Vertical gardening is a concept that is well promoted these days, especially when considering urban and suburban gardens in confined spaces. A quick search on any server will reveal a great collection of reused plastic bottles or PVC pipes suspended alongside walls and fences, little bunches of salad greens poking up periodically. Everything from old pants pockets to upcycled dressers to old pallets are used to grow food beyond just ground level. Often times these create beautiful, if not peculiar, garden touches for people, gardeners and the rest alike, to enjoy.
However, small containers like these, while a productive use of space, can often be higher maintenance and are typically used to propagate annuals, but of course, standard permaculture practice is to pursue, though not exclusively, perennial and low-maintenance gardens. It’s from this point of view that the practicality of edible perennial vines become a more obvious choice for utilizing vertical spaces. Climbing vines not only have the potential (and need) to move vertically, but also they can spread along ceilings (to utilize that space as well), become shading roofs themselves, help with insulating, and even function as living walls and fences.
In other words, while the upcycled vertical gardens are a neat trick and fun projects, looking to vines may offer more stacked functions and provide a more reliable, more easily maintained source of food. What’s more is that there are great, varied productive options for temperate and tropical zones, including vines for fruit and vegetables, as well as edible leaves and flowers. Most propagate easily and establish themselves quickly.
Passion fruit is a tropical selection that enjoys full sun, rich soil, little wind, and a lot of water. In turn, cultivators get a tremendously quick-growing, far-spreading, high-climbing vine that will typically begin producing in the first year and soon becomes prolific, yielding more fruit than an average family can eat. It’ll last somewhere between five to seven years, at which time, healthy or not, it passes on to the great hereafter. Luckily, they are not so difficult to propagate, either from seeds or cuttings. For cooler climates, it’s best to try purple varieties, some of which can withstand the old, mild frost.
Kiwi works better in temperate climates with extended frost-free period so that the plant is given time fruit. They require a lot of space to climb (up to six meters long), and they are not self-producing, requiring at least one male and up to eight female plants be in the garden. Annual pruning is key to kiwi productivity, as fruit comes from new growth on older wood. The big producers of kiwis are California and New Zealand, but there are several varieties from which to choose, providing hardier possibilities for climates that may get a little cooler, down to seriously negative temperatures.
Grapes have always seemed such a specialty item, the fruit of fine wine and regional distinction, which is true but isn’t so limiting as reputation. England was once a site for Roman vineyards, despite having to pass both through Italy and France to get there. Canada produces wines. They can work down in steamy Florida as well. Without a doubt, soil—go for not so fertile, sloped and/or well-drained—plays a big roll, and again, production depends on thorough pruning as fruits develop on new growth. But, by and large, they are an easy edible that have versatile varieties well-suited to different temperate, and even tropical and subtropical, environments.
Scarlet runner beans are mostly used for ornamental flowers, but they do produce edible leaves, young pods (as green beans), roots, and dried beans. Kitchen-wise, the dried beans are remarkable for their vivid coloring and variable sizes, and obviously, if it’s normally grown as an ornamental, it’s also not tough on the eyes in the garden. It likes full sun and fertile soil and performs best in moderate climates without extreme heat or cold. Not only is it a food-producing climber for filling vertical spaces, but it’s a nitrogen-fixing legume that’ll enrich the soil.
Chayote, or—as my mother knows it—mirliton, is part of the gourd family, and it is an incredibly productive vine that can easily cover a pergola in its first season. It works well in the tropics but happily grows in southern US states like Florida, Louisiana (where I’m from), and California. Despite liking plenty of moisture, good drainage is very important for successfully growing chayote. The work well as crisp, watery additions to raw salads or can be cooked as a great filler vegetable in soups, stews and roasts.
Groundnuts are often overlooked, possibly because, after Native Americans, they were largely forgotten as a food source or possibly because peanuts somehow slipped in and took over the namesake. Whatever the case, groundnuts, too, are unusual legumes, and they are nitrogen-fixing. However, their main culinary use is for delicious roots with a nutty taste likened to roasted sweet potatoes. They can be harvested year-round but are typical for a fall and winter food source. The vines can climb beyond a couple of meters and over a meter wide.
Loofah (Luffa cylindrical) works as perennial in subtropical and tropical environments, and it is more famed as being an all-natural sponge than as a food. Nevertheless, it is extremely useful in that it can be both. Word is that harvests of young loofah gourds will yield a tasty vegetable (used both raw, like cucumbers, and cooked, like squash) with medicinal benefits for internal organs, and for the sponges, cultivators can let the fruit ripen fully and dry on the vine. If not used for food, these are great plants for soaking up a bit of greywater from outdoor sinks, where loofahs come in pretty handy.
Leaf and Flower Vines
Malabar spinach is a personal favorite, as it is an ideal provider of leafy greens, which can sometimes be difficult to come by in tropical environments. Malabar multiplies well and grows up to 30 meters, producing more and more leaf fodder as it is harvested. The leaves are packed with powerful vitamins and nutrients and can be eaten raw or cooked. However, some people don’t like Malabar due to its slimy texture, akin to okra, and prefer to cook it soups or stews, in which it works like a thickening agent. A tropical perennial, it doesn’t deal with frost at all, but it grows fast enough to be a solid annual in milder climates.
Nasturtium is often recognized for its bushing varieties and as a great groundcover plant, with edible flowers and leaves, but there are also climbing and trailing varieties that can serve as great edible additions to vertical gardens. The flowers add a colorful element to salads and other dishes, and the leaves are deliciously spicy, growing hotter as they age. Even the seeds, if harvested when green, can be pickled and used as a substitute for capers. Nasturtiums are beloved for their ability to thrive (and self-seed) with little care and crappy soil, though they are not great friends with frost or wind. They do not like being transplanted, so it’s best to plant them directly where you want them.
Jasmine warrants growing simply for the intoxicating aroma, but most of us are aware that the flowers are used traditionally throughout Asia (and now everywhere) for tea. Due to it’s ability to go and grow wild once rooted, it is often considered a pest plant and weed by many. They grow mainly in the tropics and subtropics, but there are options that work in temperate zones, where they may survive if planted in a sheltered area. Also, it is important when using it as an edible that a different species, “false Jasmine”, has not been cultivated, as this plant is considered too toxic for human consumption.
Feature Header Photo: Courtesy of Deborah Austin