I discovered my first vertical wall garden—a lush quilt of herbs—at the Chicago Botanic Garden about a decade ago. Today they are all the rage. You see them in lobbies, museums, hospitals and airport terminals. But you have to wonder if these green or living walls as they’re called, are practical or affordable for average gardeners? Is this something they even want?
You bet. Scott Mehaffey, Executive VP, of Sage Vertical Garden Systems in Chicago, which specializes in commercial installations, says it was consumer demand that drove Sage to develop its first retail product. In March it will unveil the Personal Vertical Garden. The tabletop units will first be for sale in the Chicago area, but will be sold nationwide later this year. The 10-inch square units come on a lazy-susan stand and can sit on a desk, countertop, vanity, etc. (there’s even a picture frame on the back), or can be hung on the wall. Each comes pre-planted with tropical plants or succulents, which are grown hydroponically in a soil-less mixture. Sage is also releasing a larger wall-mounted unit about 4×5 feet, which uses similar hydroponic technology.
Retired Boomers are downsizing and moving into smaller homes such as condos and “they have to grow everything in pots,” Mehaffey says. Garden walls such as Sage’s larger unit can double as a “green screen” to block out the neighbors in a townhouse or condo setting. “If you have bad knees it really makes sense. It also offers a lot of privacy.”
Whether you’re using a system built by Sage, someone else or building your own “living wall,” Mehaffey has a few tips.
- Watch your water. If you have a hydroponic system, you’ll have a tank or time you’ll to monitor. Plant hardy, heat-loving plants up top, and moisture-loving ones below – along with delicate plants such as cilantro, which will need to be replaced periodically.
- Vary the water intake by the light. If the wall is getting strong, direct light, it’ll obviously need more water than a shaded wall. “Light is food for plants,” he says. On an under-lit wall, a plant “will struggle, which unfortunately, often prompts people to overwater and kill it.“
- While horizontal drifts of plantings are fine if one plant props up another plant, he says that vertical designs are the general rule of thumb. “If a plant flops or is bushy, it could overshadow the plant beneath it.”
- Use a soil-less potting mix. It’s lighter and will retain moisture better. Sage uses something called Rock Wool in its installations, but there are many products on the market. “The problem with potting soil is gravity and weathering,” Mehaffey says. “You ideally want a growing medium to last.” However, if you’re going to plant annuals and vegetables, you may not need a substance as enduring.
- Almost anything can be planted on wall, but taller plants will obviously require pruning. In Sage’s systems, “planting” is more like painting, as people insert plants into 2-inch holes in any pattern they desire. “It’s really plant-by-numbers,” Mehaffey says.
So, as you sit back and ponder your 2013 garden, instead of looking down, look straight ahead; go vertical.