Sept. 7, 2012

At Barrett House, food is climbing up the walls


Steve summed it up nicely: "We've got food growing in the garden, we've got food growing along the fence, we've got food growing on the footpath… and now we've got food growing on the wall".

What he was referring to was the vertical gardens he had just finished installing on the brick wall of the garage-come-storage-shed at Barrett House, the community sustainability education centre of the 3-Council Ecofootprint Program in Sydney's Eastern Suburbs.

**Peter Dowson filmed the installation you can watch the 90 second preview above or the full 'How-to' Installation Guide HERE (15mins) on YouTube or download the installation guide (PDF 2.7MB) below.

I did the still photograph series. Videographer Peter is associated with Transition Bondi which meets Wednesday evenings for films and discussion and for a shared meal of Sydney Food Connect local organic food.


Gardening upwards

Vertical gardening has become popular since people realised that there is a lot of unused space on walls and fences. It's a particularly useful technique for the space-constrained home and community gardens in the northern sector of the Eastern Suburbs.

You have to choose what you grow carefully—root crops are generally out as vertical growing containers are too small for them. So too are large plants like sunflower. Vertical gardens are more suited to smaller vegetables and herbs. Like any garden, they need sunlight if the plants are to grow well, plenty of water during the dry months of summer and the regular addition of compost to fertilise them and replace the nutrients absorbed into the plants and removed from the garden with their harvest.

There has been many versions of vertical garden planters ranging from the conversion of wooden freight pallets filled with bags of soil, metal roof guttering, PVC pipe punctuated with holes for pots and filled with water to specially designed, commercially available vertical growing racks.

Seeing the limitations of most vertical garden containers in use, landscape architect and permaculture educator, Steve Batley from V Garden designed his own and has them made here in Sydney… an authentic local product. Unlike some, Steve's are durable, being made of aluminium and consisting of a vertical soil reservoir about 5cm wide at the rear from which growing trays angle outwards. The roots of plants in the growing trays spread into the soil reservoir, overcoming one of the problems with some models of vertical gardens of cramped root growth space.


The garden arrays, which measure 1 x 0.8 meters and house five growing trays, are equipped with holes for the bolts that attach them to walls, small holes for the cable ties that fix the provided drip irrigation tubes in place and two larger holes in the lower growing tray, one for the pipe that connects the irrigation array to a hose and the other to drain excess water from the system. It's a design based observing the different systems people have tried and the lessons learned from them.


Installing the vertical garden

Needed to install the vertical gardens were, in addition to two of the garden racks, the drip irrigation arrays, a wrench to tighten the bolts attaching the gardens to the wall, four bolts for each garden, a screwdriver, electric drill, potting mix, compost and mulch.

First task was to mark the positions on the wall to drill holes for the bolts that hold the garden in place. Steve explained that it's a easier to drill into the masonry, the cement between the bricks, than into the harder brick. Holes drilled and plastic plugs inserted and with the screw thread of the bolts coated with a silicon adhesive to improve strength, the garden was held in place, the bolts inserted and tightened. Final tightening was done using a wrench.

It's important to make sure that the garden will be horizontal rather than tilted to one side or the other. According to Steve, it's also important for personal protection to wear safety glasses and hearing protection when drilling.

The drip irrigation array was then placed inside the planter and attached with cable ties inserted through the small holes provided for that purpose. The array is made of a lattice of flexile irrigation tubing with dripper nozzles attached at approximately 10cm spacings.

Now it was time to fill the vertical garden. Steve mentioned quality assurance and pointed out the logos on the bags of commercially available potting mix and compost that signified that they were authentically organic in origin that complied with the Australian Standard for organic gardening products. Barrett House is visited by the public, making organic inputs a common sense choice for reasons of public and environmental safety. 

Putting on a dust mask to block any potentially harmful microorganisms that might be in the planting mix and the compost, which could cause disease (wearing a mask while opening commercially-available bags of compost or potting mix and while spreading mulch is especially important for people with breathing disorders such as asthma), Steve poured the materials into the soil reservoir and the planting trays.

That done, seedlings of vegetables were planted at a spacing estimated by the mature spread of the plants so as not to overcrowd them. A layer of lucerne straw mulch was then placed around the plants on top of the soil. Although any straw mulch will do, lucerne mulch contains extra quantities of the plant nutrient, nitrogen, that becomes available to plant roots as the mulch degrades over time. Mulch also reduces soil moisture loss, important in vertical gardens with their limited volume of soil, and reduces soil temperature extremes and the erosive impact of heavy rain.

Planters filled, plants established and mulched, Steve connected a hose to the drip irrigation array where it protruded from the hole in the lower tray, turned on the hose and adjusted the flow of water through the dripper outlets. Because this was a new garden, he gave it extra water via a sprinkler hose to ensure the garden had enough to give the plants a good start. Water draining from the hole in the lower planting tray signified that the garden had enough moisture. 

[PDF Download Available: Vertical Garden - How Too Guide]

The demonstration effect

Attached to the side of the garage, the vertical gardens demonstrate the creative use of limited space where there is sufficient sunlight to grow plants. Being well made and sturdy, the gardens are presentable for home owners concerned about the visual aesthetics of their gardens. This makes use of the demonstration effect, of building something where it is easily seen by the public and by so doing inspiring them to do something similar.

Soon, those vertical gardens will be oozing tasty vegetables cascading from their growing trays where, no doubt, passers-by will graze.

You can visit the Barrett House vertical garden and talk to Steve Batley, as well as view the edible front yard and footpath Foragers' Garden and the energy and water efficiency retrofit of the Barrett House interior at the monthly open days, first Thursday of the month between 9.30am and 12.30pm. It's all about take-home ideas—looking, learning, then acting in your own home.


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More about Barrett House


Words and photos by Russ Grayson



  • Hey Russ, love the write up. Just to clarify, our business is called Vgarden. Cheers

    Steve Batley
    Green Beret
  • Do you have to get a developement application to install one of these vgardens?

    Lucy Comland
  • Hi Lucy, no you don't need to get a DA to install a Vgarden SlimRack.

    Steve Batley
    Green Beret
  • Since writing this story I have watched as the second vertical garden array was filled with soil and plants that are now blooming and spilling from the growing trays. The design of the arrays is one of the best I have seen, thanks I suspect to the volume of the soil reservoir behind the growing trays. Here, unlike many DIY vertical gardens made of roof guttering and the like, plant roots can spread to find nutrients and the moisture held in the organic matter-rich soil.

    Russ Grayson
  • Does the excess water run from top shelf to the others, Steve?

  • Hi Dave, the water drains down through the wall of mix at the back of the SlimRack to the bottom tray and out the two drain holes in the bottom. Plant roots in this space will access this water. Some of it will soak towards the front of the trays but I do recommend watering each level to ensure each plant has adequate moisture around all of its roots.

    Steve Batley
    Green Beret

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