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When growing one’s own food in urban and suburban settings, space is often at a premium. Consequently, it is good practice to consider the vertical space available, such as growing container gardens on shelves or using balcony rails as trellises for climbing vines, say green beans or cucumbers. The point is to maximize the square footage of floor space by expanding upwards rather that outwards.

One of the best methods for doing this is creating vertical planting towers, and these — as we’ll explore — come with some additional nifty benefits. There are several methods for building vertical towers, but rest assured that they can be easily put together and have the potential to grow an abundance of produce while occupying only a tiny amount of square footage.

For the following tower, we are going to try to make the most of repurposed materials, which is almost always the greener option and will cut down both our cost and environmental impact.

The What of Vertical Planting Towers

TristanF/Flickr

In a nutshell, vertical planting towers are very tall plant pots that have opened spaces along the vertical sides of the pot. Then, plants can grow from more places than just the top. We commonly see small versions of these in the form of little pots for herbs that have a series of balconies poking out. Instead of a pot just growing rosemary or basil, we can use virtually the same area to grow an entire herb garden.

While these herb designs are the most recognizable version of planting towers, there are many other edibles that perform really well in this arrangement, most notably salad greens and strawberries. What makes this such a valuable technique is that, typically, these types of crops, while highly productive and easy to grow, take up a lot of ground. With vertical towers, we have stacked that surface area and, thus, can grow much more in a tiny fraction of the space.

An Added Possibility for More Fertility

Crabchick/Flickr

When making a vertical garden at home, assuming that throwing and firing clay pots is not an option, we generally use either repurposed five gallon buckets (food-grade is highly advisable) or larger barrels (again, food grade is the ideal). Anything tall or that can be stacked will work, just be sure the materials are safe for growing food in. Openings are cut into them along the vertical sides so that plant can be started up and down the tower rather than just at the top.

An added feature that many ready-to-roll garden tower manufacturers include is a composting, or worm, tube going through the center. This is a thinner cylinder, such as a 4” piece of pipe, with lots of holes drilled in it. The advantage here is that the plants can be watered from within, where their roots can easily drink it up, and the organic matter breaking down inside the tube will introduce more nutrients to the water.

If worms are also a part of this system, they will happily move in and out of the tube to feed on the composted items, which then become worm castings, even more fertile than compost. The worms will also keep the soil within the tower aerated, and they will quickly convert the organic materials into manure, which is more accessible to plants.

A Material List for a Vertical Planting Tower

The most likely source of repurposed tower-building material available would be free or very cheap five-gallon buckets (check supermarkets), so we will design ours with that in mind.  Five gallon buckets are about 15 inches tall, so if we stack three (possibly four) of them, we should get a lot more growing space, but we’ll still be able to harvest easily from the top. If the tops come with the buckets, it is even better.

Because we like the idea of composting, adding fertility, and watering easily throughout the tower, we will also opt to acquire a four-inch vertical pipe to go through the center of this. The pipe will need to reach from the base of the bottom bucket through top of the last, which roughly four feet for our three-bucket tower. In this case, remember that PVC isn’t ideal, as it will potentially leach things we don’t want into the soil. Get a cap as well.

Lastly, we will need some decent potting mix, enough to fill the three buckets (Check out this guide to making your own). Whatever plants you want to grow: strawberries, different lettuces, herbs, tomatoes can do well at the top. Lastly, if it sits with you okay, you need composting worms for each bucket (Kind of like pets).

The Building of a Vertical Planting Tower

Finally, we can put this thing together. Start by cutting four-inch holes, for the composting tube, in the center of the lids and bases of each bucket. Do not cut the hole in the base of the bottom bucket. Drill roughly one-inch holes up and down the composting tube. On the buckets, cut about two or three semi-circles (check out this video) per column with about five columns per bucket. Once the cuts are made, pull the center tabs out to make little planting shelves.

Now, to assemble it, stand the composting tube in the center of the bottom bucket and fill the bucket with potting mix. Add some worms before sliding the lid on. Stack the next bucket and repeat the process. On the top bucket, just leave the lid off and plant something in the top. Many people like to put a cap on the composting tube so that it does not emit smells and/or critters do not fall in.

Then, sow the seeds or transplant the seedlings. Start feeding the tube kitchen scraps (the worms should migrate up the tube with the food). Water the plants via the composting spot and grow some food!

Lead Image Source: Chipmunk_1/Flickr

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