Vertical Gardening: Creating A Sense of Place

– Posted in: Garden Design, Garden Musings

I’m delighted that Susan Morrison and Rebecca Sweet are gracing us with their presence on Gardening Gone Wild with an in depth article on different types of vertical gardening; which is no surprise since they have just published a fantastic book on it, Garden Up! Smart Vertical Gardening for Small and Large Spaces. By the time I finished this article, I thought ‘Wow…I have got to try some of these ideas on my urban roof top garden’…. Fran Sorin


When we first told friends and family we were writing a book about vertical gardening, the typical response went something like “Great! It’s about time someone wrote a book about living walls in the U.S.” Being reasonably smart cookies, we eventually figured out that most people’s definition of vertical gardening begins and ends with living walls.

But as beautiful and inspiring as a book filled with living wall photos might be, we’re not garden reporters, we’re garden designers. For us, everything flows from the magic that happens when we work with our clients to create personal spaces. We weren’t interested in a book about multi-story office buildings draped in high maintenance greenery and supported by complex, expensive hydroponic equipment. Instead, we were looking for vertical gardening ideas that reflect how most of us actually garden – whether that’s on a balcony, in the city or on a traditional suburban lot. With that being said, if you are a gardener who is interested in learning about organic hydroponics, doing some research into this should hopefully get you up to date with the basics of how this could benefit you and your garden.

As we began researching, writing and photographing, what we found is what we already knew – that the best gardens have a sense of place, or terroir. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, Rebecca recently defined it in her Horticulture column like this: “In garden design, sense of terroir is often interpreted as sense of place. Taken literally, this refers to the specific region and the environmental factors in which you garden. Metaphorically, however, it refers to the ‘place’ to which you want your garden to transport you.” The gardeners we met along the way shared spaces that were all incredibly different in the size, style and complexity of their vertical gardens, yet they all had one thing in common: a distinctive and magnetic sense of place.

Reveal who you are


One of the most extensive and envy-inducing gardens we visited belongs to artists Freeland and Sabrina Tanner. Located in the Napa Valley, their garden has been showcased in magazines ranging from Garden Design to Fine Gardening. The artists’ eye is apparent everywhere, from the world-class garden design and layout to the many charming vignettes scattered throughout.


What makes the garden special, however, is how much the garden reflects not only their design aesthetic, but themselves. A wall of variegated ivy is highlighted with a personal collection of watering cans. Instead of twining vines, an over-sized garden teepee is covered with an eclectic mix of garden tools. We love this garden not because it is a showcase in the designed sense of the word (although it is), but because it’s a visual introduction to the artists who live there. Incidentally, the Tanners maintain their garden themselves.

Build a community



At the other end of the spectrum in size, budget and purpose is a gem of a courtyard garden we discovered in downtown San Francisco. When twenty-something gardener Emily Goodman moved into a new apartment building, she wanted to grow vegetables, but the small shared courtyard was almost entirely paved over in concrete. Undaunted, she turned the fences into her canvas. Relying on ideas she found on the internet and using items she salvaged from family and friends she created a thriving garden of peas, berries, herbs and more.


PVC pipe was transformed into strawberry towers, while a discarded five gallon restaurant bucket was repurposed into an upside-down tomato pot. A dedicated do-it-yourselfer, Emily used a closet shoe-organizer as the inspiration for a homemade living wall of lettuce. She didn’t ask permission, just kept adding containers and shelves. Eventually, her neighbors introduced themselves, and the courtyard went from a place to store junk to a gathering space for the building. The sense of place we felt in this tiny courtyard is summed up in a few words and phrases – playful, self-reliant, respectful of the environment, inclusive.

Create an oasis


Oftentimes, sense of place means tapping into the culture, community and natural landscape where you live. But when your home is an apartment building that looks onto the back side of a Lowe’s, looking elsewhere for inspiration might be the better option. After falling in love with Dawn Engel’s The Artist’s Garden Creole-inspired garden at the San Francisco Flower and Garden Show, designer Jenny Peterson was determined to create the same romantic feel on her own Austin, Texas balcony.


Adding a wall-mounted water feature to a balcony was no small feat, but it provides the backdrop for a charming space filled with topiaries, cozy throws and rugs and whimsical touches like a trumpet overflowing with the succulent known as string of pearls (Senecio rowleyanus). Despite contending with both a slim space and a slim budget, Jenny successfully transformed her plain-Jane balcony into a relaxing and artistic New Orleans-style retreat. (Read more about creating a balcony garden on Jenny’s blog.)

Vertical gardening may seem like just another trend, and by all means, if you’re in the mood to try something new in your garden this spring, check out one of the many affordable living wall options available (yes our book does include a chapter on living walls). But don’t view your vertical spaces as a piece of real estate disconnected from the rest of the garden. Instead, use your fences, walls and railings to create a sense of place that’s uniquely your own.


Shawna Coronado takes advantage of a bare garden fence to display her grandmother’s collection of antique balls and glass insula

Fran Sorin

Fran is the author of the highly-acclaimed book, Digging Deep: Unearthing Your Creative Roots Through Gardening, which Andrew Weil, M.D., recommends as "a profound and inspiring book."  

