2020, spurred by the pandemic restrictions, there was a shortage of strawberry cultivars in our region. Albion strawberry cultivars were impossible to get your hands on. We finally ended up with some 4 Delizz and 6 Toscana cultivars. Although each Delizz plant provided about 1/2 pound of sweet, mid-size berries, the Toscana results were somehow disappointing.
Other crops that can generate surprising results are peppers. Amateurs of spicy peppers, you may have found yourself the perfect tool to grow multiple varieties using very little space. We grew nine plants of super chili peppers using only one of the 5′ rain gutter planters. Although we started the garden late in the season, each plant generated about 1/4 pound of peppers.
Herbs thrive in the vertical garden. In 2020, we grew chives and cilantro. Parsley and basil are also some of the easiest herbs to grow in such a system.
Unlike popular belief, many root vegetables can grow well in the vertical garden. It includes some carrots, beetroots, and bigger plants such as sweet peas and mini eggplants. To understand the full potential, see the examples below.
More vertical system examples
From Yermis Garden, located in London, Ontario (Canada), Gerardo has been using the vertical farming technique since 2018. He was an intern at Khaled’s In.Genius Farm. “My experience with vertical farming/gardening has been challenging,” he said. “But most importantly, it allowed me to experiment and to learn on the huge potential that vertical agriculture can have in an urban environment,” he added.
For Gerardo, vertical farming has brought him many benefits. It gave him the ability to grow food without owning land. Moreover, it provided him with an opportunity for community engagement, sharing with consumers ethically grown produce, and understanding how plants perform in an unconventional environment.
I have experimented a lot in the past few seasons. Vertical farming has taught me I can grow more plants than originally thought. – Gerardo, Yermis Garden.
Laurie is from Millstone Farm & Organics Inc, a family-run organic farm in North Saanich, British Columbia (Canada). They started their vertical farming venture in early spring 2020. When the pandemic hit, they decided to reach out to Khaled to grow a massive vertical garden to supply their community with fresh organic produce. It turned out to be a success. They sold their products at the farm gate, in a local grocery store, online, and a portion of their garden was dedicated to the local food banks.
The move from ground-based conventional gardening to planting in gutters in a vertical system has been a complete game-changer for us. – Laurie, Millstone Farm & Organics Inc.
“We plant and harvest standing up, so no back or knee fatigue,” she said. “There is virtually no weeding, as the weeds do not propagate in troughs that are filled with organic grow mix,” she added. Laurie explained that little water is required. They use a drip tube irrigation system, which enables growing food through all climate conditions, especially drought. Finally, she emphasized that less space is needed to produce considerably higher yields in a small area, as they are growing up, not out.
Sean operates TinyFarm in Bayview, Island County, Washington. In early 2020, he built three vertical systems, each with ten rows (5 per side), to experiment with the system. One entire a-frame was to grow Albion strawberries. The two others were to test growing lettuces, cucumbers, peas, and Bok/Pak Choi.
“I wanted to support Khaled, aka @theplantcharmer, so I purchased his [a-frame system] plans and built some,” Sean said. “I was really impressed as in my area we have many slugs, but they could not climb the frame, we never struggled with them, and strawberries were happy,” he added.
This year, I am hoping to build more frames and grow more things for our family and the local food bank. – Sean, TinyFarm.
Vertical gardening do’s and don’ts
- Do plan ahead. Don’t do things last minute.
The system is quick and easy to build, but planning the garden should start at least in February. We began to buy materials to make the vertical garden in late May. Once finished, we went to buy seeds and seedlings but experienced a shortage in gardening products. As a result, our first harvests were in July rather than early June.
- Do consider meal preparation when growing crops. Don’t grow food at random.
To optimize your vertical gardening experience, grow crops that can be harvested simultaneously and used together in a recipe. It will make it easy to prepare snacks or meals (or at least part of a meal).
- Do start new lettuce seedlings as soon as you plant the first ones.
Don’t wait for harvesting lettuce to start your seedlings. By replacing each head harvested by an already developed seedling, you will significantly reduce the time between each harvest.
- Do buy quality seeds. Don’t cheap out on seeds.
I purchased cheap retail seeds in a local hardware store. Half of the seedlings didn’t germinate, and those who did were weak and didn’t produce well. Avoid that simple mistake. I was strongly recommended Johnny’s Selected Seeds for their quality.
- Do buy quality seedlings. Don’t be cheap on seedlings.
As for seeds, seedlings’ quality matters, especially if you have no time to grow from seeds. Even though vertical gardening reduces potential pests or disease, more vigorous plants will show better resistance if those problems occur. Moreover, you will likely have better yields.
The next step
The vertical garden was small and required almost no time and effort. However, we still had to water it. Implementing an automatic or semi-automatic watering system would be a significant improvement. Something we may try in 2021.
The vertical garden was easy to store once the gardening season is over. However, we felt that we could make this easier by slightly modifying the design. A new iteration could have spreaders instead of side rain gutter supports. Therefore, the a-frame could behave a bit like a ladder when you unfold or fold it.
Our garden got attention from friends and family members. Although we didn’t reach optimal results, they were amazed by the amount of food grown in such little space. As a result, some asked us to help them build a vertical garden of their own. It should keep us busy this winter into the spring.
For those who would like to do things at a commercial level, we would recommend visiting the InGenius Farm School of Urban Agriculture to learn how to build a better, bigger and stronger system.
If you have questions or suggestions about the vertical garden, leave a comment below or contact us.