Building a Vertical Garden

Urbanization has robbed Mother Nature of space to place her beautiful brood of plants and flowers. Known also as a living wall, green wall or sky farm, vertical gardens are well-suited for an urban environment where space is limited. So if you can’t go wide, what do you do?

You go up!

Many business establishments are going green in their step towards being both environmentally-friendly in today’s urban jungle. These features are becoming more popular inside office buildings, homes, and retail stores for several reasons. Vegetated roofs and walls affected on these surfaces reduce the urban heat-island effect. Not just a spectacular sight to behold, vertical gardens helps filter clean air into the building where they grow on. This also has economical impact as well, as vertical gardens are good insulators that protect the building from the cold in the winter and naturally cool the building in summer. This keeps energy costs low.


Image credit: shaggyshoo (teesha) / Flickr

One of the most well-known buildings that have adopted this greening effect is the Musee Du Quai Branly which is a French museum near the Eiffel Tower in Paris. It is home to one of the best examples of vertical garden and was created by artist Patrick Blanc.

Patrick’s own websites details facts about how there are so many species of plants that do not require soil to grow. For instance of the 8000 known species of tropical plants in Malaysia, almost 2500 do not require soil to grow. Most of these plants thrive on surfaces like cliffs, rocks and tree trunks.

While the average green thumb enthusiast may not be able to emulate the scale and grandeur of Blanc\’s work, you can have your own DIY vertical garden in your garden. They can be placed both on outdoor and indoor walls, and as long as there’s enough water, soil is not a requirement.

What You Should Be Mindful of When Building A Vertical Garden

The plants will need to take hold of the structure that supports it, and in turn those structures must be strong and sound enough to bear the weight of the plant. You should take into account roof loads, any problems that may arise from leaking, or any damage that plant’s root can inflict on the architectural surface.

It’s a no-brainer that you will need to supply the living wall with enough nutrient-rich water. This should be channeled from top to bottom of the wall, allowing gravity to work its magic, through a network of irrigation that will cover the whole surface so that water is evenly distributed through the whole surface. Uneven distribution may cause a skewed growth, so unless this is the desired look you are going for you will need to make sure that you build a good irrigation network.

The Basics of a DIY Vertical Garden

Consider using a metal frame for durability. Wood may also be an option in terms of aesthetics but remember that it may rot because of running water when irrigating your live wall. Use treated wood if this is the option you want to take. The frame acts as the basic support.

Use PVC sheets or fine, rigid wire mesh. Stainless steel is recommended for the obvious reasons: to reduce incidence of rust. The backboard is adhered to the frame.

Holding Sheet
The holding sheet can be a thick sheet of felt or a Hessian. The holding sheet is stapled on top of the back board. The plants are embedded onto this holding sheet, acting as ‘soil’ or growing medium for the plant to adhere to.

A well can be made at the bottom of this structure (required if you’re building an indoor vertical garden). This well should be installed with a feed pump that will move water trickling down back up to be filtered down again via gravity. The water has be to filtered each time it passes through the system and treated continuously with nutrients.

For outdoor structures, the well and pump can be omitted and you can just choose to water the plants like you would any garden.

Types of plants

Below is a list of vegetables and other plants that you can use for vertical gardening:

  • Tendrils

This type of plant have finger-like appendages that help them grab onto support structures. Iron trellises work well with these plants because the tendrils are delicate and require smaller supports.

Examples include annual plants like the balloon vine (Cardiospermum halicacabum), cup-and-saucer vine (Cobaea scandens), sweet pea (Lathyrus odoratus); while perennial examples include the boston ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidata), english ivy (Hedera helix), porcelain berry (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata), trumpet vine (Campsis sp.), and virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia).

  • Clinging

The root-like appendages of these plants attach themselves to any rough surface.

Warning: These plants can damage paint, wood and mortar on the walls that they climb.

  • Twining

These plants coil around and encircle a structure. You will need to support this type of vine with wire or string first until it is strong enough to establish itself onto the structural support.

Examples perennial twining plants are Akebia, Asian star jasmine (Trachelospermum asiaticum), clemantis, Climbing hydrangea (Hydrangea anomola), Crossvine (Bignonia capreolata) and kiwi (Actinidia sp). Annual plants are Black-eyed Susan vine (Thunbergia alata),  mandevilla vine and morning glory (Ipomoea sp.).

  • Climbing

Examples of climbing plants are roses and tomatoes. They will climb only is supported, and will not do so if left to their own devices. You will always need to provide them support if you choose these type of plant, so be aware that they will need lots of maintenance and attention.

More Reading:

The Vertical Garden by Patrick Blanc

The Vertical Garden: From Nature to the City

Vertical Gardens

Planting Green Roofs and Living Walls