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A Little DIY for Our Green Thumbed Friends

Written by: Marie Spada
Photographed by: Kolini Faagata

Living in California, it can be hard to find a home with room for a garden. There is not much space, and a good number of people live in apartments or condominiums with no yard at all. What is a guy or a girl with a green thumb to do in this concrete jungle we call paradise? Well, let me introduce you to the concept of the vertical garden. With the help of expert Christy Cross of Armstrong Garden in Costa Mesa, we are giving you all of the details on how to start your very own vertical garden.

Q: When did you see the vertical garden begin to gain popularity?

Christy Cross: About two years ago. I think there’s so much creativity out there right now, and so many people wanting to get back to the basics. They want to build things themselves, sew things themselves, grow things on their own, and it’s very cool to see. I think people are getting back to what our grandparents used to do by getting creative. They aren’t just going to the store to buy something; they’re coming up with something creative and trying to find a way to build it on their own. A lot of people come in wanting our help with ideas they’ve seen on Pinterest or Etsy. They’ll say, “Oh look at this!” or “What do you think of this?” and I think that’s when the movement of vertical gardens really began. People would see it and want to do it themselves.

Q: What types of homes are ideal for vertical gardens? Can they work for those who live in apartments?

CC: Absolutely! In fact, I think they’re more useful for a person that’s in a condo or apartment because space is so limited, so it’s ideal to grow something vertically. It allows them to make use of that plain boring wall, or plain fence that doesn’t have any light to it. That’s the perfect spot to put something that will grow vertically. There’s no reason that you can’t do it at a home, but I think the vertical gardens are more popular and trendy when people have smaller living spaces because they want to optimize the space.

Q: Are there both indoor and outdoor vertical gardens?

CC: I’d say it’s more geared towards the outdoors. There’s no reason someone couldn’t create a standing garden inside; it just depends on how you want to tackle that. If you want to put something on a plant stand you could do it indoors, but if you were going to create a true vertical garden like on a pallet — it would be too messy to do indoors. You could do it, but you’d have to be extra careful with how it’s contained.

Q: What type of plants are the most popular when planting a vertical garden?

CC: People tend to envision edibles. Usually when people want a vertical garden, it’s because they want herbs, vegetables, or berries in there. Berries are very popular because it makes more sense for them to grow vertically. Berries can hang out and over and just be free floating without resting on something. When they are on the ground or resting on something they rot. If they’re hanging and suspended, they grow so much better.

Q: Can you mix up the type of plant in a vertical garden?

CC: You absolutely can, the only thing you must always consider is what type of plant needs what type of sun exposure. You want to put plants that are in the same likeness together. So if it’s a plant that needs a lot of sun, if they’re okay with half and half, or they need full shade, this is what you need to consider. There are many families of plants that can all go into the same garden, you just have to keep them in the same category. You also need to consider the amount of water they require. You need to know if they need a lot of water, a little bit, or somewhere in between. You wouldn’t want to put something that’s drought tolerant next to something that isn’t. As long as you stick within those parameters, there’s nothing you can’t do.

Q: Walk us through, step by step, how to create your own vertical garden.

CC: Let’s take herbs, for instance:

  1. First, you want to select herbs that would be ideal for your culinary style. Some people come in knowing, “Oh, I cook with basil, I cook with rosemary, I love thyme, and sage, ” so people need to determine what is actually going to benefit them in the kitchen. They need to pick those items out, and we have a great assortment of herbs. I have yet to come across an herb that we don’t have.
  2. Next, they need to establish the container. Again, that can be as simple as picking up an abandoned pallet, and they can just convert it. I’ve also seen cedar boxes that have some sort of medium inside where the plants can grow, like dirt, mulch, or peat moss.
  3. After that, they need to line the container with something to hold in that medium, like shade cloth. If they line it with shade cloth, it will hold the dirt together. Then once they puncture holes where they want their plants to go, they just insert the plant into the hole. It’s really simple, actually. You just pick what you want and slap it in there!
  4. You need to pick up a good starter fertilizer, too. For those plants that are a little shy on nutrients, definitely get them from a starter fertilizer. Any plant of any kind that’s in a pot needs to be fed, because it’s going to take all of the minerals and nutrients it needs from that soil or starter food, and the plant will continue to need more food. Unlike when a plant is in the ground and can pull resources elsewhere by stretching its roots and getting minerals and nutrients from other spots, in a pot, that’s it. People have to remember that just like we need food for us to be healthy, so do plants. If they’re in a pot and haven’t been fed in a long time — the soil is just void of its minerals and nutrients. You have to add food back in there, or the plant is going to start to look shabby. That’s the number one thing our customers forget to do, feed the plants. An all purpose food is perfect.

