Looking for your next green-fingered project? Living walls are not only an ingenious space-saving way to display your beloved house plants, they’re also natural air filters and increase biodiversity. Here, a horticultural expert explains how to make living walls and take care of them.
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It’s an undisputed fact that we are all obsessed with plants. Whether you’ve filled plant hangers with leafy ferns, lovingly placed succulents into quirky plant pots or squashed herbs into window boxes, it may feel as though you’ve exhausted every possible space to display your leafy green brood. Until now, that is.
If you’re looking for a more ambitious green-fingered project, say hello to living walls. A frequent feature at garden shows and swish offices, vertical plant displays are becoming more and more popular in domestic settings as we try and bring as much greenery into our small living spaces as possible.
Not only do they look wonderful, but living walls also act as natural air filters, metabolising harmful toxins and releasing oxygen to create cleaner working and living environments, reduce noise pollution, regulate air temperature and increase biodiversity. They’re also a fabulous, space-saving way to bring greenery into your home or make room for more plants in a small garden.
“There’s a real magic to a living wall,” explains Lucie Rudnicka, a horticulturist at the Royal Horticultural Society’s (RHS) Wisley garden, who has helped plant and maintain its own green wall. “It’s a different way of gardening and you can get really experimental.”
Here, Lucie shares her expert knowledge on how to create your own living wall at home, what plants work best for the leafy feature and how to care for it, so it remains green and thriving all year round.
Find the right spot
In order for a living wall to thrive, it’s imperative to pick a wall in the correct environment. This is particularly important if you’re creating a living wall indoors.
“The most important thing is to make sure the light is right,” says Lucie. “Plants grow towards the light so living walls require lots of bright light. Artificial lighting is not enough on its own, you’ve got to have plenty of natural light.”
However, this doesn’t mean whacking your living wall in front of a sunny window. “A lot of plants are averse to harsh, direct sunlight, especially ferns,” adds Lucie. “However, they would thrive in the steamy environment of a nice bright bathroom or kitchen.”
You must also take into account the structure of the wall you want to display your foliage on. Make sure it’s substantial enough to hold the living wall in place, this could be a load-bearing internal wall, an exterior house wall or a strong garden fence.
What you’ll need to make a living wall
Living walls require special planters that can be mounted onto vertical walls and there are various different styles. RHS Wisley’s uses a specially designed structure by Biotecture with an inbuilt irrigation system.
For a smaller-scale domestic setting, you can invest in vertical planting kits. There are many kinds, but most consist of stackable planting troughs with built in water features. Brands such as Wonderwall and PlantBox sell interlocking planters which you can easily fix to walls yourself. You’ll need a fixing back, screws and an electric drill to do this.
Pick the right plants
The best living walls are rich leafy tapestries packed with varying colours, shapes and textures. “When you stand back and look at a good living wall you shouldn’t know where to look first,” says Lucie. “When you’re planting a bed in a garden usually you would group plants together, but with a living wall you want plenty of contrasting shapes and textures.”
Lucie recommends including waxy-leafed plants, ferns with translucent fronds and trailing plants that have length. The wall Lucie looks after at RHS Wisley includes the following foliage:
Houseplants such as:
- Peace Lily: “This is quite a common houseplant and considered one of the easiest to look after,” says Lucie. “It does need regular trimming to remove any flowers that have died back that can look ugly.”
- Dwarf Mountain Palm
- Herringbone Plant: “This has three different colours to it and a lovely red vein that really makes it stand out,” says Lucie.
- Arrowhead Plant
Ferns such as:
- Maidenhair Fern: “This plant periodically loses its leaves,” says Lucie. “By carefully snipping them away it helps fresh leaves to form and stops it from drying out.”
- Sword Fern: “This grows out thick, which means it looks very effective in a living wall,” says Lucie.
- Silver Lace Fern
Trailing and climbing plants such as:
- Dragon Tail Plant: “This likes to climb and is good for hiding the mechanism of the living wall underneath,” says Lucie.
- Lipstick Vine: “This is very striking with deep scarlet flowers quite striking. It’s got lovely waxy fleshy leaves which add a depth of texture to the living wall.”
Living walls are also a good way to grow edible plants, although you’ll have to keep an eager eye out for pests and diseases.
Shady living walls are prime growing spots for things like:
- Alpine strawberries
- Lamb’s cress
- Lamb’s lettuce
Living walls in sunny positions will grow:
- Alpine strawberries
How to care for your living wall
Lucie recommends planting foliage in peat-free compost. This is more environmentally friendly, protecting UK peat bog environments which are crucial for storing carbon. Peat-free compost also holds moisture and releases nutrients slowly over a long period of time, making it perfect for planters and containers.
Lucie also suggests planting the foliage in one-litre pots. This gives the plants a chance to grow and provide a good level of coverage.
Some of the more expensive living wall mechanisms have their own irrigation systems, which means the plants need very little watering. Others have more rudimentary mechanisms which regulate the water passing through the living wall.
Whatever sort of living wall you opt for, it’s important to keep the plants moist and well-drained. “Give it a good water, let it drain and then let the soil dry a bit before watering it again,” says Lucie. “These plants don’t like to sit in water but nor do they want to be left dry.”
Living wall plants thrive in humid, steamy environments. “Once or twice a week I mist them with a little sprayer,” says Lucie
Lucie feeds the living wall at Wisley with an organic liquid feed once a week. “We use feed with seaweed extract because it’s organic, it stimulates natural plant growth, boosts root development and ensures maximum nutrient uptake,” says Lucie.
Plants in living walls will naturally die off, so it’s important to pick over it regularly and remove any dead leaves and foliage. This will encourage new leaves to push through.
“I have a regular pick over the wall and remove anything that’s going yellow, or crisping up so it always looks healthy and pristine,” says Lucie. “A lot of the trailing plants can be cut back, which also provides us with cuttings for new plants, so nothing is wasted.”
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Lucie Rudnicka, horticulturist at RHS Wisley
Lucie is an expert gardener at the Royal Horticultural Society’s Wisley garden – one of the UK’s most visited gardens backed by a world-class scientific research team.
Lucie takes care of Wisley’s vast living wall and specialises in Alpine foliage.
Images: RHS/Paul Debois, Getty