It’s good to be back after a long hiatus. The new book manuscript and pictures are in the publisher’s hands and we can now focus on our normal routine. As you know, we’ve been gardening for a long time. Not only for the enjoyment and satisfaction of watching a seed germinate into something edible, but for us, food production is an integral part of being self-reliant. A vertical grow tower is something new for us.
There are many ways to grow a garden, but providing a seed a proper growing medium with adequate nutrition and water is as basic as it gets. How one goes about that is as variable as each of us are. Conventional till, no till, raised beds, vertical growing, greenhouses, hay/straw bales, container gardening, you get the idea. And for each of those methods, we all might try a tweak or refinement to improve the outcome as a variation.
Vertical Grow Tower
We’ve done a lot of this stuff and vertical growing has been a part of our annual growing techniques. We’ve always grown peas for example vertically on chicken wire fence run along the row for the peas to climb. Not only does it use space much more efficiently, but it makes picking a whole lot easier. I would argue that keeping the plants off of the ground keeps the plants healthier and allows air flow to help prevent diseases and mildews as well.
Every now and then, we’d see an ad for some commercially made vertical grow set up that is ridiculously expensive. And we’ve seen stuff perusing the Internet that is homemade. Being the inventive, mad scientist type, I thought I’d try something I’ve not seen done before. So let me raise the curtain and unveil what I’ve come up with for a low cost alternative vertical grow tower.
In our case, I chose to plant strawberries in our vertical grow tower, but this should work well for lettuce, spinach and other leafy greens. I would certainly be tempted to try beans, peas and even small melons, cucumbers and squash.
Updated with Pictures 2023: This was a proof of concept experiment for us since we have a large garden and hundreds of strawberries plants in a dedicated area. I planted the starter strawberries and basically forgot about them. They received no fertilizer or manure. We proved to ourselves that had we cared for them properly, they would have done well. We also tried sweet potatoes which grew well. The tubers were on the small side but again, it was a proof of concept. You will note I added a piece of 4″ perforated drain pipe vertically in the center. That way, we could easily water the tower.
Grow Tower Construction
First thing I did was form a base using a pallet set on cinder blocks. We’re all getting older and the less bending over, the better. Setting this grow tub on an elevated surface will make things easier. Then I bought a round, plastic tray that is made to set under hot water tanks and put this atop the pallet. The trays are cheap and if your water heater springs a leak, these trays will help contain the leaking water. In our case, this tray serves 2 purposes. It helps retain the round shape of the next stage we will build and it catches any excess moisture that flows through the chamber. That will be a nutrient rich liquid fertilizer that I don’t want to waste by letting it run on to the ground.
I bought a 36 inch tall roll of hardware cloth with 2 X 4 inch mesh, a couple of rubber backed mats that were three feet wide and I scrounged some scrap pieces of 4 inch PVC sewer pipe we had left over from our homestead construction.
I created a slightly conical shape out of the hardware cloth with the base matching the inside diameter of my round plastic tray. In our case, the bottom was 24 inches diameter and it tapered at the top to 18 inches. The taper allows light and rain to get to the plants a little more efficiently. I overlapped the metal at the seam and used short pieces of wire to tie the overlap in place.
This mesh cone now sat nice and flat in the plastic tray. With the tray sitting on my raised platform, I lined the inside of the cone with the rubber mats. I needed 2 mats only because one didn’t make it all the way around the inside. If you can find a rubber mat long enough to make it in one piece, so much the better. The purpose of the rubber mat is to line the interior of our wire cage with a tough material to hold all the soil in place. We will ultimately fill our cone with a mixture of soil, compost, kitchen scraps and some course materials. Obviously, the setup from this point forward should be in its final location. Once soil goes in, it can’t be moved easily.
