April 2, 2014

Towers of Flowers

Vertical gardens give plant lovers a chance to take gardening to a whole new level.

When Tom Hobbs of Colleyville stopped by Blooming Colors Nursery in Grapevine last year, he spotted a tall, wall-like structure planted with rows of beautiful florals — something he had never seen.

He was intrigued. In short order, Hobbs bought this vertical garden, also known as a living wall, for his back yard, and since then, has purchased two more.

Vertical gardens are a hot trend taking gardening to new heights — literally. (To view a gallery of jaw-dropping living walls from around the world — from Barcelona to Birmingham, England — check out “39 Insanely Cool Vertical Gardens” on Buzz Defying physics and the boundaries of the backyard, they give garden enthusiasts the chance to break out of the box by planting blooms that climb indoor and outdoor walls.

Whether mounted over a fireplace or situated in an empty space in the yard, a vertical garden filled with colorful succulents or florals becomes a work of living art, while one that houses herbs and spices is a clever and convenient culinary addition to any kitchen.

With celebrities like Jessica Alba and Mario Batali singing its praises, the vertical garden isn’t just for tree huggers anymore: It has quickly gone mainstream.

Laying the groundwork

Fans point to one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, as one of the earliest examples of a vertical garden. Fortunately, the vertical gardens of today have evolved.

Ranging from felt pouches that can be mounted on a wall to freestanding wooden structures, options abound, and the hardest part to getting started may be deciding which structure is best suited for your space.

Made by Woolly Pockets, the Wally One is a popular living wall planter on the market. Designed for indoor and outdoor use, it is a breathable, soft-sided pocket made from 100 percent recycled plastic bottles. It includes hardware to mount it to a wall. Once it is in place and planted with your choice of florals or foliage, you can use its drip irrigation system or water by hand. The Wally’s back panel (known as the tongue) wicks water directly to the roots of the plant, while a military grade moisture barrier ensures that your wall stays dry.

Another popular option is Bright Green’s GroVert. Described as a designer living wall planter, GroVert is a single-polymer unit lined with a proprietary moisture mat featuring multiple planting cells. Used indoors or out, the planter features an irrigation system equipped with a top chamber that spreads water evenly across the moisture mat to keep all the plants hydrated. And, like Wally, the GroVert also can be outfitted with a drip irrigation system.

Other vertical garden structures include the freestanding wooden type that Hobbs purchased. Virginia Williams of Blooming Colors Nursery says these “troughs” are handmade by a local supplier and can be completely customized to fit the needs of the customer. Upon request and for an additional fee, nursery personnel will assist with planting decisions and even plant them for you. The work, Williams says, can get intricate.

“It’s like a quilt,” she explains. “We create beautiful patterns.”

Some initial considerations

Before you heed the impulse to launch your vertical garden, there are a few things to consider. Lisa Grove, a horticulturist at the Grapevine Botanical Gardens, cares for multiple vertical gardens and says challenges are involved.

Grove says future vertical gardeners should have a plan for where their living walls will go because it impacts the amount of sunlight that they will get. In turn, that sunlight affects the type of plants you should buy — and might end up limiting what you can use.

And when it comes to vertical gardens, she says, the last thing you want to do is limit yourself. Determining what you want and what you are working with is key to making the overall vertical garden experience pleasant.

A single Wally One planter costs just $40, while a Wally Three (three pockets) is $100 and a Wally Five is $150. So, if you want a living wall rather than a small adornment, count on multiple purchases.

Depending on size and style, the average GroVert costs about $100. And this, of course, is before plants, soil and other gardening materials or accessories have been added to the mix. Hobbs, who purchased his vertical garden already planted, says he paid abut $1,500 for his first one.

The good and the bad

As with all things, vertical gardens carry both pros and cons. Local experts say that, unlike traditional garden spaces, vertical gardens may be mounted low on a fence or wall to create easy accessibility for someone with mobility issues. Grove says vertical gardens also allow plants to be placed in atypical or unusual spaces, sans weeding issues, while Williams says they allow gardeners some extra creativity with planting choices.

Among the drawbacks, if your plants quickly outgrow the space of their structures, they may need pruning and replacing. Williams says this will eventually cost more money and time, and moving a vertical garden can be problematic. Whether you have an indoor or outdoor structure, vertical gardens can be quite large and heavy to maneuver, and if it is placed outdoors, your vertical garden structure may deteriorate over time.

Texas approved?

Often described as a “West Coast trend,” vertical gardens have yet to make as big a splash in Texas as they have in other parts of the country. One reason for that may be gardener concerns about Texas heat and the difficulties of keeping container plants flourishing in the summer.

“You really have to be up on your watering, especially during the summer,” Williams says. She suggests using a drip irrigation system and setting it on a timer to ensure that the garden is watered properly.

Grove says other ways to keep your a vertical garden well hydrated include mixing polymer gel into your potting mix and mulching the top layer of your soil. If all else fails, using native Texas plants is a good option.

Keep looking up

While vertical gardens continue their slow progression into more Texas homes, several are on view in commercial settings around the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Besides the Grapevine Botanical Gardens, the Baylor Charles A. Sammons Cancer Center in Dallas and the American Express Centurion Lounge at DFW Airport have their own vertical gardens.

Grove, who often receives inquiries about vertical gardens, says they’ve been a great addition to the landscape of the botanical gardens.

“They’ve been fun,” she says.

Hobbs echoes the sentiment. “I have had great luck with them,” he says. “There’s nothing about them I don’t like. ... The uniqueness definitely makes it attractive to people.”

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