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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Dianella variegated form (there’s a few different types) or variegated flax lily – a variegated and tough strappy leaf plant with pale creamy stripes.
Opiopogon japonicus or mondo grass – A fine dark-leafed grassy plant from Asia
Chlorophytum comosum or spider plant – An evergreen strappy leaf plant native to Africa.
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.
Monstera deliciosa or swiss cheese plant – an evergreen shrubby climber with oversized and very attractive tropical leaves, native to Mexico
Aspidistra elatior or cast iron plant – an evergreen plant with long, wide leaves that’s native to Japan and Taiwan
Rhipsalis species – mistletoe cactus – a genus of cacti with long thread-like stems and interesting weeping habits found predominantly in Central and South America.
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
Epipremnum aureum or devil’s ivy – an evergreen variegated weeping climber native to French Polynesia
Sedum ‘Blue Feather’ – an evergreen succulent with attractive blue foliage native to California (also known as ‘Blue Spruce’)
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…