Living Wall

After years of arm twisting by our friend, Brian Willams, we finally decided to build a living wall. First, let me say I never expected it to do so well. We’re now growing plants that we have never before been able to grow. Many of the cooler growing Anthuriums are thriving this summer when they normally would have spontaneously combusted by February. The wall seems to form a cooler super humid microclimate and the Anthuriums in particular just love it. Eventually I would love to have a wall on 3 sides. I’d do all 4 sides, but then you’d have to repel down into it. After years of hurricanes and lousy winters that have destroyed more irreplaceable plants than I can count, this project has really put the excitement back into plants for me.

I put goldfish into the pond below the wall. Their waste acts as a natural fertilizer and the wall filters the water. It is always crystal clear. There are also some mosquito fish in there since I simply do not need another place for the mosquitos to breed. As an added boost, once in a while I add fish emulsion to the water. It stinks for a couple of days and the raccoons think there must be some sort of smorgasbord nearby when the smell wafts through the screen, but the plants love it. Initially I used Miracle-Gro. The fish did not love it. They will be missed…

Another much simpler way might be to just have a timer spray mist every so often without a pond below. Like a vertical mist bench, then you could run fertilizer injectors full time. It is not a huge amount of water and perhaps plants could be grown in the soil below to make use of the excess water.

We even put in an experimental waterfall made from styrofoam. Initially it didn’t look very natural, but the moss and ferns quickly ran all over it, and now it looks as though it was always there.

In retrospect we should maybe have waited until March or so to add plants. We started building the wall in October and the plants seemed to just languish and do little more than not die for a few months…some did. When March hit, it was incredible! The roots dug into the felt backing, the climbers started climbing, and the shinglers started shingling.

We started by ripping out the plant benches and irrigation that ran along the east wall of the shadehouse. Then the frame went up along with the frame for the catchment pond below.

Then the liner for the pond. Then the backer board is nailed to the frame. The board is up and the liner is down. Next comes the felt. It is stapled to the board with a staple gun.

Irrigation is by way of rubber tubing and misters stapled across the top attached to a submerged pump at the bottom. A timer turns the water on every so often depending on the time of day. You need to play with the timer to see what works best for your wall. The climate plays a huge part in how often you need to mist.

Then plants are added by slicing the first layer of the felt and sandwiching the roots between the layers.

Gently slide the roots into the felt. It is very important to gently wash ALL the soil from the roots to prevent fungus and assorted other nastiness from taking out your plants before they have a chance to get going.

See the ferns and moss already naturalizing on the damp felt?

One of the best suggestions we had from Brian was the magical Velcro tape. It has been a lifesaver and it really holds new plants on the wall until they can get established. Then you simply take it off after a week or so. How have I lived without it?

There is something new to see every day on the wall. Yet another amazing thing is how it has become its own ecosystem. There are at least 5 frog species living on the wall. Brown anoles and ants also inhabit the vertical environment.

We have a hoard of leopard frogs that started out as tadpoles in the catchment pond. Now they pop like popcorn, springing in all directions in a panic every time you walk by the wall. You’d think they’d get over it. I’m out there half the day. This guy living in the bromeliad is a tree frog.

Any time an Anthurium sets seed, we have been mashing them on the wall. They nearly sprout overnight. We’ve even been doing fresh cuttings and they will quickly root right on the wall.

Obviously a living wall needs to be protected, to what extent depends on where you live. A project such as this can be done with any type of plants, we obviously prefer aroids. This can be done inside a greenhouse or outdoors if proper plant choices are made for your area. We currently have no hurricane plan for the wall.

The list of plants on the wall is endless. There are Anthuriums, Philodendrons, Caladiums, Ferns, Columneas, shingling ficus, shingling aroids, orchids, mosses, begonias, dischidias, hoyas, monstera, rhaphidophora, rhipsalis, pant pant…you name it.

You will have to do some adjusting to find the best spots for your plants. Just know that nothing wants to be directly under a mister, especially the succulents (maybe the fish).

The whole thing will evolve as plants find their place, often where you didn’t want them. New things are added all the time. My original plan was to make a sort of map on paper of what species were on the wall, especially when I was mashing seeds with wild abandon…that didn’t happen. I also started out with a design in mind. Also…didn’t happen.

I hadn’t really planned on taking propagation cuttings from the wall, but then I didn’t really expect it to do so well. I may do some cuttings after the aroid show this year, it would be a shame to cut anything before so many aroiders come to town.

Hopefully this wall will continue to let us grow plants that simply aren’t supposed to grow here. I hadn’t had much success with this dark form of Anthurium warocqueanum until now. I was actually able to grow it well enough to take pups off it recently.

I have a few Anthurium species I have repeatedly tried to grow that I would love to try one more time….or three…I don’t learn.

Enid Offolter