Homeowner’s Guide To Living Walls

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Tantalizing or time-consuming: Is a living wall right for your home?

The allure of walls filled with plants dates back at least to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, circa 600 B.C. Flash forward a couple of millennia to the 1980s, and the modern-day concept rerooted itself into our culture thanks to French botanist Patrick Blanc. Since then, living walls have grown in popularity and especially blossomed in the last decade.

What Is a Living Wall?

A living wall — or vertical garden, green wall, plant wall, edible wall or ecowall — is a collection of plants hanging vertically on a wall, indoors or outside. They can be as simple as a few plants or ivy vines growing up the side of a building, or as intricate as a tapestry of diverse species creating a piece of living art. They are often grown on panels and watered via drip lines and gravity.

“A living wall is a unique way to add greenery and visual interest to your home,” says Erin Marino of The Sill plant company in New York City. “There are so many imaginative ways to create your own living wall that complements your space and your lifestyle.”

What Are the Benefits of a Living Wall?

Many people grow living walls for their aesthetic.

“They’re gorgeous,” says Jim Mumford, president and resident horticulturist at Good Earth Plant Company in San Diego. “It’s flat out like having a painting of plants on your wall and it has three dimensions to it, so it’s got texture, depth and shadows.”

People also grow living walls because having nature around is good for us. Studies have shown that plants:

  • Make us happier;
  • Reduce stress;
  • Improve creativity and morale;
  • Help us heal faster. Studies have shown some hospital patients use less pain medication and improve more quickly when they can see plants from their bed.

“There are a lot of studies that show that they really do make us happy,” says Mumford. “[Plus] you can do some amazing designs. It’s almost like painting, with a paintbrush of plants.”

Other benefits of living walls include:

  • Dampening background noise by up to 15 decibels. “Living walls can actually create a natural sound barrier,” says Mallory Micetich, a home care expert at Angi, formerly known as Angie’s List. “If your home is on a noisy street, or you have noisy neighbors on one side, a vertical garden can significantly reduce the amount of noise you hear inside.”
  • Using a minimum of horizontal space to add a multitude of plants.
  • Improving air quality by adding oxygen, increasing humidity and removing carbon dioxide and other pollutants.
  • Privacy when used as a room divider.
  • Less energy use from increased insulation.
  • Higher property values.
  • Learning opportunities for children.

“[Plus] they’re different, unusual and cool,” says Mumford. “They also bring kind of a natural smell, so it doesn’t smell like a cold, dry room.”

What Are the Downsides of Living Walls?

Living walls require a fair amount of maintenance, so experts recommend starting with a small panel and seeing how it goes. “Definitely be honest with yourself about how much care you are able to provide to your living wall,” says Marino.

Downsides to living walls include:

  • They take work to maintain — watering, trimming and replacing plants that die;
  • Expensive to set up;
  • Can be messy if not set up well;
  • Are difficult to move once in place;
  • Require extra lighting indoors, meaning a higher energy bill;
  • Can attract bugs if not maintained;
  • Deteriorate over time, depending on what backing you’re using.

“Everybody’s got great intentions, thinking, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll take care of that every single week,’ ” says Mumford. “It’s just like the swimming pool. I’ll say I’ll put chemicals in it every week, but then in a few months I haven’t bothered and it’s turned green.”

Mumford estimates a typical DIY living wall costs around $100 a square foot, or double if you hire a company to install it. “[But] if you’re an avid gardener and you’re taking cuttings, rooting things yourself, or growing it from a seed, then those costs go way down,” he says.

Basic Requirements for an Indoor Living Wall

Wall types and anchoring

Whether your living wall is a few simple potted plants on shelving or an elaborate work of art, it can attach to nearly any wall if you anchor it properly to account for its weight. That can be five to 20 pounds per square foot when saturated.

An expanding drywall anchor will pull right out of the wall, says Mumford, so it’s better to use butterfly screws and bolts. But otherwise living walls are stable on the wall, because the weight hangs straight down and doesn’t pull outward.

