A living wall. Vertical gardens. Green walls. Corporate offices, hotel lobbies, and airport or shopping center atriums have used these eye-catching living walls as decorations for years. You can find them mounted on the inside or outside of buildings, and they can vary in shape and size. They offer anyone who sees them a breath of fresh air with a vibrant green space that gives them all of the benefits of nature just by existing.
In the past decade, having a living wall has become a mainstay, and they’re now very common in apartment buildings, businesses, and residential homes where space is at a premium. Anyone who doesn’t have to floor space for all of the plants they want can use their vertical space and a few pretty plants to bring the green indoors or liven up the outdoors.
Living Wall Origins
Although the concept of a living wall is just recently popular, it has a rich and ancient history. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon date back to 600 B.C. and were one of the first mentions of a vertical living wall with an irrigation system built in. These gardens were supposed to be an engineering feat with multiple tiers of flowers and plants stretching across brick walls. King Nebuchadnezzar II built this living wall to make his wife happy after she moved to marry him.
The Hanging Gardens of Babylon are one of the ancient world’s Seven Wonders that archaeologists can’t provide an exact location for. However, there are several possible places in Iraq that could have been home to this glorious living garden. Even if the gardens didn’t exist, they’re inspiration for today’s living walls.
In the 1930s, Stanley Hart White invented green wall hydroponic systems. He was a professor at the University of Illinois, and he called his early prototypes Botanical Bricks. He patented it in 1939, and these designs are what many people draw from to create modern living walls.
Patrick Blanc is another well-known name for helping take the concept of vertical gardens worldwide. Not only has he written several books on the subject, but he’s designed and implemented several living walls throughout the world. He uses polyamide felt that encases a PVC or metal base. The felt mimics moss and helps the plant take root. He soaks the felt in a nutrient mix, and the framework recirculates any leftover water to keep the plants thriving.
You can see examples of Patrick Blanc’s work if you visit Sydney’s Central Park, Berlin’s Lafayette Galleries, or New Delhi’s French Embassy. This is what we’re going to guide you to build for yourself below.
An example of climbing ivy that has taken over the exterior of a home to form a living wall.
Living Wall vs. Vertical Gardens
Aren’t living walls and vertical gardens the same? Even though people use the names interchangeably, they’re not the same thing. If you create a living wall, you’re creating it with a fixed modular system, and it can cover a whole wall or part of one. A vertical garden uses a more traditional build. You use everything from containers to pergolas to create a vertical plant garden.
How to Create an Indoor or Outdoor Living Wall – Step-by-Step
Creating the base for your living wall, whether indoor or outdoor, is very similar. Your plants will vary. Before you start, you’ll need to gather all of your materials and tools. For tools, you’ll need:
- 3/4-inch square spacer (optional)
- Power drill
- Staple gun
- Stud finder
- Table saw
- Tape measure
Once you have all of your tools, you’ll want to gather your materials. Again, you can use this base for both indoor and outdoor living walls. Your materials include:
- 1 x 4-1/2 x 20-3/4-inch board
- 1-1/4-inch deck screws
- 1-inch by 3-inch by 8-foot board
- 1-inch by 6-inch by 8-foot board
- 2-1/2-inch deck screws
- ¾-inch plywood
- Exterior glue
- Fast-draining cacti and succulent soil
- Landscape material, 4 by 5 feet
- Plastic sheeting, 4 by 5 feet
- Wall anchors (optional)
Step One – Cut a French Cleat
A French cleat is an easy and cheap way to hang heavier shelves. Get a ¾ piece of plywood and rip it down to around four inches wide. Move the saw blade until it’s at a 45-degree angle while setting the fence to two inches. Rip your plywood down to 45-degrees. If you only have a single piece of plywood, you can rip th edge of the wood to 45-degrees and cut the wood to size. The goal is to end up with two 45-degree angles that will lock together.
Using a table saw to prepare your board for the French cleat cut.
Step Two – Measure Your Wall
Decide where you’d like to hang your living wall. For the best results, find a sturdy outside wall or an interior wall that has linoleum or hardwood flooring under it. This will make cleaning up any accidental spills easy. Where you want your living wall to be, measure and mark a spot that is two feet wide by three feet tall.
To make sure the framework stays up, use a stud finder. Mark where you want to drill, and measure four inches down and make another light mark. Line up your French cleat boards at the center. The more narrow end should be against the wall with the angled side up. You may have to adjust the board until you hit studs. Use a level to make sure it’s straight. If you use wall anchors, this is where you’d attach them. Screw 2 ½-inch screws to attach the cleat.
Step Three – Build the Wall’s Frame
Once you have your French cleat in place, it’s time to build the frame. To do this, line up two 36-inch long boards. They should be parallel to one another. Then, line up two 22 ¼-inch boards perpendicular to your 36-inch long boards to make a rectangle. Each corner should be flush against the other. Next, pre-drill your holes in the corners. Glue together the boards and screw in three 2 ½-inch screws from the outside of your 36-inch boards through the ends of the 22 ¼-inch boards to fasten the frame together.
