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Adventures in frugal vertical gardening – ideas for planters?

Posted by on Tuesday 29 March 2011 in frugal, growing, making, wood stuff | 9 comments

Got a dull flat wall I’d like to “vertical garden” up – need to make/acquire/modify some planters. Any suggestions? Need to be cheap/free :)

I asked that grammatically horrific question on Twitter last Thursday but I thought I’d bring it over here as well to catch non-Twitterers but also to put together some of my ideas/questions.

I’ve actually got two flat walls that would be perfect for wall planters and the like but I’m going to focus on the bigger one first. It’s on the greenhouse level of our garden and has a super narrow (about a foot wide) bed at the bottom of it. I intended to grow beans and peas in the bed last year – trained up the wall – but the slugs put an end to that. Courgettes grew quite happily in it after all the peas got eaten but I think from this year onwards, it’ll work better as shrubby-herb bed (especially as it means I don’t have to put those elsewhere now). Since they won’t climb up, there will be a lot of vertical height going spare. More of an issue for when I reach the planting stage but if anyone’s interest, the wall is east facing, receiving sun until about 1-2pm.

So what can I use for planters? There are lots of different planters available to buy – in all sorts of materials – but they seem to fall into a few general categories:

  • shelves – from basic wood to fancy wrought iron curves & cages. Even the flatter, plainer shelves, usually have a rim or lip around the sides so pots don’t get blown out or down. For use with separate pots.
  • window boxes – wall mounted troughs which, unlike the shelves, are planted into directly.
  • half moon wall planters – semi-circular troughs a cross between window boxes and hanging baskets.
  • hanging baskets – suspended away from the wall on a strong bracket or a hook. A few levels can be hung together like rainchains.
  • “floating” pots – either like this lead one from Gardeners World, this integrated hooks/trellis arrangement or just pots on hooks. Some, like the lead one, have pots fixed in position, whereas others can be moved around – for example, pots with individual hooks attached can be put anywhere on a trellis.
  • bagssuspended bags filled with soil, with holes cut into the (randomly) bag for the plants. Felt pocket hangers are a cross between the floating pots and these bags. Some bags (like better feather duvets) are divided into different compartments so the soil doesn’t all slump to the bottom – but this does restrict root growth.
  • complex living wall systems – patented growing secrets! Lots of different designs/methods – some of them seem to be grid structures filled with compost, others structured bags behind trellis type things, others still who knows? possibly pure magic.

I certainly can’t afford a fancy living wall system but even filling the space with purpose-built troughs/window boxes, wall planters and hanging baskets would cost more than I’d like. (I do have some that I can repurpose from elsewhere in the garden but I’ll have to replace those containers somehow or I won’t be adding to my overall growing space. Some are also self-watering which would be beneficial). As always, I’ll keep an eye out on eBay/Freegle for giveaways but in the meantime, I guess I need to get making…

I can make simple wooden shelves – in fact I have some old bevelled ones with simple wooden brackets in our cellar – ones that were bought for my flat twelve years and two cities ago – I heart never throwing anything away ;) . They don’t have lips but I could add one – or a wire guard rail. I could also look out for old metal shower caddies or the like to work as shelves. But whether wood or wire shelves, I might struggle to find suitable pots without buying new ones: I’m not sure I have any spare pottery/terracotta pots and normal plastic ones might not be good from a thermal point of view – they’ll might get too hot in the direct sunshine but not retain the heat afterwards. Similarly, I could easily making hanging/floating pots on wire hooks – but again, heavier pottery ones would be better.

I can also make window boxes/troughs out of scrap wood, smaller versions of my scrap wood planters. I could also make a tiered one (either all the troughs an equal size or bigger ones at the bottom – like in the scrappy sketches below) to get away from just individual troughs – might look nice.

My worry there is to make sure the smaller troughs, whether individual or cascading, are big enough/not overloaded so there is room for the roots to grow – when the box itself will only be about 15cm/6ins deep (the height of the scrap wood I’d be most likely to use)

I think that “room enough to grow” issue is a key one for me after I noticed how sluggish my plants were when I failed to pot/plant them on in time last year – and that’s what puts me off doing something like the lead planters from Gardeners’ World. They’re very cute but I’m not sure they’ll give me enough room for herbs and what-have-you.

Another thing: JaynetheDig suggested: “Chap I met y’day said lay pots into cheap tray or frame (eg bread tray), fill w earth, stretch compost bag over and plant thro” … “may be better at acute angle rather than proper vertical…” The tray idea sounds a bit like the grid-style living wall systems – but probably better for lots of little plants rather fewer bigger ones. I do like the idea though – a bread tray would be very sturdy and relatively long lasting too — will keep an eye out for one.

Building at an acute angle is interesting though — it may save on a bit of wood as there aren’t as many sides required, something like:

To account for the space lost to the slope, they would need to be taller/wider at the top than the other troughs though so it might not be that beneficial in terms of overall wood use.

