It’s a good time of year to plan your vertical garden Image

It’s a good time of year to plan your vertical garden

By Mark Cullen on Sep 11, 2018

There is one thing that sets new homes apart from houses built over a decade ago. Outdoor space. Houses are built much closer to the lot line than they were in the past. It doesn’t really matter whether we are talking about fully detached, semis, or townhouses, the current trend demands that we must be more creative than ever in terms of how we use that limited amount of yard space. This brings me to the issue of growing a vertical garden.

As a homeowner, you own the vertical space as well as the square meters inside your lot lines. To make the very best use of this area, it is wise to consider what vines and ‘green screens’ can do for you.  

Think about the benefits of adding colour, fragrance, and pollinators by way of flowers, food in the form of fruiting plants, and, of course, the cooling effects of a living green screen against a hot, south or west facing wall or fence. Get a snapshot in your mind of the garden that you could enjoy using vertical space.  


The obvious place to start, when considering the maximum use of your vertical space, is with vines. There are many to choose from in our growing zones; here are a few of my favourites:

Wisteria: Fast growing, twining vine that will get out of hand if you let it. It loves the sun and will only bloom where it receives at least six hours of it, but it will grow in part shade, minus the flowers. The huge, hanging panicles of purple or blue flowers of wisteria are legendary.

Wisteria in a vertical garden


Hardy Kiwi [Actinidia chinensis]: Not to be confused with the tender kiwi that fruits in California.  This is another aggressive twining climber. My hardy kiwi grows about four meters a season. I make a habit of cutting it back once a month in summer, but I don’t mind as it gives me quick, clean cover where I want it. The fruit is a rather disappointing large grape sized thing that only grows on the female plants. The flowers are ‘dioecious,’ which means you need a boy and a girl to get fruit, like humans, so you should have no problem relating. They say that the fruit is sweet, but I wouldn’t know. I have never been able to get mine to fruit.

Climbing Hydrangea [Hydrangea anomala petiolaris]: This is a winner if you are looking for a permanent wall-clinger. It flowers beautifully in late spring/early summer with a broad creamy white flower not unlike its shrubby cousins. Slow to get started, it is worth the wait. Tolerant of partial shade and full sun. Enjoys a slightly acidic soil.

Euonymus Sarcoxie or Big Leaf Wintercreeper: This is an amazing plant in our growing zone [up to zone 5] as it provides reliable year-round interest. The shiny broad leaves of either variety are attractive right through the winter. A flower that is non-descript come spring produces attractive clusters of orange/red berries later in the season that many birds enjoy. Big Leaf Wintercreeper is the fastest grower of the two and has the biggest leaves. Sarcoxie is less aggressive and requires moderately less pruning.  

Climbing Roses: “The roses on my neighbours vine are his, but they are also mine.” The opening lines of this popular poem sound romantic, but keep in mind that growing roses as a privacy screen in our climate is a tricky one at best. In the U.K. and on our west coast, they perform in the mild winter climate with aggressive growth and abundant flowering. Choose your variety carefully and make sure that you have at least six hours of bright sunshine for them to perform at their best.

Climbing roses in a vertical garden

Climbing roses

Clematis: It is common to hear them referred to as “The Queen of Vines.” They do suit royalty, especially when they are combined with climbing roses. Putting them together not only creates a gorgeous display but it helps to overcome the shortcomings of both. Planted on its own, a clematis vine does not make a very effective screen, but together with a strong rose like Blaze, you could win an award.


If your idea is to screen out an unsightly view or just give yourself a little privacy, you can use plants to achieve this without using vines. I have had great success training dwarf apple trees against a sunny wall or fence. I secure the branches using soft twine and prune out all of the outward facing branches as they grow. This ‘two dimensional’ look is attractive and novel.  Visitors are always taken aback by the appearance of it.

A narrow hedge can do the trick when delineating space in your yard. Certain plants lend themselves to the aggressive pruning that can be required to prevent your ‘living wall’ from taking over the entire yard. White cedar, the most popular evergreen hedging material, is widely used for good reason. Prune it any time of year. There is no need for it to grow more than 80 cm wide with a twice-yearly haircut. Emerald cedar has become popular in recent years; it produces a very attractive hedge over time, but it does not lend itself to pruning as well as the native white cedar does.  

This is a great time of year to plant all of the above. A wide selection of quality plant material is available at full service garden retailers and, chances are, you will get better service this time of year than you may have in the peak of the spring season.

Mark Cullen is an expert gardener, Member of the Order of Canada, author and broadcaster. Get his free monthly newsletter at Look for his new best seller, The New Canadian Garden’ published by Dundurn Press. Follow him on Twitter @MarkCullen4 and Facebook.

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