Thinner pieces of wood you’d us to build the frame for your wall.
Step Four – Attach Your Supports
Along the frame’s longer edge, line up your longer ¾-inch supports. The edges should line up flush with the bottom of your frame, and you want to lay them out horizontally. Pre-drill your holes. From the inside of the frame, drill 1 ¼-inch screws through the supports, and add glue for a tight fit.
Get the shorter support and line it up on the shorter edges on the frame’s interior. It should rest between the longer supports and sit flush with the frame’s bottom. From the inside of the frame, drill 1 ¼-inch screws through the supports and apply glue. Next, go to the opposite end of the frame.
Attach your second half of the French cleat you cut in step one along the frame’s shorter edge. The square side should rest against the frame with the longer, angled edge sitting flush with the frame’s bottom. From the outside of the frame, screw in 1 ¼-inch screws and apply glue.
Step Five – Form the Wall’s Floor With Slats
Line up your first slat along the frame’s longer edge. This slat should be on top of the French cleat and the frame’s supporting pieces you attached in step four. If it’s needed, get a clamp to hold it in place. Pre-drill holes on the bottom of either end of your frame. Screw in your 1 ¼-inch screws and apply glue to hold them. Repeat this process with all of your slates.
If you want to make sure everything is even, use a ¾-inch spacer between each slat. If you don’t have a spacer, lay out all of your slats before you begin attaching them. You need enough room for all seven to fit comfortably. For the two slats at the end, add two or three additional screws. This will give them extra support so they don’t collapse. When you attach everything, sand down any rough edges.
The floor of your framework will have seven slats. The slats should have a small ¾-inch space between them in even increments.
Step Six – Add a Plastic Liner
Now that you have your frame and floor built for your living wall, it’s time to add the plastic liner that will act like a barrier between the soil and water and your frame and interior or exterior wall. To start, lay your frame horizontally on your work surface. Line the sides and bottom of the frame with plastic sheeting.
The plastic should lie flat on the sides and bottom of the frame’s interior. Clamps will secure your plastic sheeting along the edges. When you have the plastic flat and secured in place with your clamps, flip your frame over. Staple along the bottom of the frame. For the best results, put one staple every two or three inches to prevent accidental leaks.
Step Seven – Add the First Layer of Landscape Fabric
If all the staples are in and anchoring your plastic liner in place, flip the frame back over. Lay the landscaping fabric over your plastic layer. Smooth it out and repeat the same steps you used for anchoring the plastic liner in place. The first layer of landscape fabric will lay flat against the bottom and walls of your frame. Clamp it in place and flip it back over. Staple the landscape fabric to the sides of the frame. Trim any extra material you have hanging over the bottom of the frame.
This landscape fabric is four by fifty feet, and it has a slightly heavier design to help hold the soil in and protect your wall from any water or dampness. It’s easy to cut and install.
Step Eight – Add the Second Layer of Landscape Fabric
Your frame should be right side up for this step. Stretch your second layer of landscape fabric over the top of your frame. It should be very taut against the edges. Once you stretch it, flip the frame over. The goal is to have the material centered underneath the frame.
Wrap the landscape fabric around the frame. Tuck in the corners, and staple all around the frame. Again, you want your staples every two or three inches to secure it. It’s critical that you don’t tear or rip this layer of landscape fabric, and it should be firmly anchored in place with the staples. This is the only thing that will hold your soil into your living wall and keep it off your floor. Flip your frame so it’s right side up.
Step Nine – Cut Plant Slits and Add Soil
To start, cut three slits in your landscape fabric. You should stagger them in different areas, and they should be between six and eight inches long. Get a trowel and scoop your soil into your living wall through these slits. Be careful not to tear it. Add soil until your frame is full, but you don’t want it packed. Some soil may slip out when you set the frame upright, but you can always add more later.
The soil you choose for your wall should drain very quickly to prevent drowning your plants or causing root rot.
Step Ten – Plant Your Chosen Plants
The plants you choose will depend on whether or not you want to have an indoor or outdoor living wall. For both indoor and outdoor living walls, succulents and vegetables are very popular. Reach through the existing slits you cut in the fabric and remove a small amount of soil. Pick out a slightly larger plant and loosen the roots. Shake them gently to get rid of most of the dirt. Tuck the plant’s roots through the slit.
Push the plant into the soil and use your hands to push the dirt down near the plant’s base. Repeat this step until you fill the larger slits. When you run out of room, cut smaller slits in the fabric wherever you’d like your plants. Remember to leave at least two or three inches between the plants so they can spread out as they grow.
