Phillip WithersThe right plants to choose for a vertical garden

As our outdoor areas get smaller, it gets harder to fill them with a good variety of plants that will all fit, and still grow well. At least, I think if you want any courtyard, balcony or garden to give you a good feeling you’ll want it to be filled with plants. As these areas become more and more about the surfaces needing to be used for other purposes, like sitting or eating, we need to look to other places to put our plants, like the surrounding walls.

Vertical garden in 'Here and Now' show garden, Melbourne. Design Phillip Withers Landscape Design

Vertical garden in ‘Here and Now’ show garden, Melbourne. Design Phillip Withers Landscape Design

I’ve been creating vertical gardens for small courtyard and garden spaces for some time now and I’ve learned through a lot of trial and error that some plants do much better than others in this difficult on-the-wall environment. So how do you choose the best plants for a vertical garden? One thing they all have in common is that they are tough enough to survive short periods of drying out, as that often happens in vertical gardens especially during summer.

Vertical garden in Malvern East, Melbourne. Design Phillip Withers Landscape Design

Vertical garden in Malvern East, Melbourne. Design Phillip Withers Landscape Design

We use a modular vertical garden system with individual planters that are drip-irrigated with water pumped up from a base reservoir tank. Any excess run-off water is collected in drip trays and then directed back to the tank for recirculating, so it’s a dependable and sustainable system. Then we know that we can then walk away from each garden confident that we can send adequate water to each individual plant as some will require more than others.

Vertical garden in Blackburn, Melbourne. Design Phillip Withers Landscape Design

Vertical garden in Blackburn, Melbourne. Design Phillip Withers Landscape Design

First I’m going to work through some of the most reliable vertical garden plants for a few different types of conditions. Then I’ll look at some feature type plants that really step it up a notch and that will get you wanting to make a lush plant picture with your very own vertical garden.

Vertical garden in Toorak, Melbourne. Design Phillip Withers Landscape Design

Vertical garden in Toorak, Melbourne. Design Phillip Withers Landscape Design

 

The Fillers

Let’s start with a couple of plants for vertical gardens that I like to think of as the plants that you can rest your eye on. These are mostly plants that you wouldn’t describe as ‘hard hitters’ or feature plants and they’re all grassy type plants that grow into small clumps or mounds. But you need to start with a good background of these filler plants in your vertical garden as they are what will create a soft, cool, calm and generally ‘green’ feeling. They’re all easy to find in a local nursery or even the big box store, and easy to grow. In fact many of them grow easily from division or, in the case of spider plant, from the new plantlets that form after it flowers.

Liriope muscari or liriope/lily turf – a solid and luscious fine leaf grass-like plant from Asia

Liriope muscari - lily turf

Liriope muscari – lily turf

Dianella variegated form (there’s a few different types) or variegated flax lily – a variegated and tough strappy leaf plant with pale creamy stripes.

Dianella variegated

Dianella variegated

Opiopogon japonicus or mondo grass – A fine dark-leafed grassy plant from Asia

Ophiopogon japonicus

Ophiopogon japonicus

Chlorophytum comosum or spider plant – An evergreen strappy leaf plant native to Africa.

Chlorophytum cosmosum - variegated spider plant

Chlorophytum cosmosum – variegated spider plant

The Family Love Tree vertical garden. Design Phillip Withers Landscape Design

The Family Love Tree vertical garden. Design Phillip Withers Landscape Design

 

The texture contrasts

The next group of plants for a vertical garden are accent plants with larger leaves used to bring some texture contrasts to the plant palette. When you put these plants in a vertical garden against your background of grassy plants, they keep the green theme going but create bigger and bolder shapes within the composition.

Philodendron ‘Xanadu’  – An evergreen shrub with attractive tropical-looking leaves from Brazil.

Philodendron 'Xanadu'

Philodendron ‘Xanadu’

Monstera deliciosa or swiss cheese plant – an evergreen shrubby climber with oversized and very attractive tropical leaves, native to Mexico

Monstera deliciosa. Photo Forest and Kim Starr

Monstera deliciosa. Photo Forest and Kim Starr

Aspidistra elatior or cast iron plant – an evergreen plant with long, wide leaves that’s native to Japan and Taiwan

Aspidistra elatior - cast Iron plant

Aspidistra elatior – cast Iron plant

Rhipsalis species – mistletoe cactus – a genus of cacti with long thread-like stems and interesting weeping habits found predominantly in Central and South America.

