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Time to Grow Up! A Planning Guide to Living Walls and Vertical Gardens

You've heard the buzz-phrases: Living walls. Vertical gardens. Green walls. If you use these search terms on Amazon, you'll have hanging planters and pocket walls popping up in your ad feeds for weeks, whether or not they're "legit" wall installations.

"Vertical gardens" may include anything from trellised vines to freestanding, multi-tiered plant supports, but sometimes the term is applied to the topic at hand: Living (or "green") walls. These are densely-spaced containers attached to vertical walls, in which multiple plant species serve as living, breathing art.

Who started the living wall craze?

Do you remember E.B. White, the author of the beloved children's books Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little? Well, he had an older brother named Stanley Hart White, Cornell and Harvard graduate and a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Illinois. In the late 1930s, he filed two patents for green wall construction systems. Apparently, the elder Little's time spent pondering the walls of Ivy-League campuses must have inspired him as much as his actual schooling.

None of his concepts, including an invention called "Botanical Bricks," ever made it beyond the experimental phase, but his well-documented experiments paved the way for contemporary innovators.

The reigning king of the concrete jungle

Perhaps the best-known of these modern "green wall" designers is French botanist Patrick Blanc, who inspired the modular living wall systems most landscape architects use today. Blanc's passionate about tropical plants, especially those that live in low-soil, low-light environments. He uses as many plant species as possible in each of his projects, viewing his living walls as ecosystems.

Blanc has been experimenting with his vertical gardens for four decades, and while he's installed systems on buildings around the world, the project that gained him mainstream fame was the 2004 living facade installation at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris. Imagine a traditional 8,600 square foot garden crammed with 150,000 individual plants from about 150 separate species. Now, tip up that garden on its side, and use it to cover the exterior of a multi-story building completely.

Oh, please. You don't have to imagine. Pinterest is crawling with photos of the museum, and countless other projects designed or inspired by Blanc.

How living walls benefit your environment

We all know plants improve our lives. Many species "scrub" the air of toxic gases emitted from everyday household objects, furnishings, and construction materials. Caring for living things is a wonderful stress-relieving hobby. And living walls, whether installed indoors or out, help reduce a building's environmental impact and improve our quality of life far beyond the aesthetic value. Here's how they do it:

  • Dissipate radiant heat in dense neighborhoods
  • Insulate buildings from excess heat, cold, and noise
  • Hide ugly walls or fences
  • Moderate humidity
  • Create a calm, soothing atmosphere
  • Give you a place to stash candy or other contraband from your kids, parents, or partner

If you'd like more information about toxin-filtering plants, here's the famous NASA study and list of effective species. If you want an easy-to-read visual interpretation that is way more engaging than a paper by a bunch of space nerds, here's The World's Best Houseplant Infographic Ever.

How climate and design influence your living wall ecosystem

Let's do away with the myth that your green wall plant choices are limited to succulents. It's true that heat-loving, low-water plants were made for these projects, but if you're diligent about watering, you have a richer palette of colors and textures at your disposal. We won't hog all the fun by telling you which plants to use in your own living wall. Instead, we're going to go over the fundamentals so you can choose for yourself.

These are the points you need to take into account before you draw up your plans and start shopping for seeds and plants.

How are you going to irrigate your wall?

If you're going to invest in a large installation, a low-pressure irrigation system is the way to go. Outdoor living walls require watering at least once a day during the summer. Heat and sunlight dry out container plants much faster than they do ground-planted gardens.

Indoor walls need a means of collecting water at the bottom, and there should be adequate wall protection and structural support behind the framework. Your irrigation scheme can't conflict with nearby electrical outlets or fixtures—for obvious reasons—and here's another no-brainer: It needs to be within reach of a water connection for your drip system if you're not going to water your plants by hand. An alternative to a faucet hookup is a gravity drip system drawn from an overhead reservoir, such as a rain barrel or a bucket.

Where are you building your living wall?

You don't want to fry your outdoor vertical garden plants. Shade-loving plants will do well on north-facing walls, and plants that like a break from the hot sun in the afternoon will thrive on east-facing walls. If you get a lot of hot, direct afternoon sun coming in from the west, succulents are probably your most realistic option. We all know south-facing walls get the most sunlight, but if you're building a living facade against brick, concrete, or stone, heat absorbed by thermal mass will increase their need for water.

Flip through examples of indoor installations, and you'll mostly see shade-loving tropical plants that thrive under forest canopies. In spite of all the pretty pictures and catalog sales pitches, sedums and succulents require more natural sunshine than most of us have at home. If you're serious about maintaining an indoor living wall or smaller plant-filled panels, suck it up and install directional or overhead fixtures for full-spectrum lighting. Think about your installation as art, and put it in the spotlight. Full-spectrum, daylight-balanced bulbs or LEDs dramatically enhance plant colors and textures.

How do you plan to scale your wall?

That question might make you think of the Dark Knight or, dare we say, controversial immigration policies, but in this context, scale addresses two points: How large is your dream wall, and how will you access all areas for maintenance? Will the wall be completely self-supporting? Is the structure to which it's going to be attached to support the framework, soil, plants, and moisture?

You can use almost any size plants on larger walls, but obviously, smaller plants look best on more compact installations, especially if you want to create a multi-species design.

