Running out of room for plants? A vertical garden will let you keep feeding your obsession


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Photo: Summer Rayne Oakes

Unlike other healthy things you can hoard, like crystals or essential oils, there’s a relatively low limit to the number of plants a city-dwelling gal can amass. After all, the typical apartment only has so much free floor and tabletop space, and an individual pot can bogart a lot of this square footage depending on its shape. But there is one solution that’ll allow you to continue feeding your botanical obsession once you’ve run out of room in the usual places: Start a vertical garden.

Houseplant Masterclass and Homestead Brooklyn founder Summer Rayne Oakes is a huge fan of this tactic, having created multiple vertical gardens for her New York City home. “The concept of a vertical garden is simply growing plants vertically on a wall, as opposed to horizontally, like in a planter on the shelf,” says Oakes, author of the forthcoming book How to Make a Plant Love You: Cultivate Green Space in Your Home and Heart. “You can cultivate so many more plants since we’re often short on space, horizontally speaking.”

What’s more, she adds, this type of planting is super striking from an aesthetic perspective. “I fell in love with the concept of vertical gardens ever since I saw French designer Patrick Blanc’s vertical displays. It’s so cool how you can create a beautiful work of living art in your home and watch it change and grow.”

Plus, the process of actually creating a vertical garden isn’t as intimidating as you might think. Here, Oakes breaks it down step by step, offering up intel on where to situate your garden, what kind of plants to grow, and how to keep them thriving. Think of it as the ultimate plant-lady boss move—other than getting a pothos tattoo, that is.

Here’s how to create a vertical garden at home.

Step 1: Find the right location

The great thing about vertical gardens is that you can set them up in pretty much any space you have available, no matter the size. “I’ve seen vertical gardens as small as a picture frame, with just one or two plants—[and as big as] the facades of skyscrapers covered in plants,” Oakes says. “It really runs the gamut and there are myriad ways to build out a green wall or vertical garden.”

That said, there are a few things you want to consider when deciding where to situate yours. For instance, says Oakes, your wall needs to be able to support the weight of the garden you have in mind. “In my case, I had to reinforce my wall for my larger, sub-irrigated gutter-garden,” she says. If you’re a renter—or just don’t feel like taking on a big home-improvement project—opt for a smaller garden with just a few plants. You’ll also want to find a wall with plenty of light, adds Oakes. (Natural light is optimal, but you can also install a grow light.) And you’ll need to think about hydration. “All green walls have to have some sort of water source, whether that is you watering them or them automatically being watered through an irrigation system of sorts,” she explains.

Her rule of thumb for beginners? The simpler, the better. “If you can start small and trial it, you can always go bigger later!”

Step 2: Create your garden structure

Once you’ve scoped out a perfect location for your green wall, you can start thinking about the containers to grow it in. For a low-fuss option, Oakes is a fan of Wally Gro’s pocket gardens, which affix to all different types of walls and have self-watering capabilities.

Want to get a little more creative? Oakes has upcycled all sorts of found materials into vertical garden containers (and shared the how-tos on her blog and YouTube channel), from mason jars to gutters to wood scraps. “I think these projects prove that the unit doesn’t have to be a great expense,” Oakes says.

Step 3: Pick your plants

When choosing plants for your vertical garden, the first thing you should consider is how much light you’re working with. For instance, one of Oakes’ vertical gardens gets ample light from a southwest-facing window and a grow light. “The plants that tend to grow best there are philodendron, epipremnum, scindapsus, aglaonema, dracaena, zamioculcas, pellionia, alocasia, and adiantum,” she says. However, the one in her kitchen gets less direct light. It’s filled with plants like calathea, ctenanthe, maranta, peperomia, begonia, and syngonium. (Your local garden center can help you determine which options are best for your home’s light levels and the size of your containers.) When in doubt, lightweight air plants are always a good option for wall hanging.

The other thing to think about is that certain plants prefer to grow up a wall, and a vertical garden gives them a great opportunity to do so. “If you have a wall utilizing felt, this is usually a great surface for plants to affix roots to and grow upwards—especially ones that like to shingle and climb, like certain philodendron, monstera, and rhaphidophora, for example,” says Oakes.

Step 4: Keep your garden growing

Make no mistake, vertical gardens are a bit more work than your average potted houseplant. “They aren’t maintenance-free or set-them-and-forget-them,” says Oakes. “Your plants will overgrow, and you’ll have to switch them out or cut them back—or they’ll die—either by getting shaded out from another plant if there’s not enough adequate light, or just because the conditions aren’t being met.”

She adds that with DIY vertical gardens, especially, it’s often a process of experimenting—for instance, she says the irrigation system in one of her setups kept getting blocked, so she had to tinker with it to keep it running smoothly. “That’s why the simpler you can make it, the better,” she says. So maybe save the floor-to-ceiling ombre installation for round two.

Another option when you’ve run out of indoor plant space: Turn your patio into a jungle. Or invest in some adorably tiny paper plants instead. 

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