Irrigation

The most common watering systems for indoor living walls are:

  • Hand watering, which can be messy and a problem if you travel a lot;
  • Drip irrigation, usually automated but also doable with a standalone pump.

“If you are building a more elaborate living wall, we recommend incorporating an irrigation system,” says Marino. “It is very difficult to water plants vertically, and incorporating an irrigation system will ensure your plants get the water they need.”

Sunlight and grow lights

Also, keep in mind the lighting needs. High-light plants like succulents do best with a lot of natural light as well as grow lights. “Truly, plants can be hung from anywhere as long as they’re receiving the light they need to survive,” says Marino. “That’s part of the creative aspect of living walls.”

For houseplants, Mumford recommends full spectrum lights, with a minimum of 150 foot-candles at 4300 Kelvin over the whole wall for 10 hours a day.

“Put it on a timer,” he says. “Don’t trust yourself. Also, he says, “if there’s a big window to the right, guess what? The plants all lean to the right. But if I put really nice grow lights above it, they grow up toward that light, which is natural.”

Basic Requirements for an Outdoor Living Wall

Wall types

Outdoors, living walls can be set up on nearly any kind of wall. Avoid putting them on a fence, which may not be sturdy enough to hold the weight.

Climate

Living walls in hot climates are most effective on the south side, to help with cooling. In colder climates, it’s more challenging to keep irrigation systems from freezing and finding plants that can tolerate cold winters.

Check with your local nursery for which plants can survive outside in your climate zone. Cut back plants that will grow back and plan for draining irrigation lines before the first freeze.

There’s also an aesthetic consideration. In winter, Mumford says, “you look at a living wall and it looks dead. Well, it’s just dormant, but it’s kind of in your face.”

Irrigation

Outside living walls use the same types of irrigation as their indoor counterparts. Mumford warns not to count on rain for irrigation, because it typically doesn’t penetrate enough unless it’s blowing sideways.

DIY living wall system recommendations

Creating a living wall can be as simple as stapling some fabric to a pallet. But if you want something with longevity, Mumford recommends a system that allows you to pick and choose the sizes of your wall pockets and irrigation method.

He has seen good results with systems from Wally Grow. For even more simple setups, Marino recommends the all-in-one Smart Landscape Grow Frame.

Other Tips for a Successful Living Wall

Choose the right plants

Inside, Mumford strongly recommends houseplants. “I hate to say that we’re limited to houseplants inside, but we pretty much are.” he says. “I get designers and folks that really want something different inside. Unfortunately, the reality is there are houseplants that are houseplants because they grow inside and they’re successful.”

Popular indoor plants include ivies and spider plants. “If you’re prone to over-watering, plants, ferns are a great choice,” says Marino. “If you are lucky enough to have a space with bright sunlight for most of the day, succulents are a fun choice.”

Marino also recommends trailing plants like pothos and philodendrons because they’re aesthetically pleasing. Their trailing ends will fill in the blank space on vertical walls.

Outside, it’s mostly just matching your plants with your climate. Consider blooming plants to help pollinators, and plants with seeds and berries to attract birds. If you’re going for food, cherry tomatoes, herbs and peppers can work well. Others don’t.

“Corn does not grow out of a wall very well,” says Mumford. “I’ve tried them all. Pumpkins also don’t grow out of the wall very well.”

Have realistic expectations

If you’re not sure about the commitment, start small and work your way up.

“As a huge plant lover, but a New York City renter on a budget, an elaborate green wall with an irrigation system just wasn’t going to happen for me,” says Marino. “Instead, I opted for affordable floating shelves from IKEA that I could put potted plants on. I choose plants that trail, so their foliage helps to hide the shelves and pots.”

Karuna Eberl
Karuna writes about wildlife, nature, history and travel for magazines, newspapers and websites including National Geographic, National Parks, Discovery Channel, Atlas Obscura and the High Country News. She's also produced a number of independent films and directed the documentary The Guerrero Project, about the search for a sunken slave ship. She and her husband, Steve, wrote an award-winning guidebook to the Florida Keys and are currently completely renovating an abandoned house in a ghost town. She holds a B.A. in journalism and geology from the University of Montana. Member of OWAA, SATW.