A graduate of the University of Chicago with Honors in Psychology, she is also a gardening and creativity expert, coach, inspirational speaker, CBS radio news gardening correspondent, and Huffington Post Contributor.

Learn more about Fran and get free resources that will help you improve your life at

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Fran Sorin
12 comments… add one

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meemsnyc March 17, 2011, 3:44 am

Oooh, I love that strawberry example~

Emily told us the hardest part about agreeing to have her garden photographed was not eating any of the strawberries for the two weeks before we came. As soon as we said we were done, everyone immediately started picking berries!

Darla March 17, 2011, 5:38 am

I have string of bananas, looking for string of pearls…Garden Up!

Darla – String of Pearls is fairly common about here, but String of Bananas is a new one for us. Thanks for sharing. — Susan and Rebecca

String of bananas or fish hooks are both common names for Senecio radicans, which looks like string of pearls (Senecio rowleyanus) except the beadlike leaves are elongated and curved. It’s a tougher plant than string of pearls, and a good substitute in hanging baskets or vertical gardens, where harsher conditions (i.e. heat and sun) make it difficult to grow the other.– Debra Lee Baldwin

Stan Horst March 17, 2011, 9:23 am

Love that shoe organizer turned into lettuce wall. That is great. I never would have thought of that.

I’ve been growing a number of things vertically for a while. One of my favorite vegetables is the cucumber. Grown vertically on a trellis, it is nice and green all around, instead of white on the underbelly.

Stan: We tried our hardest to find a great photo of a cucumber arbor, but the only ones we could get were either low-resolution or overshadowed by the photographer’s finger! I wish we knew you when we were looking for photos!! — Rebecca

Sheila Schultz March 17, 2011, 2:51 pm

In Garden Up! Susan and Rebecca took me on a journey that was unexpected. They opened my eyes to possibilities for vertical gardening… it’s going to be a fun adventure.

Stan, you reminded me of an amazing rooftop garden in NYC. The owner had planted a fruit and vegie garden. The cantaloupe vines were growing up and over a trellis, and each melon was encased in a net bag then tied to the trellis so it wouldn’t fall and smash!

Shelia – The idea of encasing the melons in bags is brilliant! Gardening in limited space truly forces gardeners to approach things in creative ways. There’s a gorgeous picture in the book of a simple yet stunning garden on a fire escape. — Susan and Rebecca

Rob (OurFrenchGarden) March 17, 2011, 3:32 pm

This post is a really good read.

The French often refer to Le Terroir (frequently when talking about wine) but it’s totally applicable here.

Some great points made and some beautiful examples to illustrate them, I love the trumpet with the ‘string of pearls’.

Rob- Doesn’t one discipline always steal from another? And if you’re going tosteal, who better to look to than vintners? (And French ones at that.) — Susan and Rebecca

Gail March 17, 2011, 7:26 pm

Isn’t the shoe holder really clever!

Gail – We thought so, too! Emily found inspiration in all sorts of unexpected places. — Susan & Rebecca

Pam/Digging March 17, 2011, 7:59 pm

Great examples of creating unique and personal spaces through vertical gardening. I hope to visit Jenny’s inspired balcony this year during one of the Austin garden blogger get-togethers.

Pam – You should visit if you can. It has many more features and fun touches than we had room to include in the book. — Susan and Rebecca

Suzanne Sanders March 17, 2011, 10:58 pm

I love the lettuce wall 🙂

Thank you, Suzanne! Lettuce is a great choice for a living wall because it’s both pretty and practical. In fact, that’s true of a lot of the vertical solutions Emily came up with for her garden. There’s an amazing photo, in the book, of file drawers that she turned into herb planters. – Susan and Rebecca

Chookie March 18, 2011, 5:40 am

Oh, these are great! *twitches*

Glad you enjoyed the photos, Chookie. – Susan and Rebecca

David Spain March 18, 2011, 6:28 am

Susan and Rebecca, very inspiring. Thank you for the down to earth views of vertical gardening, just my kind of perspective.

Thanks, David! Our goal was to create a book that would inspire and help gardeners stretch themselves a little, but with ideas that are also practical and attainable. – Susan and Rebecca

Saxon March 18, 2011, 11:38 am

What great contribution to both our GGW blog and to garden publishing. With so many people with small garden space its important to recognize how to use their vertical space.

Thank you, Saxon! The book is designed to appeal to gardeners with both large and small spaces – even those with big gardens seem to have a few narrow spots that call for a creative approach. But there’s no question it’s those of us in small suburban lots (like me) or with balconies or courtyards who need the most help thinking vertically. Susan

Amy @ Nomadtopia March 25, 2011, 5:39 pm

Wow, this is great! The concrete walls of my terrace are crying out for some greenery—it is definitely time to take my (container) garden vertical. Can’t wait to experiment with some of these ideas.

In the book, there’s a wonderful example of a small vegetable garden in Southern California where the gardener has softened her harsh cinderblock wall with all kinds of interesting found objects that she’s now using for trellises. The blank canvas a concrete wall provides can be an excellent backdrop for a creatively-minded gardener to experiment with.

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