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Living Walls


Written by
Katherine Charters

Photography by
Michael Matti

Whether do-it-yourself or with the help of a botanical company, you can turn a wall of your house into a vertical garden, bringing the benefits of fresh foliage into your home environment. Angela Jones, lead horticulturist at SolTerra, and Michelle Marquez, director of design at Botanical Designs, share the tips and benefits to bringing the outside in.

Why a Wall

“There are countless benefits to a living wall,” says Jones. While a singular houseplant can make a room more cheery, the myriad of plants in a living wall creates a vertical garden that can actually affect the way you live. Acting as a natural air filter, purifying polluted air and releasing clean oxygen through the process of photosynthesis, the plants in a living wall improve health and productivity. “They can absorb other toxins that are typically in the air of our indoor urban environment,” Jones says. The plants also reflect, refract and absorb noise pollution, thus softening indoor spaces and providing a relief from the raucous urban landscape. 

According to both Jones and Marquez, living walls support the biophilia hypothesis, which poses the idea that humans possess an innate tendency to seek connections with nature. What better way to connect with nature than to bring it into your home? “Studies have shown that plants naturally reduce stress and make us feel more at ease in our surroundings,” explains Marquez. Between producing clean air and tapping into the root of human tendency, living walls generate a relaxing atmosphere. Simultaneously, living walls aesthetically act as artwork in the home, catching the attention and curiosity of passersby, and provide an interesting conversation piece.

Find the Right Foliage

Choosing the best plants to root in your living wall can be an overwhelming task with many options, especially in the green landscape of the Pacific Northwest. The best plants to use in a living wall are those that require a low amount of maintenance. At SolTerra, Jones says, “We select indoor-appropriate plants that best reflect our outdoor environment, such as ferns, mosses and vines. We plant with low-maintenance plants that enjoy low-light situations and regular water. We do not recommend trying to grow Pacific Northwest plants indoors because they require more humidity than our indoor environments provide.” Succulents, cacti and orchids are other common options, though Marquez advises against succulents for indoor living walls. Whatever you choose, use plants with similar care needs to ensure consistent growth. 

If you are still indecisive about what to plant in a living wall, do small experiments first. Jones recommends that “people begin with growing houseplants large and small in their homes . . . [they] can learn a lot about the nuances of growing indoor plants. This experience will also help them identify the best location for a living wall in their home.” And pay close attention to light exposure. Marquez reminds, “There are many varieties that will work well, but it depends on the light levels available.” 

Maintenance and Care

For all the aesthetic and health benefits, there still exist the misconceptions that “they are expensive to install/maintain and often fail,” says Jones.

“This is not true if the living wall is designed well.” Generally, living walls do require a lot of water, but there are designs that effectively distribute the necessary resource. One example is SolTerra’s VeraWall, which models a drip irrigation system that runs throughout the living wall.

Jones explains the “system is made of a unique fabric that effectively distributes water and . . . allows roots to seek water and nutrients.” This system also allows for consistent fertilizer distribution diluted in the water. But the system need not be too complex.

Marquez claims, “most can be hand-watered by filling trays or a reservoir, depending on the size [of the system]. I recommend an irrigation system for walls over 30 square feet or six feet high.” 

With all the considerations for light exposure, watering and structure, how long can owners enjoy the benefits of a living wall?

Both Jones and Marquez agree the plants will need to be replaced every five years to keep the system looking fresh, but the walls can be maintained for many more years to come.

“Consistent care is key to good plant health,” counsels Marquez. Ultimately, a well-maintained wall will last longer. “At the end of the day, it is still a garden that requires love and attention,” Jones reminds us, quoting Liberty Hyde Bailey, “A garden requires patience and attention. Plants do not grow merely to satisfy ambitions or to fulfill good intentions. They thrive because someone expended efforts on them.”  

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