Find the Ideal Plants for Your Outdoor Living Wall

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Photo by Marianne Majerus
Note how the living wall forms a beautiful backdrop to the terrace. It could be masking an ugly boundary too.

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,” lists ideal plants for every wall, keeping in mind the orientation of the wall and the climate. 

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

Living walls

A green wall can either be a simple planting of climbers, wall shrubs or trained fruit, or a more complex engineered system, using all manner of high-tech gizmos from hydroponic mats to automated irrigation systems. On a smaller scale at home, specially designed modules or pockets filled with compost are ideal. They’re easy to handle and quick to install (see How to Make a Living Wall). Maintenance is pretty straightforward too.

Importantly, always pick plants with the orientation of the wall in mind, as the climate can differ enormously (see Slideshow). Look after plants as you might any other container planting.

Plants for living walls

Prostrate, low-growing shrubs, ferns, perennials and grasses can all be grown in living walls, as long as they don’t have invasive tendencies. It’s also possible to add fruit and vegetables for a display that really is good enough to eat!

Annuals, perennials & grasses

Sunny walls (more than half a day of summer sun)

Ceratostigma plumbaginoides
Ehgeron karuinskianus (Mexican fleabane)
Euphorbia myrsinites (spurge)
Festuca glauca (blue fescue)
Helianthemum nummularium (rock rose) and cultivars
Helictotrichon semperuirens (blue oat grass)
Jasione laeuis (sheep’s bit scabious) and cultivars
Nepeta racemosa ‘Walkers Low’ (catmint)
Origanum laeuigatum (marjoram) and cultivars
Origanum uulgare (wild marjoram) and cultivars

Shady walls (less than half a day of summer sun)
Note: Given plenty of water, all will tolerate a sunny position

Ajuga reptans (bugle) and cultivars
Bergenia cordifolia (elephant’s ears) and cultivars
Brunnera macrophylla (Siberian bugloss) and cultivars
Carex morrouiii ‘Variegata’ (sedge) and other cultivars
Cornus canadensis (dwarf cornel)
Ferns (eg Asplenium trichomanes, Blechnum spicant, Polypodium uulgare)
Heuchera ‘Can-can’ (coral bells) and other cultivars
Hosta ‘Ginko Craig’ (plantain lily) and other cultivars
Pachysandra terminalis (Japanese spurge)

Fruit, vegetables & herbs

Sunny walls (more than half a day of summer sun)

• Basil
• Cherry tomatoes
• Chives
• Coriander
• Oregano
• Purslane
• Sage
• Strawberries
• Thyme

Shady walls (less than half a day of summer sun)

• Alpine strawberries
• Lamb’s lettuce
• Lettuce
• Mizuna
• Parsley
• Red giant mustard
• Rocket
• Runner beans, dwarf
• Spinach

Climbing high

For creating the easiest (and cheapest) living wall, climbers are hard to beat. Choose plants that flower at different times to get two periods of interest from the same space, or pick another climber that flowers at the same time for brilliant complementary colour or contrast. Climbing roses partnered with clematis are a classic duo. You can even pair climbers with tall hedges, large shrubs or open spreading trees.

• Free climbers
So-called free climbers need no support and therefore little maintenance. Ivy (Hedera) climbs using aerial roots, while Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus) has suckers to adhere to the surface. Free climbers often spread rapidly and are useful to cover larger areas. However, you need to consider plant vigour carefully; these climbers are tricky to control once they get going.

• Twining climbers
Twiners such as wisteria have winding stems to pull themselves up; grapevines (Vitis) and clematis use twining tendrils or leaves. A l l need trellis or stout wires for support. Don’t scrimp here. Healthy climbers grow fast, and mature plants are very heavy. Substantial support is essential right from the start. For modern designs, stainless-steel cables and fittings are available from specialist suppliers, and these look good with or without plants.

The tendency of most twining climbers is to grow upwards, so, if you do want them to spread out, their shoots need to be tied in regularly.

• Wall shrubs
As they don’t naturally climb, wall shrubs benefit from the support of a wall. Shoots need to be tied in regularly to horizontal supports. Rambling and climbing roses (Rosa) fall into this group of climbers needing support.

Tidy climbers & wall shrubs

Sunny walls

Aainidia kolomikta
Clematis armandit ‘Snowdrift’
Clematis ‘Bill MacKenzie’
Clematis ‘Niobe’
Cytisus battandieri (pineapple broom)
Fccremocarpusscober (Chilean glory flower)
Itea uirginica ‘Henry’s Garnet’ (sweetspire)
Rhodochiton atrosanguineus (purple bell vine)
Trachelospermum jasminoides (star jasmine)
Vitis uinifera (grapevine) Shady walls
Azara microphylla (box-leaf azara)
Berberidopsiscorallina (coral plant)
Chaenomeles speciosa ‘Moerloosei’ (flowering quince)
Clematis ‘Nelly Moser’
Carryaelliptica ‘Evie’ (silk-tassel bush)
Hydrangea anomala subsp. petiolaris (climbing hydrangea)
Pileostegia uiburnoides (climbing hydrangea)
Rosa ‘Zephirine Drouhin’
Schizophragma integrifolium (Chinese hydrangea vine)
Tropaeolumspeciosum (flame nasturtium)

Information sources

There’s a lot of information available on how to build living walls and green roofs-some good, some bad. This is the best of the bunch.

Living Roofs website
University of Sheffield Green Roof Centre
The Greenroof Industry Research Portal
Green Roofs for Healthy Cities

– Small Creen Roofs: Low-Tech Options for Homeowners by Nigel Dunnett, Dusty Gedge & John Little
– Planting Green Roofs and Living Walls by Nigel Dunnett and Noel Kingsbury

Learn step-by-step how to build a living wall. Check out How to Make a 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.