Saturday 27 June 2015

Growing up - the DIY vertical garden

Lack of space is probably one of the main reasons why many people don't get into gardening, especially in an urban environment, where outdoor space is often at a premium. We have guests at the Secret Garden Club in London who want to know what they can do with a courtyard, a patio, or, often, just a balcony.

We reckon, if you can't grow out, you can grow up. We've been experimenting with an number of inexpensive and DIY vertical gardens and presented some of these ideas at our Herbs and Microleaves workshop last Sunday. Herbs are an ideal starting point for trying out vertical garden ideas as many herbs are more than happy to be grown in pots. Small plants are also readily available and inexpensive to buy.

We've experimented in the past with creating a vertical herb garden from an over-the-door-shoe hanger (like this one, for instance). It's cheap and effective and would last about an season before the material starts to disintegrate. A number of companies have taken the shoe hanger idea and created a more bespoke product for plants.  
One of them is Burgon and Ball, which makes Verti-Plant, above, a small vertical garden frame out of tough non-woven fabric and with six pockets for herbs. The one we used here cost £9.95 for a pack of two hangers, so enough for 12 plants in total. It comes in a number of different colours and takes just a few minutes to screw into a suitable place on an outside wall.The upper pockets have drainage holes in them so that the pockets don;t get waterlogged and also to help water the pockets below.

Ours is planted up with mint and just outside the kitchen door to make it easy to pick a couple of leaves for mint tea. As with the repurposed shoe hanger, we think the Burgon and Ball product would last a season before beginning to show signs of wear and tear. 

Thinking of something a bit more permanent, we started looking at using wooden pallets as a framework for a vertical garden. There's a thriving pallet furniture community over on Pinterest, showcasing everything from using your pallets simply as shelving, to creating vertical gardens using succulent plants that look more like works of art.

The great thing about using pallets is that they are available free of charge, which means you can experiment to your heart's content without major outlay. Also, although there are standard sizes for pallets, they come in an astonishing number of permutations: wide slats, narrow slats, square, rectangular ... the best way to get started is to fold down the back seats in the car and go foraging around the neighbourhood, or your local builder's yard.

Be choosy: don't pick up any pallet that is broken, or too dirty. And I always find someone to ask before taking a pallet from someone's property - and that includes in their skip. No-one has ever yet said no. 

The picture at the top of this post is the simplest way to create a vertical herb garden using a pallet  - and yet it's surprisingly effective. Find a pallet with slats both on top and underneath which create a framework to hold a small pot, when the pallet is stood on end. Pots with 0.5l capacity (check on the bottom of the pot - they are all labelled with their size) should fit snugly in-between the slats. Pot up your herbs (or other plants, if you like) into 0.5l pots and arrange over the pallet 'shelves'. Remember to water regularly: small pots will dry out very quickly.
This mature living wall at Capel Manor College in Enfield, uses a bespoke vertical garden frame with wedge-shaped planting pockets. 
Our final challenge was to create something which could approximate to the living wall style of garden, where the plants have enough root space to grow bigger and up into the light. This can take up a semi-permanent space on a balcony or patio and when fully grown will look spectacular.

Our prototype uses a close-slatted pallet, lined at the back with woven plastic membrane and filled with multi-purpose compost. I used black cardboard at the front and inside to hold the plants in place which at the time I thought was very clever (ie, by the time it had degraded the plants would be well established and kept in place by their root system) but I am not now so sure.
We planted it up with herbs: rosemary and thyme on the top, parsley and chives in the middle and more parsley and lemon verbena at the bottom. As the plants mature, they will grow upwards towards the light and spread out.

Overall the vertical garden is extremely heavy - the pallet frame isn't light to start with and using ordinary compost weighs it down too, especially when it's wet. The one we made here can be used as a standalone system, which is a good thing - I think if I tried to hang it up on a fence it would bring the whole thing crashing down.

For our next one we'll work on making it lighter - mixing in something like vermiculite as the growing medium and we'll use something more durable to hold the plants, like fine black wire mesh maybe. But the principle holds good, and the construction works - below shows how we built it, step by step.
1. Stand the pallet upright and start affixing the plastic membrane to the back of it with a staple gun
2. Fold over the raw edge of the membrance to make a 'hem', otherwise it will fray horribly.
3. Tuck in the corners neatly to ensure there not gaps where compost could spill out.
4. Cut the membrane to fit the back of the pallet neatly and staple the membrane to the wood. This is the bottom of the vertical garden - leave the top open so you can plant it up and water the garden from above.
5. Turn the pallet back right side up and start adding compost.
6. Pack the compost in well: it will damp down when you water it and the plants will slip if you leave gaps.
7. Slide strips of card or another unobtrusive lining to keep the compost in place before planting up.

Words: Zia Mays
Most pictures: MsMarmitelover

Wednesday 24 June 2015

Midsummer night's eve Secret Garden Club.

Secret Garden Club menu, herbs workshop 

It was all the stuff we had for midsummer's eve, Swedish style, with a few dishes added on:
Bloom's Gin with lemon balm sugar syrup, lemon verbena garnish and soda water
Canap├ęs of skagen, egg and Kalix roe on Peter's Yard crisp bread
Smoked mozzarella with lovage and broad beans and hay smoked oil
Strawberry cake topped with wild strawberries and red currants from the garden
Apple fritters with cinnamon sugar

Zia Mays gave a workshop on herbs and microwaves as well as demonstrating her vertical palette garden ideas. More on this in our next post and recipes will be up on over the next few weeks.