Over the past few years, it’s been people in their 20s who ask the most questions about innovative systems for vegetable gardening, says Eric Darden, the horticulturist behind the annual Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival.
“In my opinion, their interests go back to growing your own food and knowing where your food comes from,” he says.
Popular hydroponic systems tend to be vertical gardens using foam growing towers that have water and nutrients circulated through them. Some systems even include growing fish such as tilapia and using their waste converted by bacteria to nutrients that will feed the plants. The plants remove what they need from the circulating water and the filtered water is then returned to the fish.
Because millennials tend to live in apartments or other homes with small yards or balconies, they are often looking for ways to save space. Vertical gardening systems suit their purposes.
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But less ambitious vegetable growers also find it valuable to grow vertically because plants that have minimal contact with the ground require less watering and enjoy better air circulation, which fends off pests and disease. In addition, because the plants get more air and sunlight, they tend to produce better, says Teri Goldsmith, president of the Florida Master Gardeners of Broward County.
Vertical gardening in South Florida dates back to the Miccosukee and Seminole Indians. Even before the Spanish arrived in 1500, they grew chassa howitska, which translates to “hanging pumpkin.” They girdled a tree and planted the pumpkin seeds at its base. As it reached for the sunlight, the pumpkin vine would climb the tree. Its fruit actually hung from the branches.
Modern growers have learned that in South Florida, it’s almost always a necessity to grow food crops in raised beds to avoid nematode damage.
Diane McEwan of Lighthouse Point had never tried vegetable gardening until last year, when she decided she wanted to treat her family to homegrown Better Boy and Beef Master tomatoes. “I figured we eat a lot of vegetables so let’s give it a shot,” she says.
She and her husband, Andrew, recycled a pile of discarded lumber into a 3-by-4-by-1.5-foot bottomless box. “It seemed a shame to throw the wood out,” McEwan says.
But Goldsmith offers a word of caution: In projects such as this, it’s best to avoid pressure treated lumber, which contains chemicals that may leach into the growing medium and be transferred to your harvest.
Once the McEwans’ box was built, they lined the dirt with weed-barrier cloth that is porous to water and attached a 5-foot pole to each end of the box. Wire or rope strung between the poles provides support for the tomato vines as they grow towards the sun. Tomato clips that are much like orchid clips can be used to attach the vines to the rope or wire. Plants growing vertically are easier to trim, pick off caterpillars and harvest.
Other ways to support growing vines are with trellises, bamboo wigwams or strings suspended from a cable fixed overhead like a clothesline. That’s the technique Kevin Quigley uses at Criswell Farms, a quarter-acre urban farm in Fort Lauderdale.
Although his heavy duty system was built to support his commercial crop, the home gardener can adapt his idea by simply suspending a line or cable between supports over a row of vining vegetables such as tomatoes. Using tomato pulleys as Quigley does or just strings attached to the overhead cable, you can attach the vine to the string with a tomato clip.
Quigley, who is a master gardener, uses grow bags for his crops but there are other easy potting options for vertical gardens. Try filling reusable shopping bags or even old rubber boots with soil and hanging them so the vines reach for the ground instead of growing skyward.
Even coffee cans can be hung on a wall to foster a light crop. “They provide a steam punk look that people like,” says Goldsmith.
Or you might use a wooden pallet, suggests Darden. The pallet can be laid on the ground and filled with a good growing mixture to form a raised bed; lettuces, herbs or other veggies can be planted between the slats. Stood on edge with one side covered with burlap or weed barrier, the pallet can be planted as a vertical garden.
Other innovative raised beds might include an old wheelbarrow, a child’s wagon or other piece of antiquity. And popular modular growing systems such as Woolly Pockets (www.woollypocket.com) can help you grow green walls of edibles and ornamentals indoors and out.
You can even use hay, which is an excellent growing medium for vegetables such as potatoes, says Goldsmith. Begin with galvanized fencing formed into a cylinder. Pull apart the hay, use it to line the cylinder, then layer a growing mixture in the cylinder. Plant seed potatoes in the soil mixture as you go. Sprouting potatoes will soon be growing out of the sides of the cylinder, where they will be easy to harvest.