How to Make a Living Wall

Follow this step-by-step guide on how to make a living wall from scratch.

November 2014

In The Urban Gardener (Mitchell Beazley, 2014), garden designer and lecturer Matt James provides an approachable, practical guide to making the most of an urban garden, including 15 step-by-step projects. The following excerpt from the section, “Planting the Urban Garden,” instructs on how to make a living wall. 

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: The Urban Gardener.

Living wall how-to

With a little ingenuity you can fashion a vertical garden or living-wall system from scratch — I've seen one made from old wooden pallets and plastic coffee cups! However, it's easier (and cleaner!) to use a prefabricated unit specially designed for the job.

Specially designed modules, filled with compost, are ideal at home: they're cheaper to install than hydroponic mats; have few (if any) working parts that need replacing; and looking after them is no more difficult than tending a group of small pots on the patio. The two basic types have breathable felt 'pockets' or rigid plastic ones. Always choose a spot with the plants in mind before constructing any vertical garden. 

Making a living wall


1. Firm fixings are essential — compost-filled modules are heavy when wet. Using a tape measure, mark the location of the fixing holes, and with a spirit level ensure the holes — or the product itself if you're holding it up — are level. Modules can either be fixed directly to a wall or, if you can get a good strong fixing, to a wooden fence (felt pocket systems are best for fences, as they are not flat). Alternatively secure to wood or steel battens, which are screwed into the wall behind. These help the wall to breathe and make it easier to level up each unit. To determine whether battens are required, and for working out the appropriate spacing, follow the instructions supplied with your particular system.

Drilling a Screw into Wall   

2. Using the appropriate bit, drill a hole and screw in (with wall plugs if need be) some wall anchors or M8/M10 coach bolts. Line up the fixing slots in the module to the bolts, and hang. If the system is being fixed to a fence, hold up each module, then screw through the eyelets with large wood screws. Tighten all fixings. Repeat if you're hanging more than one module. All systems specify the distance required between each module, so be sure to check that you have followed the instructions correctly.

 Adding Gravel and Tarpaulin


3. The messy bit is next, so lay some tarpaulin on the ground beside the wall. With some systems, drainage material is necessary, so check the instructions. If required, fill the base of each module with 2-4cm (1 3/4 - 1 1/2 in) of lightweight expanded clay granules, or fine gravel. Then add compost, filling to halfway. I use two parts peat-free multipurpose, one part leaf mould and one part John Innes No. 3. Mix in slow-release bonemeal or blood, fish and bone at the rate specified on the packaging. Alternatively apply controlled release fertiliser, which will provide nutrients when plants require them most, and you don't need to reapply them every 2-3 months.

Arranging Plants in Pocket

Arranging Plants in Pocket

4. Arrange the plants. For complete coverage, trailing plants like ivy {Hedera) should be positioned at the lip of each pocket, cell or trough, so they tumble down to meet the plants growing up from below. Bushier ones can go wherever you like. For some systems, small plants are preferable to large as it's easier to firm them in. Try to achieve a relatively full look straight away by spacing plants closer together than normal. You can sow seed directly into most modules, but this means looking at ugly plastic or felt for months before the seed has germinated and plants have filled out.
Planting the Living Wall   

5. Time to plant. Start at the top of the module and work downwards, so that compost doesn't fall onto the plants below. Remove each pot; pop the plant in and backfill with compost to just below the lip, ma king sure that the rootball is completely covered. Afterwards firm the compost and waterwell.

Built in Irrigation Pipe 


6. Some systems have a built-in irrigation pipe that can be rigged up to an automatic timer; others need to be watered by hand. If there isn't a tap close by, go for a product with a built-in reservoir. Whatever system you have, though, be sure plants don't dry out. In sunny spots this might mean watering once or twice a day especially during the growing season.



 Living Wall Plants
Given enough water, a living wall created with plants this size will hide the black woolly pockets used here within five or six months.

Interested in more on living walls? Check out Find the Ideal Plants for Your Outdoor Living Wall.

Reprinted with permission from Urban Gardener by Matt James and published by Mitchell Beazley, 2014. Buy this book from our store: The Urban Gardener.

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