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A postage-stamp garden with truck-farm production

By Peter Tonge / November 7, 1980



Naples, N.Y.

On the shores of Lake Canandaigua near here there is a boathouse. You know that by its shape and because of the boat it houses -- a Martinique, specifically designed to pull water skiers at speeds terrifying to all but the most accomplished.

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What is disconcerting, however, is the roof which supports a veritable hanging garden of Babylon in summer with its trailing vines of cucumbers, sweet melons, and squash; its peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, and cabbage.

I saw this roof garden just before the first deep frost of fall abruptly ended its heavy production.

This was no novelty undertaking, the sort of thing that might excite the hobbyist and wring condescending smiles from his relatives. It was one of the most practical home-food-growing operations I have seen, yet it was housed on a platform and a couple of bleacher-type seats perched atop a boathouse about the size of a two-car garage.

This is what the 15x30-foot boathouse produced: 24 heads of cabbage, 700 peppers, 147 cucumbers, 80 yellow summer squash, 73 zucchinis, 35 pounds of wax beans, 70 cantalopes, 90 heads of lettuce, 170 eggfruits, 290 pounds of tomatoes , 180 bunches of celery, 34 pounds of green beans, 40 pounds of peas (in the pods), 24 quarts of strawberries, 39 watermelons, 45 kohlrabis, 35 bunches of spinach, 24 hubbard squash, and 19 pumpkins.

What made it all possible is a commercially available vertical growing system which includes various sizes of walls, tubes, and tubs.

Be warned, however, that a garden of the size I saw -- 12 walls and 2 tubes -- does not come cheap. According to the price list of Moffett's Living Wall Garden Company, based here in Naples, it would run to about $3,500, including the soil mix required to fill the containers.

Of course, you don't have to buy as extensive a garden as that in one shot. Another option would be to cut costs by making a few of the units yourself.

The principal advantage of a vertical growing system is the increased growing area it provides while taking up relatively little ground space. In effect, the vertical grower has taken a conventional flat garden bed and stood it on end.

One vertical wall which I saw (74 inches high, 6 feet long, and 8 inches wide), planted on both sides, contained 35 tomato plants, 35 pepper plants, and 75 celery plants. In addition, corn that had been grown along the top narrow strip had yielded 24 ears.

Allowing for the fact that grow-walls of that height need to be spaced 10 feet apart to allow adequate sunlight to get in, it is still a remarkable production for the 60 square feet of ground space taken up by a single grow-wall.

The old-time strawberry barrel is an example of vertical gardening. Vertical grow-walls also have been constructed in the past by erecting two closely parallel wire fences, lining them with plastic or sphagnum moss, and filling the centers with peat, potting soil, or other grow mixes.

And now come commercially made products that do the same thing with the added advantage of not having to be constantly relined as well as snap-in pieces so that planting holes can be readily changed from one sowing to the next. They also include a built-in irrigation system.

Obviously, you wouldn't invest in extensive vertical systems for growing food if you have a large plot of land. But for anyone with cramped but sunny outdoor quarters, a vertical grow-wall can make the difference between skimpy and abundant food production.

The roof of the boathouse, for instance, is the only sunny spot on the tree-covered and steeply sloping property. A garage roof in tight suburban quarters would do equally well. So would sunny roofs and balconies in city centers.

One impressive suburban use in this town involved the mobile home of Jim and Betty Wirth. They erected a Living Wall Garden around, and hard up against, the sides of their home.

Mr. Wirth, a truck mechanic by profession with a strong appreciation of anything practical, says that the gardens provide his family with food and an unexpected bonus as well -- a warmer home in winter. The peat-filled walls provide additional insulation to the below-window portion of the home.

The Living Wall system is most appropriate for greenhouses and basement cellars. Wes Moffett -- whose company, Curious Research Corporation of Rochester, developed the system -- began initial experiments in a well-lighted cellar basement. Using the system he found that a crop of lettuce can be matured indoors in 3 to 4 weeks.

Spacing of plants in the Living Wall system is the same as in normal wide-bed growing. This is how to sow seeds in the system: Unsnap the planting hole, press back the soil mix to form a cavelike hollow, and insert a teaspoonful of slow-release fertilizer at the back of the "cave".

Now sow the seeds at the recommended depth at the mouth of the cave or down alongside the corrugated wall of the system. This way the seedlings grow up, bend only slightly to get to the light outside, after which they are free and on their way, so to speak.

The seedlings should be transplanted into the wall the same way -- fertilizer at the back, plant in front.

If the grow-walls are set up on a north-south axis, plants will grow well on both sides. Otherwise, use the walls as boundary fences and plant one side only.

If you are interested in getting further details write to: The Living Wall Garden Company, R.D. 3, Naples, N.Y. 14512. Phone: (716) 374-2340.