Q: How do you convert a pallet?

CC: Line it with the shade cloth that I was mentioning, almost like you’re putting a plastic bag inside of a paper bag to line it, so that when you dump that soil or medium in it, it doesn’t just all fall out the bottom. Carefully poke holes in the shade cloth to insert the dirt and plants. You can also add a thin piece of plywood to the back of the pallet so prevent anything from falling out the back. There are so many different ways to secure them, like with chicken wire to help hold the plant in there. Sometimes, the plant even just stays on its own. When you’re first getting them started, just tilt it a little bit rather than just making it vertical, because the gravity can just pull the plants out. At first, just lean it against a surface rather than making it completely upright.

Q: Is there still family presence in each Armstrong location?

CC: Oh, yeah! Very much. We are so deeply rooted in the community, and people know that difference. They know when they come here, they might pay a little more, but it’s the quality that makes us stand out from say, a hardware store. The customers know that all of us know plants really well, and we’ll always be able to help them. They can bring in a plant that’s sick or has a bug, and we’ll know how to fix it. There’s nobody else like that in the industry that I know of.

Q: What other services does Armstrong offer?

CC: Quite a few, actually. We do have landscape design services. There’s an upfront fee and we send a true landscape designer out to the home that comes up with a design with the homeowner with a plant list. Then it’s at their discretion if they want to order the plants right away from us or if they want to change things up a bit, and we can send them the plants. We also have a third party company that we send out that can do the installation, or the homeowner can do it themselves. That’s one of the most popular services that we have. We also have a personal shopper program, where the customer can call the store and say, “I’m interested in coming in and spending some time with a nursery professional, ” and we set up an appointment at a time that we aren’t too busy in the store so as not to get pulled away from them. They spend around an hour on property with us going over plants and options. We have complimentary delivery if the purchase is $500 or more, which is nice. A lot of places don’t offer delivery services anymore, period.

Q: What other merchandise can you purchase at Armstrong?

CC: We have a whole indoor area that has gift items ranging from garden art, spheres, globes, and lighting, to soaps, lotions, and gift trinket items. We even have a small line of food right now that’s doing very well; it’s made up of organic jams, jellies, and purees. Inside, we have garden mats, decorative flags, and our birding section is doing really well. A lot of people have gotten into birding. We have different bird feeders, food, and other items that will attract the birds, so you can bring wildlife in a little more. We have a great selection of house plants. Our pottery section is very extensive. We have a wide assortment of glazed pottery, hand painted, terra cotta, and even faux terra cotta called Tusco. We have different fiberglass pots so they still have a great antique look but aren’t as heavy. We really carry all different shapes and sizes of pottery from round, square, rectangular, really big, and really small. We also carry a line called Ceramica Garcia, which is hand painted Mexican pottery and art, such as statues and figurines. There’s also a full line of garden fountains and statuaries. We carry four or five different furniture companies that we sell to hit all different price points and styles, so we might have something that’s wicker and kind of old school, or something that’s wrought iron that’s modern to fit different tastes. We always have vegetables, but that depends on the season. They’ll come in and buy what will do well now, so we don’t confuse anyone with vegetables that aren’t in season. In October, we do pumpkins, which is always really fun. And we do Christmas trees as well around Christmas time.

Q: What have you done to accommodate the drought?

CC: We’ve done a lot of conversion in the front of our store to cater to the drought. It’s unfortunate, but it’s hitting California hard. We’ve really adapted to be able to accommodate our customers. We have a huge section in the front of the store that’s all drought tolerant, and there’s a big succulent and cactus area. People are scared with the drought; they know their lawns are dying and they don’t know what to do. But they know they can come to us and we have a huge area to show them that there’s a lot they can do — they might like it even better than having a lawn! That’s a huge movement we have been focusing on; we’ve been working to help people get through the drought and maybe change up their homes.

Q: What is your favorite place to go shopping for gifts?

CC: I’m really loving all of the boutiques on 17th Street in Costa Mesa. I could spend a whole day on 17th. There’s a paper store that just opened up that I spent like, three hours in the other day! I love eating at Greenleaf, too. There are so many fun new spots opening up there where you can grab a bite and just cruise up and down 17th window shopping. I love the Gypsy Couture! It’s this totally fun and funky, urban dress shop. I also really like Fleur de Lys. That place is adorable. 17th is a great place to get ideas — like we are for your garden!

Armstrong Garden Centers
2123 Newport Blvd
Costa Mesa, CA 92627
949.646.3925 | armstronggarden.com