Living Walls for Both Indoor and Outside Plants

Jean Laporte, left, was intrigued by Jean Pierre and Marie Hamel’s idea for a vertical garden and worked with them to find plants that would withstand harsh winters. Photograph by: Bruno Schlumberger, Ottawa Citizen

Tired of the usual? Think vertical

After the first hard frosts of fall had told most other gardens it was time to hunker down for the winter, Marie and Jean-Pierre Hamel’s vertical outdoor garden was still a riot of visual interest, even as its hardy alpine plants entered dormancy.

In the coming years, as the plants get more established, the Hamels hope their new vertical garden will be a source of delight all year ’round, with the plants’ varied textures standing out when their growing season is done and their bright summer colours have faded.

The Hamels created a pattern with the plants, almost like a mural. Photograph by: Bruno Schlumberger, Ottawa Citizen

Vertical gardens like the Hamels’ are becoming increasingly popular.

Outdoors, they are sculptural and in some ways easier to take care of than a flat garden: No bending or crouching, says Jean-Pierre Hamel.

Indoors, they are a hallmark of the green movement and a boon to air quality, says Dave Cherry of Ottawa’s Job Done Construction, a construction company with a green bent that has installed indoor vertical gardens for several clients.

But while they look great, they are not always simple to install and maintain.

Because the concept is relatively new, there has been a “wild west” element to the companies that offer them, says Cherry. Vertical gardens are an immature market with new companies and products coming along regularly, he says.

The Hamels, for example, saw a vertical garden in France and wanted to replicate the idea at their Orléans home. But they had to do a lot of research to find a suitable system. They eventually decided on a vertical planter system created by an American company, BrightGreen (brightgreenusa.com).

Called the GroVert Living Wall Planter, it looks sort of like a shoe rack: Each planter consists of 10 cells, five vertically by two horizontally, that you mount on a fence or supporting structure. Each cell is four inches deep and slopes down on a 45-degree angle from front to back so the soil and water don’t slide out. Each planter is about 45 centimetres tall and 20 cm across. The Hamels bought 340 planters (at $30 a pop), enough to cover about 18 metres of fencing.

The planters can be mounted beside, below and above each other so they can cover a large surface and come with holes and channels for watering and aeration.

(Hamel was so impressed with the system he has become the BrightGreen distributor for Ontario and Quebec; he can be reached at jp_hamel@rogers.com.)

There are similar systems for indoors, says Cherry.

Sedum Master (sedummaster.com), a company located near Woodstock in southern Ontario, sells indoor systems, including a free-standing unit on wheels that comes in aluminum or stainless steel and can also be used outdoors. The free-standing units can cost about $5,000.

Fixed installations can be small, to accommodate a few plants, or can cover an entire wall. They can be quite heavy, what with soil, plants and water, so the supporting structure has to be sturdy.

Each cell in the Hamels’ vertical garden holds 10 plants. Photograph by: Bruno Schlumberger, Ottawa Citizen

“It’s hard to manage people’s expectations,” says Cherry of indoor vertical gardens.

“People see nice pictures in a magazine. But they forget it’s plants and there’s a certain messiness to plants. Leaves fall off, and little blobs of dirt fall onto your floor. Your fingers are going to get dirty.”

Cherry also says watering can be an issue.

“It’s not easy to water a vertical wall manually,” he says, explaining that water has to reach each of those cells and excess water has to be able to leak out at the bottom. An indoor vertical garden of any size needs some sort of watering system, he says, and that involves plumbing.

Managing watering with an outdoor system is somewhat easier, since excess can drain into the ground.

Then there’s the matter of what plants to choose.

Sedum Master says its free-standing plant wall is often used for urban agriculture and plants such as tomatoes, herbs and lettuce will grow in it. Fixed structures can support ornamental as well as edible plants.

To fill their planter, the Hamels enlisted the help of Estelle and Jean Laporte of J.A. Laporte Flowers and Nursery in Orléans (laportegardens.com). Jean Laporte was intrigued by the idea of a living wall and worked closely with the Hamels to pick the plants.

When they were strong enough, the plants were hung on the fence.

“We did a lot of research to see what varieties of plants to use to make the vertical wall work in the winter,” says Laporte, adding that they settled on seven hardy alpine varieties that don’t need a lot of soil and are resistant to hard freezing in the winter — for example plants like hens-and-chicks from the sempervivum and sedum families.

They didn’t stick the plants just anywhere; the Laportes also created designs by arranging the plants in a visually appealing way. (Imagine, says Hamel, that each cell is a pixel.)

Then they numbered all the planters and laid them all down on the ground. Working from the plan, they planted 3,400 different plants — perennials, because they didn’t want to have to do this every year — and left them on the ground for several months to allow them to develop their root systems.

When the plants were strong enough, the planters were hung on the fence. Having the planters numbered helped make sure they didn’t mess up the design.

As the summer progressed, the Hamels were more and more pleased.

“It’s like a mural!” says Marie Hamel. “It’s art!”

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