Jo Arnell explains how to double your growing space by extending upwards

If you are lucky enough to own a garden, remember that it’s not just the ground that is yours – the air above is also at your disposal. When we are planning our gardens we look at the borders, the boundaries and at the ground. We can forget to look up and see that there’s lots of untapped space all around us. There are ways of bringing flowers into sight at eye level, scents directly to our noses, and various other ways we can make the garden a more three-dimensionally interesting place

Using the whole space and tapping into the vertical can also have the effect of making a small garden feel larger. Jungle style gardens often have a very small footprint but feel huge. They wend their way around paths and focal points – and tend not to have a big open, flat space in the middle (the lawn). They are planted in layers to mimic the way that plants grow in the jungle – the tall canopy overhead, the understory and then the forest floor tiers. 

Vertical spaces are occupied by tall plants – trees and large shrubs, by climbers, or by structures that can support plants vertically – living walls, planting pockets – even a hanging basket will lift plants into another dimension.

Using tall plants

Adding a tree into a garden, or border, instantly changes the dynamic, brings in a focal point, a high note on which to hang the rest of the planting scheme – and it also lifts your line of vision. A tree doesn’t have to be huge – there are many slender and elegant small trees or large shrubs that will add height to a space without taking it over. One way to make a tree smaller and more sculptural is to plant a multi-stemmed version of the tree. Silver birch (especially those with very white trunks like ‘Jaquemontii’) Amelanchier and Prunus serrula work well as multi-stems.

Fastigiate (slender and upright) trees are those with a naturally tall, narrow habit – picture the graceful Italian cypresses that punctuate and pierce the Mediterranean skies, or an upward facing cherry called ‘Amanogowa’, or the slim and tall Japanese holly, Ilex crenate ‘Sky pencil’.

Shrubs can be as wide as they are tall – like big fat puddings in the borders, but there are some elegant and slender cultivars that are useful additions. Viburnum plicata ‘Kilimanjaro Sunrise’ is a slim, tiered shrub with corymbs of white blossom and good 

autumn colour. There are Berberis called ‘Helmand Pillar’ and ‘Orange Rocket’, and a conifer, Juniperis ‘Sky Rocket’. These are great shrubs for bringing height, but are also valuable in a small garden because they don’t take up too much room.

Climbing plants

A climber is described as any plant needing some kind of support in order to grow upwards towards the light. Climbers are not able to support themselves and so use the sturdy habits of other plants. Climbers are naturally at home anywhere where there are supportive neighbours to lean on, typically woodland edges and in more tropical places, rainforests. They will throw themselves up towards the light in any way they can – by hook, curling tendril, or twining stem, taking advantage of the sturdy trunks and branches of nearby trees and shrubs. Some scramble, hooking themselves on with thorns; or twine their lax stems around the host plant, strangling as they go. Those with more delicate tendrils – modified leaves turned into springing coils ready to catch hold of anything within reach. The more insidious suckering types have aerial roots that tap into the moisture and nutrient supply of the host, enjoying their free ride to the max. But don’t let my grim descriptions put you off, because climbers are the perfect vertical plant – as long as you grow them up the right supports. 

Well supported

Walls, walkways, arches and entrances all deserve embellishing (or disguising) with flowers and foliage in fact they look bleak and bare – in some cases indecently naked – without a softening covering or flourish. 

The appropriate support will hopefully enhance both plant and structure. Choose robust supports, as even the daintiest little Clematis can eventually get to a fair size. Something like a Wisteria, which I have seen romping down a suburban road across the front of several houses, will also need to be given plenty of space, as even the severest of pruning regimes won’t stop it for long.

Planting an a climber on an obelisk, pillar or pole into a border will bring instant height and interest, take up less ground space than a shrub and provide a focal point through the seasons, especially if the support is attractive too.

Fudge your fence

You can camouflage a dull old fence and create a green screen using climbers. It will gradually turn into a slim hedge, or ‘fedge’ (a cross between a fence and a hedge) and blend into the scenery beyond your boundary – or at least improve the view on your side. Good candidates for smothering fences and unsightly features are ivy, which will self-cling, Virginia creeper, Clematis montana, or the rampant, but enticingly fragranced, chocolate vine, Akebia quinata

Wall shrubs

These are sometimes lumped into the same category as climbers, because these shrubs need the support of a wall or other structure, they are lax in habit and don’t have the traditional shape that a tree or shrub would. They fall into a category of their own – not climbers, but not quite shrubs either. These plants are very useful for tight spaces, for training upwards, or against garden walls and buildings. Pyracantha is a familiar wall shrub. It is stiff and thorny, but has spring blossom and gorgeous autumn berries in shades of red, orange or yellow. For winter interest there’s the graceful evergreen Garrya elliptica, which hangs out its shimmering catkins in late winter, until the whole plant is a mass of dangly silver arrings. Abutilons will flower endlessly, they are a little tender, but will thrive grown on a warm wall or in a large pot on a sunny terrace.

Living walls 

These rely on the installation of a system of planting pockets that slot together, extending to the width and height of the area. The wall is irrigated by an automatic watering  system that can be controlled by an app, so that the correct amount of water (and feed) can be supplied to the plants through the seasons. Cladding whole buildings and giant stretches of wall is possible and as technology improves these systems could be a viable form of living cladding – they will insulate in winter and cool in summer. 

So, if your garden is looking rather flat, or you’ve run out of space for plants at ground level, it could be time to look to the skies, find new vistas and vertical planting opportunities.

Join Jo at her new Garden Design course starting in April. For more info call 07923 969634 or see

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