You want to choose your plants for your wall carefully. Succulents are some of the most popular choices because they’re easy to maintain and don’t need a lot of water or space.
Step 11 – Hang Your Living Wall
When you get all of your plants arranged to your liking, it’s time to hang your living wall. Get someone else to help you lift it because it’ll be heavy. If you chose to make an indoor living wall, it’s a good idea to get a tarp and lay it down to catch any spills. Tilt your frame so your French cleat’s edge is up. Set your living wall’s frame against your interior or exterior wall and gently slide it down until the edges of the cleats meet.
Don’t let go of your wall until you’re sure it’s centered and has an even weight distribution. Your plants will most likely come loose or tip at this point, and you can straighten them later. Water your living wall really well the first time, and continue to water them weekly to encourage healthy growth.
Picking the Correct Plants for Your Living Wall
Now that you know how to make a living wall, you need to know which plants will do best depending on the location where you hang it. Certain plants won’t do as well indoors as they will outdoors and vice versa.
Outdoor Full Shade Plants
If you plan to hang your wall outside, how much sun does it get every day? If your wall will get full to partial shade, you’ll have to adjust your plants accordingly or they’ll die. A few outdoor shade plants you can have in your wall include:
- Bleeding Heart
- Hardy Plumbago
- Herman’s Pride Archangel
- Miniature Mat Daisy
- Rocky Mountain Columbine
- Turk’s Cap Siberian Lily
Begonias flower in the early spring and continue through the summer months. They have large leaves and big flowers.
Outdoor Partial Shade Plants
Maybe the area where you want to have your wall has partial shade. This means it gets sunlight for part of the day, usually in the morning hours before transitioning to shade in the early afternoon and evening. Popular varieties include:
- Coral Bells
- Golden Columbine
- Japanese forest grass
- Lady’s mantle
- Little Treasure Columbine
- Marion Sampson Scarlet Monardella
- Red Flowered Lamb’s Ear
- Siskiyou Blue Festuca Grass
- Western Wood Lily
Outdoor Full Sun Plants
Finally, we have walls that will be in the sun for the majority of the day. Shade plants will burn and wither in these conditions, but the following plants do very well:
- Blanket flower
- Butterfly weed
- Purple coneflower
- Russian sage
- Shasta daisy
Peony’s produce bright flowers in a range of colors from soft pinks to white, and they don’t need a lot of water to thrive.
Artificial light can be harsh on certain plants, and you have to factor in the light as well. Most houseplants will be lower light plants or partial shade. Unless your wall is right in front of a window that gets sunlight for the majority of the day, a few popular choices include:
- Brazil philodendron
- English ivy
- Medusa fern
- Peace lily
- Rabbit foot
- Snake plant
- Song of India
Other Indoor and Outdoor Plant Options for Your Living Wall
You don’t have to stick to traditional ornamental or flowering plants for your wall. Depending on your lighting, you can choose virtually anything you like from herbs, edible plants, hanging and climbing species, and more. Popular choices include:
Ivy creates a dramatic look for any wall because it cascades downward toward the floor.
Watering Your Living Wall
There is very little soil in your green wall for the amount of plants in it, and this makes watering it even more important. There are several ways you can go about watering your setup. Hand watering is going to be one of the least expensive ways to go. Just remember that the plants on the bottom will naturally get more water than the plants on the top.
If you have the room for a water tank, you can set up an irrigation system at the top of your wall that will drip water down the frame on a consistent basis. The water collects in a trough on the bottom and cycles back up to start the process over. The amount of water you’ll need depends on the plants you choose. Some are very resistant to drought while others need more.
Fertilizing Your Living Wall
It’s essential that you fertilize your plants to keep them healthy. Plants that grow in the ground get a lot of their nutrients from the soil. The lack of soil in this setup means that you’ll have to provide the nutrients through fertilizer. If you have an irrigation system, you can mix fertilizer right into the water. If you don’t have one, you can mix fertilizer into your water when you water by hand once every few weeks. The type of fertilizer, strength, and how often you apply it depends on the plants.
Pruning and General Plant Upkeep
You’ll eventually have to prune and perform general maintenance on your plants to keep the wall healthy. If you notice any dead or dying leaves, prune them off to make room for new growth. If you plan to grow edible plants or vegetables, harvest the crops so you don’t end up with an overgrown or rotten wall.
Even though the chances are very slim that you’ll end up with a lot of weeds, keep an eye out for them. If you see them, take them out without disturbing the rest of your plants. You should also be aware that you may find yourself switching your plant’s location. The plants at the bottom may get too much water and have to get switched to the top to get drier conditions to grow.
Pruning your plants will help encourage new growth and keep them healthy year-round.
Whatever you choose to do, you can grow a thriving living wall that adds a unique element and texture to your home or office. You can use this step-by-step guide to create one of any size, both indoors and out.