And I also like the idea of multiple hanging basket/rainchain idea – we talked about making rainchains on Recycle This a couple of years ago but all the ideas were possibly a little small for growing things in. Actually, that reminds me – I asked about making window boxes/trough planters on Recycle This last year – not really wall planter ideas but some good ground ideas — and metal biscuit tins might work for multi-layered hanging basket thing.

As for bags hung on the wall, I think standard compost bags would stretch under the weight of the soil – heavier duty feed bags may be a bit better but the ones I get tend to be transparent so would need covering with an opaque plastic. There is also the same heat absorption/retention issue as thin plastic plant pots. I did think it might be fun to make some denim bags out of the legs of old jeans but I’d have thought, like felt bags, they aren’t going to be very weather/moisture resistant so would only last a year — I’d rather not have to make everything again next year! The picture of the hanging bag though made me think of those plastic bag holder frame things – which might work. I wonder if we have an old one in the cellar which we brought from Leeds but never hung up…

So I guess there are some ideas to get me started – or at least to start looking out for possible materials. Any other suggestions? Any tips or advice? What have you done with wall space?


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  1. lovelygrey

    I saw some shelves on a garden fence that I coveted the other day and they could be made really cheap. They were in the shape of half a flower and then had a bowl attached to the top which was planted up to form the central seedy bit of the bloom. These were painted a purpley blue but I suppose that they could be adapted to taste. Might be a cheap make from scrap wood?

  2. bookstorebabe

    If you have plastic pots already, line them with a piece of bubble wrap. The nice thick kind. It’ll act as insulation from the heat and such, and thus help with water retention. It also displaces some area that would hold dirt, but the benefit of a better growing environment would counteract that. Or if you had room to spare, on a porch or such-a small pot nestled inside a larger pot, with the bubble wrap inbetween-and hide it with a bit of dirt on top. Not as good as clay pots, of course, but it’d be a way to make good use of what you have.
    And as far as planters in general, systems that don’t hold as much soil-what if you planted in richer soil or compost to begin with, along with fertilizing? And of course a handfull of good mulch on top of the soil to help keep the planters from drying out as easily. Or those little watering devices one sees, that you fill with water and stick in the top, and it slowly releases it? That’s a poor description, but I know I’ve seen them in garden shops for houseplants. Maybe there’s a DIY version? (For slow watering outside, I poked just one or two tiny holes in a milk jug, and set it near my plant. Took some experimentation to get a slow seep and not a rush out all at once. I planted a few things in the heat of summer, because that’s when I lucked into getting them. A rose and an azalea, I think-it’s been a while)
    I can’t have a compost bin outside at the moment-the next door neighbors have a rat problem. But something I read about and want to try is this. Someone said she puts her veggie scraps along with some water in the blender! And then pours it around her plants. Said it seemed to soak in and absorb easily with little mess. Not as good as a compost pile, but better than nothing.
    My mother used to put egg shells in a quart canning jar with water, and water her houseplants with the shell water. This does have to be changed out periodically, of course!
    Well, I’ve gotten off track on the subject of planting up a wall! Good luck.

  3. Jan

    Just reading this week’s Amateur Gardening magazine, and there is an item on new products called Verti-plant. Its a heavy duty planting pocket with internal irrigation, containing eight planting pouches. A pack of two planters (30x66x10cm) costs £9.95. Available from garden centres and burgonandball.com.

  4. Jan

    Just remembered a door hanging storage arrangement I once had for shoes, a series of plastic pouches on a hanging hook-wonder if you can still get them-with a few drainage holes you could grow some plants! By the way, the upside down vertical planters you can get for tomatoes didn’t get good press from users last year, so I would give those a miss!

  5. bookstorebabe

    Here’s a link for a DIY upside down planter, if you want to give one a go anyway, for cheap.

  6. sara

    Hi..just had a look at the link from BSB..that is truly cool..love it..will defo have a go at that…

  7. louisa

    Hi guys, thanks for all the suggestions :)

    lovelygrey: I think I know what you mean – I’ll see if I have any suitable wood to try making one :)

    bookstorebabe: Thanks for the bubblewrap tip – it would be very useful if that does help. As for self-waterers, I’ve read about making wicking ones from old tights/stockings – may be worth trying. I also think I’ll take a “herb spiral” approach to planting – have the ones that like it wetter at the bottom to take advantage of drip down :)

    Jan: That’s the type of thing I was thinking about in the “bags” section – the pockets look quite small but I think I’m going to have to accept that as an almost given for vertical gardening like this. I too wondered if a shoe hanger would work.

    bookstorebabe again: thanks for that link – I’ve seen those around but not given them a go – I think I might do now. :)

    Emma: No, I hadn’t seen that – thanks so much for posting the link! We usually try to take the pallets apart for their wood but that’s a far better idea – I like it a lot. :)

  8. Pam

    My idea involves using a ladder and your planters on each step there’s enough room for aeration and plant growth. The water trickle doesn’t always work but the wick idea may. I have several raised beds and I have problems keeping the water in the bed It has a tendency to run off I’ve tried the mike jug and so far that works the best. I have seen strawberries grown this way. Good luck.

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