Living art: Reaching new heights with vertical gardening
Written by Grace Donnelly
From corporations to community gardens, vertical gardening has become a popular botanical trend that fuses planting with art and architecture. Whether it covers the entire side of a building or a small frame on your patio, a living wall offers a refreshing blend of practical benefits and whimsical beauty.
Why Plant Up?
Living walls propose the idea of growing up rather than out, an idea that originated with a French botanist named Patrick Blanc who pioneered the concept in urban centers where the lack of available ground led to horticultural innovation. But this technique does more than just save space, according to Chris Bribach, CEO and founder of Plants On Walls, a company that sells a vertical gardening system called Florafelt.
“A plant wall on the side of a building will cool the building off,” Bribach says. “Inside places, of course, it makes people happy, it cleans the air in buildings and the microbiology in the soil absorbs toxins in the air and converts them to fertilizer in the plant.
The Atlanta Botanical Garden planted a living wall of herbs as a feature of their edible garden four years ago. Moe Hemmings, senior horticulturist and manager of the herb wall, attributes the trend’s growing popularity to Pinterest and other DIY sites.
A small vertical garden is a great option for people “who don’t have time to garden in the landscape,” Hemmings says. “And a living wall creates a beautiful talking piece for a living room or patio space.” It can be a useful tool to creating more privacy in an outdoor environment and a beautiful accent piece even in areas where conservation of space isn’t a concern.
Blanc’s living wall creations use a hydroponic system, which means soil is removed and plants are sustained using nutrient-infused water. While this method requires a detailed understanding of horticulture, the popularity of vertical gardening has led to more user-friendly options.
“There are numerous systems for growing up,” Hemmings says. These include systems that simply offer support for hanging individual potted plants, or, like Florafelt, have pockets you can plant into directly.
Specialty soils have also been developed for successful living walls. Saul Nurseries in Atlanta has had a large outdoor living wall at their Alpharetta location for about 10 years and owner Dave Smith has learned that “you can’t just put potting soil in a bag and put it on a wall.” He says soil choice and watering are important to success when planting up.
Irrigation is a particular challenge because distributing water evenly throughout the layers of soil is difficult. This can lead to over-watering at the top or bottom of the system, which damages the plants.
During her time as a graduate student at the University of Georgia, JoHannah Biang researched methods of improving irrigation for vertical gardens. These systems are often watered over the top, but “gravity is always working against you.” She found that watering a living wall in shorter increments, for about five minutes several times a day, helps prevent over-saturating one layer.
Now, as the farm manager for UGArden in Athens, Biang oversees the care of a variety of fruits and vegetables, including a vertical bed of strawberries in the system she built for her research.
“We always wanted to have strawberries on the farm but we didn’t really have a place for them,” she says. The fruit works well in a vertical environment as do other low-growing species. Biang has also grown lettuce and basil successfully in vertical systems and creeping oregano or raspberry plants tend to do well.
When considering “going up” in a true gardening sense, getting plants off the ground can also be beneficial to their growth according to Becky Griffin, urban program associate for the University of Georgia’s Cooperative Extension Program. “For things like squash or pumpkins or even cucumbers, they tend to get mildew on the ground. Getting them up and getting a little air in there helps,” she says.
Griffin notes that plants in a vertical garden need support, especially those producing fruit. The material used can vary from typical, like felt or mesh, to creative as long as it provides support for the fruit and the vine. “I’ve even seen gardeners use old panty hose,” she says.
Pretty and Practical
When choosing what to plant in a vertical garden, think about the amount of sunlight your plants will get and avoid any that grow high rather than wide or have particularly large root systems. Succulents are a popular pick, and Smith recommends herbs like thyme or basil, and delosperma and sedums, especially evergreen trailing sedums.
“You kind of need something that’s a creeper or a crawler or that could hang,” Biang adds. Picking plants that will grow down, such as ivy, orchids or spider plants can give your vertical garden a dynamic look.
Hemmings also notes that annuals are often easier to manage in living walls because they don’t get as established as perennials.
Planting a vertical garden indoors, along your patio, or on an exterior area of the house can be visually interesting while providing fruits, vegetables, or herbs to your kitchen. With innovative techniques, you can upgrade your garden for a combination of visual interest and practical benefits.