Adding the Materials
I started by throwing in some small diameter branches in the bottom of our cage, maybe 3 inches worth. There’s nothing precise about this. This course material will allow drainage and a bit of air flow into the chamber. Then I layered rich soil, leaves, kitchen scraps, rotting log material from the forest, basically anything organic in nature, until I filled the bin up to the top. There was no order to this. I threw in whatever was handy and gathered other stuff to throw in next. The addition of earthworms will help aerate the soil, add organic matter in the form of their castings and facilitate the breakdown of organic matter.
I chopped up my scrap 4 inch PVC sewer pipe into 7 inch long segments. Lots of them. Then I cut these pieces in half at an angle to create a funnel of sorts that I could easily drive into the sides of our grow cage. You can see in the picture I have my lines drawn on the pipe. Once I had a piece cut to the proper shape, I made a cardboard template for marking the rest. Safety is paramount in cutting the pieces. You can see how I safely cut the pieces by wearing steel toed boots and using a piece of wood. I also put my diamond tipped metal cutting blade on my circular saw. I would not attempt to cut this PVC with an aggressive wood cutting blade. And as always, I wore safety goggles.
Once I had all my 4 inch PVC pipe cut in half, it was time to insert them into my grow chamber. I snipped a metal piece from the wire mesh perhaps 10 inches from the bottom which created a free pocket 4”X4” for my pipe. I took a knife and cut a rectangular piece of the rubber mat out and then with a rubber mallet, tapped my pipe section in at a slight downward angle so that roughly 3 ½ inches remained outside. The reason for the slight angle down is to help keep the plant from sliding out before it gets established and to help catch rainwater.
I repeated this process all the way around the grow chamber. I used the mesh spacing to locate each piece of pipe. I skipped every other mesh square. Currently I have a total of 35 plants in my grow tower which may or may not be too dense. In reality, this is an experiment to see how dense I can plant this tub. Skipping every 2 mesh squares would be fine and might ultimately be better giving the plants more room to grow. I won’t have an answer until the end of the summer at which time I’ll have an update.
For the next course of pipe, I staggered them in relation to the level below so that both sun and rain can easily reach each plant. Once that course was done around the circumference, I followed up with my top course which was vertically in line with the first course again. I utilized the entire circumference of the tub for growing space even though I know the back side never gets much direct sunlight. I still expect to get berries from those plants. It will be interesting to see how many.
Grow Tower Planting
Once all my pipe pieces were inserted, it was time to plant the strawberries. Normally, I won’t let the strawberry plants in our orchard go to runners by aggressively pruning off all runners. But last year I let them go wild. This spring, we had so many, I gave runners away to friends and still had plenty to plant in new locations including this experimental vertical grow tub.
The plants were just starting to send out some green leaves when I dug them up and gently transplanted one in each of the PVC cups. I tried to train all the roots back towards the chamber so that as the plant grows, all the roots take hold in the barrel itself where there is plenty of moisture and nutrients. I placed a wad of rich soil around the roots, tamped it all in place with my hand and then once all the plants were in place, gave them a good watering. I also put 5 plants in the top of the chamber. I expect them to do the best.
I was lamenting the fact to an old friend that it sure would be cool to have this whole grow tower on a rotating lazy susan so that every few days I could give the plants in the back their dose of sun. I couldn’t find an easy way to do that. But he checked on Amazon and there are high capacity lazy susans available such as this: https://www.amazon.com/Capacity-Bearing-Turntable-Bearings-VXB/dp/B0045DV04I/ I’d cut a piece of plywood 24 inches square to set under the tower before setting on the rotating table.
If we didn’t do any composting, I would try a variation on this design by vertically inserting a perforated PVC sewer pipe in the center of my cage that has been modified by drilling more holes around the circumference of the pipe before it ‘s planted in the cage. Any kitchen scraps we generate would be dropped down into the tube to decompose. I’d still introduce a bunch of earthworms into the mix as well. That pipe would also be used to help irrigate the grow tub as any gray or available water could be poured into the pipe. Then wait for the arrival of sweet berries. Have a slice of strawberry shortcake for me. Don’t skimp on the whipped cream!
Until next time, keep the dream alive! We wish you a great day!
Ron and Johanna
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