Rhipsalis species

Rhipsalis species

Vertical garden in Port Melbourne. Design Phillip Withers Landscape Design

Vertical garden in Port Melbourne. Design Phillip Withers Landscape Design

 

The Pops!

The last group of plants you will need to make a stunning vertical garden are used to create what I call ‘pop’. They bring in some coloured foliage colour that attracts the eye. You don’t want too many of them though, or the ‘pop’ effect becomes way too loud.

Sedum ‘Gold Mound’ – golden sedum – an evergreen soft yellow-foliaged succulent

Sedum 'Gold Mound'

Sedum ‘Gold Mound’

Epipremnum aureum or devil’s ivy – an evergreen variegated weeping climber native to French Polynesia

Epipremnum aureum Photo Bff

Epipremnum aureum Photo Bff

Sedum ‘Blue Feather’ – an evergreen succulent with attractive blue foliage native to California (also known as ‘Blue Spruce’)

Sedum blue

Blue sedum

There are many more plants that can be worked into a vertical or wall garden palette but these plants are a really solid and reliable starting point to any garden situation, so get planning…

The Block TV garden. Design Phillip Withers Landscape Design

The Block TV garden. Design Phillip Withers Landscape Design

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Phillip Withers

About Phillip Withers

Phillip started his design through more art based development studying a Diploma in Arts at RMIT. He was then drawn to garden design through garden maintenance and construction, studying a Diploma in Landscape Design and Sustainability at Swinburne University. He started Phillip Withers Landscape Design and has been lucky enough to create 3 show gardens in different forms, from achievable, to student, to professional. He has also taught Computer Aided Design with Kangan Institute and now Swinburne University. Phil is also a keen traveller and believes that it is the key to keeping design interesting…

7 thoughts on “The right plants to choose for a vertical garden

  1. Cas on said:

    Fabulous article – I’d like to think that vertical gardens could be for everyone and your article highlights not only the types of plants which could be used but also how to make it achievable for the home gardener. I would be interested to hear what vertical system you find effective as there seems to be a lot of products on the market and not a lot of research to be a pointer in what to invest in.

  2. Phillip Withers on said:

    Thanks Cas! There are a lot of vertical gardens available on the market these days. Some better then others, We look to use a system thats only available wholesale and requires irrigation and construction experience for framing. Though there are some smaller DIY kit systems on the market that are readily available and worth a try, such as this one by Vertiscape.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YXm3HfomW1w

  3. helen mckerral on said:

    Interesting article, Phillip. Here in Adelaide with our hot, dry summers (much drier, and for longer, than in Sydney), with the exception of succulent walls, I have not seen a single healthy vertical garden that has looked good for more than a few months before languishing into brown, dead or bare spaces. Heucheras are prime culprits, but even liriope browns off. Incorrect orientation/aspect for the chosen plants is often evident, too, but perhaps the biggest problem is the misconception (promoted by advertising, as well as cheap and nasty commercial kit walls) that vertical gardens are as easy as any other potted plants to maintain.

    • Hi Helen, Thanks for the feedback! We have been able to create many vertical gardens down in Melbourne, also getting the hot dry summers. I would say that aspect is key so that it drying out doesn’t occur. Eg – Huecheras have been very successful for us on south facing walls down south.

  4. Michael McCoy on said:

    Great article Phillip. I wish more people categorised their plants like that, even when planting traditional horizontal spaces. Nearly all home gardeners go for too much ‘pop’, and nowhere near enough filler – the horticultural equivalent of going into a restaurant and asking for the pasta sauce without the pasta.

  5. I found this article very helpful.
    We have an 8m long vertical garden growing here in Perth about 150m from the ocean. It is very much an experiment with the plants. We have had quite a lot of success with portuluca and various herbs. I also use quite a few ‘potted colour’ (petunias, lobelia etc) to get the wow impact.
    I love having a vertical garden and looking at it each day but they do require reqular maintenance and being prepared to change plants, watering etc.
    Great article – thank you ☺☺

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