Do you want continuous or seasonal foliage?

Okay, we know you're not completely clueless about plants, especially if you follow our gardening blog. You know that annuals only live for a season, perennials go dormant in the winter in most zones, and evergreens keep their foliage year 'round. Your plants' life cycles will influence the type of containers you need in your living wall system. How easily can you remove dead or spent plants, or divide root-bound perennials? Don't wait until the following year to find out.

Professionally-installed, retail, and DIY living wall systems

wooden vertical garden

No matter how big or small your intended design, there are products, services, and do-it-yourself guides to help you take it from concept to reality. Once you know where you're setting up your living wall, all you need to do is decide how much time and money you want to spend building and maintaining it.

Commercial landscaping services:

This is a multi-million dollar business in which design companies work with architects to create large-scale indoor and exterior vertical gardens. Most use removable polymer planters or spun fiber pouches attached to bracket or rail systems; these almost always have precise, built-in gravity-flow drip or mist systems for ease of watering. Professional installation is, on average, $200 to $300 per square foot; more if the installations are particularly tricky. Landscape designers who specialize in living walls offer scheduled maintenance plans for an additional fee.

Spendy, yes...but businesses know their living walls are good PR, and as we said, plants increase productivity, reduce stress, and help rid the air of toxins. Professional vertical wall builders understand structural safety and usually, work with architects and engineers to ensure safety (and cover their butts).

Commercially-available retail products

What we might have once called a garden trellis might now be marketed as a vertical garden. Again, that term is interchangeable with "green wall" or "living wall" in today's keyword-focused retail marketing strategies, so feel free to use all three when conducting your own fact-finding mission. Find a system that meets your goals and addresses the questions we covered earlier.

Modular bin-and-bracket systems: These are probably the easiest to install and maintain. NextGen and GroVert manufacture scalable systems available to both commercial and private buyers. Both companies sell lighting and irrigation accessories, and water collectors to prevent floor damage. AgroSci's systems are similar in appearance, but use wicking irrigation and infused air for the purpose of actively filtering toxins, reducing soil compaction, and balancing humidity in a room. The framework's internal irrigation system is directly connected to your plumbing and, because of the wicking action, doesn't require a catchment basin.

Nature has smaller, less expensive, complete kits for hobbyists. In these systems, separately-potted plants slide into the trays for easy removal and rearranging, and included irrigation is designed to the product's specs.

Hanging pockets: Do you have one of those shoe organizers that hang inside your closet door? Imagine it full of plants. These are made of heavy-duty felt or woven landscape cloth, and the idea is to add soil and plants directly inside the pockets. We haven't heard great things about most of the store-bought products, though; the felt tends to dry out pretty quickly, tear, or break down in warm weather. The pocketed panels don't hold their shape well unless they're firmly affixed to a sturdy backing.

Wire-and-frame "living pictures": These are really easy to make yourself, and you'll see how-to’s below, but if you've got weeds to pull, you can buy them online. They usually consist of a framed, mesh-fronted shadow box filled with sphagnum moss or soil.

Our favorite "build your own" vertical garden inspiration and guides

High-quality, ready-made systems are almost always worth the expense. But if you're crafty, you can come up with cheap and creative solutions that function and look at least as good as many of the products you'll find at retail outlets. Just be sure you can manage irrigation and drainage—and that you build a secure structure that won't collapse on your cat or damage your home's walls or siding.

Here's some brainstorming fuel:

"How to Plant a Lush Living Wall"  by Sharon Cohoon and Kathleen N. Brenzel for Sunset magazine: An outdoor, freestanding wall built with corrugated plastic, industrial-strength landscaping cloth, an irrigation system, and tons of staples.

"DIY Pallet Living Wall" on The Brew blog: Step-by-step instructions and a materials guide for a rustic and scalable vertical garden. Great for indoor or outdoor applications. Here's another great pallet project guide from WikiHow.

"Living Wall Art" video on the Selections Gardening YouTube channel: Time-lapse video of a "picture frame" project using wire mesh, burlap, cactus mix, and succulents. This could easily work with small groundcover plants and species that do well in low-soil environments.

HomeMade Modern hanging shelves: All you need is some rope, boards, and a hole saw for your drill. Get creative with the materials: You can use chains, reclaimed lumber, a free-standing frame, and any number of color finishes. We know: It's not a living wall. But if you build a support frame with a catch basin and casters, it could make an interesting portable room divider.

Gutter gardens: These pop up in our Pinterest feeds all the time. Gutter gardens will support species that don't require a lot of soil but do produce a lot of foliage. Imagine growing ferns, purple rock cress, stonecrop, and portulaca in closely-spaced gutters. Be sure to provide drainage!

Let Seed Needs help you get your garden off the ground

We don't sell tropical houseplants for vertical gardens, but there's no reason you can't plant living walls with herbs, veggies, and your favorite ornamentals. If you want to start small, clear your herb garden off your windowsill and populate a bright interior wall with mint, basil, bee balm, chives, and thyme. Let the living wall systems we've featured today inspire you to come up with your own.

Are there any annuals, perennials, or compact evergreen plants you'd like to grow from seed? If you can't find them in our online shop, contact us. If we don't carry them now, we might be able to source some for you. And if you do create living wall art on any scale, share your photos with us!
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