When Rebecca and I first told friends and colleagues that we were writing a book on vertical gardening, a common misconception was that Garden Up!: Smart Vertical Gardening for Small and Large Spaces would be all about living walls. The reality is, we cover a range of ideas for gardening in vertical spaces and living walls make up only one chapter of the book. So why did I choose living walls as my subject for this month’s GDRT post on vertical gardening? Because creating my own has turned me into a serious fan. If you’re thinking about adding some living art to your own garden, here are my tips:
Choose the right framework
There are many living wall systems to choose from. Picking one appropriate for the plants you want to grow, your aesthetic vision and your willingness to perform maintenance are all important factors to consider. I choose to create a Woolly Pockets wall because they are easy to either hand-water or hook up to drip irrigation plus their deep pockets mean I can plant a greater range of plants and my design goal for this particular project was for a leafy, luxuriant look. Because the deep pockets mean it takes full or draping plants to hide or minimize the fabric framework, a wall made from a pocket system will generally look more lush and less minimalist. If you want to create a more contemporary piece of living art with cleaner lines and patterns, then a tray system might work better for you.
Roomy enough for one gallon plants, which helps to create an instant wall effect.
A system with deep pockets also means there’s room for some one gallon plants. Savvy gardeners know it’s better in the long run to plant smaller size containers, but a living wall has more in common with living art than with a traditional planting bed, and as such, I wanted the wall to look filled in as quickly as possible.
Pick plants thoughtfully
When it comes to plants for living walls, without a doubt flashy, sassy succulents are the darlings of many living wall designers. I’m a fan myself, however, a succulent wall requires significant effort to design and plant, and generally can’t be hung right away, as the wall must lay flat for a period to allow the root system to develop. As a dedicated low maintenance gardener who does NOT favor prima donnas, I instead opted for choices that would be cold hardy and get by with a minimum of pampering – a mix of Carex and grass-like plants with a few trailers thrown in. Rebecca helped me design and plant the wall, and we spent a fun morning at Devil Mountain Wholesale Nursery in San Ramon California choosing from their huge selection of Carex and other plants.
Carex phyllocephala 'Sparkler' for its brilliant foliage and upright form. Photo courtesy of Thyme after Thyme.
Location, location, location
You might think such a prominent design feature as a living wall belongs front and center, but I took a different approach. My garden redesign two years ago included a complete overhaul of the side yard, but the vertical emphasis was the focal point wall at the end of the space. I favored perennials and small grasses to set off the meandering flagstone path, which didn’t leave much room for screening shrubs, and vines in a shady spot can be a challenge.
Because the side yard is a view corridor for the main seating area, and the fence is visible from the inside of the house, this was the perfect spot for a living carex wall. Another design consideration: putting a design emphasis on side yards, an often ignored portion of the garden, creates an element of discovery for visitors to the garden. With their odd combination of harsh mid-day sun bookended by deep shade and their tendency to funnel wind, it can be difficult to find appropriate plants for side yards. Easy-going Carexes are the perfect choice, and I love the way the breeze sets the wispy plumes of the Carex elegantissima dancing.
And how’s this for drama? The wall lit up at night. I may never close my curtains again.
Be sure to check out what these other roundtable members are saying on this topic:
Lesley Hegarty and Robert Webber, Hegerty Webber Partnership Bristol, Avon, UK
Pam Penick, Digging, Austin, TX
Rebecca Sweet, Gossip in the Garden, Los Altos, CA
Scott Hokunson, Blue Heron Landscapes, Granby, CT
Shirley Bovshow, Eden Makers, Los Angeles, CA
Tara Dillard, Vanishing Threshold, Atlanta, GA
All plant photos by Rebecca Sweet, including me in my cute pink cashmere scarf picking out grasses