A Beginner’s Guide to Creating a Lush Living Wall in Your Garden
A wall of flowing foliage is a visual joy, a noise muffler and a wildlife haven – and it’s relatively easy to install
Having a boundary filled with greenery not only looks lovely, it can reduce noise pollution and create a habitat for wildlife. And a surprising range of plants will be quite happy up high, from pretty foliage to flowers, fruit and veg.
Read on for advice from three garden designers on what to grow and how.
Professional advice from: Tom Howard of Tom Howard Garden Design; Simon Orchard of Simon Orchard Garden Design; Maïtanne Hunt of Maïtanne Hunt Garden & Landscape Design
The framework for your green wall will be a structure containing pockets or troughs into which compost can be added. These are typically made of metal or plastic, and will need to be fixed safely to a wall or sturdy fence, so professional installation is recommended.
“Some of the living wall systems are virtually freestanding, so one would only need fixing to a fence post or wall to stop it toppling over in the wind,” Simon Orchard says.
But Tom Howard cautions, “It’s recommended to use a wall, as living walls can become very heavy (plants, compost/growing medium and water!). If using a fence, make sure it’s very sturdy.”
A surprising number of plants will survive in an elevated pocket given the right care. The most important consideration, according to our experts, is to choose plants happy in that position, whether it’s sunny or shady. “Getting this right is very important, as it is when growing anywhere,” Simon says.
You don’t necessarily need to restrict yourself to small plants, either. “Larger-leaved shrubs, such as Fatsia japonica, can create a really striking effect,” Simon says, “and the fact that their roots will be restricted will keep them from growing too big.”
“I prefer to use mainly evergreens, as it means the wall will look pretty good all year round,” Tom says. “I always choose a mixture of ferns with different textures – a favourite is Asplenium scolopendrium [hart’s tongue fern]. Grasses such as Carex also work well, and splashes of colour can be created using Heuchera. Cut back all ferns at the end of February.”
Maïtanne Hunt agrees you can use a wide range of plants, “as long as you take into consideration their size in a few years’ time (roots included). The plant pockets usually allow for a 1 litre or 2 litre size max,” she says.
There’s no reason why you can’t grow a little kitchen garden up your boundary. “We’re presently installing a living wall on a roof terrace in Bermondsey [south-east London], exclusively made up of herbs, dwarf vegetables (tomatoes, aubergine, peppers), salads and soft fruits (strawberries), as well as flowers,” Maïtanne says.
You could also try adding spring bulbs into the mix for an early blast of colour.
Whether you use colour or texture to create a pleasing design, it’s worth planning it out first. If you’re keen on a decorative pattern, start by creating a grid on paper, with each square denoting a planting pocket, as in this scheme by Simon.
“Designing the planting plan is important,” he says. “Consider colour, form and growth rate. Some plants will grow upwards, while some will trail, so bear this in mind.
“Think about creating a pleasing shape with the plants,” he continues. “Just randomising them might look a bit messy, whereas grouping plants together will have more impact and show off the different species.”
“Along the bottom row you might want some trailing ivy to hide a base fascia board if there is one, or where the wall is raised off the ground,” he says. “Conversely, on the top row you might want something with an upright form.
“Planting in drifts can be very effective and give quite a fluid effect,” he adds. “Choosing contrasting colours or leaf shape/size is also a great way to create a defined pattern.”
Planting pockets can dry up quite quickly, so irrigation is key – and drip line irrigation running off a tap timer will save you a lot of work. “Unless you want to be out there daily with a hosepipe, automatic irrigation is a must, and most systems have this included,” Simon says.
With so much water, it’s also important to think about drainage. “The water will drip through the living wall, so it’s essential to have free-draining ground underneath or a channel drain,” Tom says. “We also use a damp-proof membrane [behind the plants], which is stuck to the wall before installing the panels.”
“To avoid run-off, we install a small gutter under the living wall, which is concealed behind trailing plants,” Maïtanne says.
Even large planting troughs don’t hold that much soil, meaning nutrients will get depleted, so fertilising is essential to help keep the plants healthy. “Some irrigation systems allow for slow-release fertiliser as part of the system,” Tom says, “otherwise you can add fertiliser manually (with a watering can).”
“Certain plants will end up happier than others and they will have different growth rates, so don’t be afraid to get the secateurs out to keep the thugs in check,” Simon adds.
You aren’t likely to need permission, but there are exceptions, so it’s worth checking. Your professional should be able to advise you.
“The permitted height for a garden boundary is usually 2m,” Tom says. “If the living wall is going to be on a visible boundary and higher than 2m, permission would need to be granted.
“If it’s on the side of your house, then no permission is needed and it can go as high as you like,” he continues. “However, if it’s on a party wall, this would need to be agreed with the neighbour, as they may be concerned about potential damp if it isn’t installed correctly.”
“[The biggest mistake is] thinking they look after themselves,” Tom says. “They require a good cut-back once a year. Overhanging plants need to be trimmed back or they’ll smother the plants below them. And be prepared to have to replace some plants from time to time; they don’t always succeed (as with any garden).”
“As with any planting, ‘The right plant for the right place’ is the most important tip and it’s a mistake to ignore this,” Maïtanne says. “Lavenders won’t do well in a shady corner, for example. Choose your plants carefully and they’ll return your care in a plentiful manner.”
Green walls don’t have to be grand – small can be very beautiful indeed, as these panels prove.
The important thing is to give it a try. “Just have a go and learn as you go along,” Simon says. “Plan ahead and do as much research on the plants and your own conditions [as you can] to choose the best plants for the job. But at the end of the day, there will always be surprises you weren’t expecting and some plants will romp away while others may sulk.”
Are you tempted to have a green wall installed? Or do you have one already? Share your thoughts and photos in the Comments.