How to improve blank outdoor walls
Written by Peter Dowdall for Irish Examiner
Peter Dowdall says blank outdoor walls can be softened with vertical, interlocking plants.
Vegetables growing in recycled plastic bottles. ‘Living walls’ can be created with canvas planters, which are attached to the wall with screws and which contain pockets for the plants.
WHAT is the first thing that we notice when we enter our home, or somebody else’s?
Well, once we have looked up from the floor, it is the walls. We give so much thought to the internal walls of our home, picking paint colours, using testers to see how colours work with the curtains, the upholstery and with the lights on and off. Once that decision is made, then you start experimenting with different artworks, mirrors, clocks, and whatever else you decide to hang, again trying them in different positions and at different heights.
Why, then, do so few of us make use of the tremendous opportunity that awaits outside? The most ‘in your face’ walls of the home are in the garden. Once you look outside the window, you are often faced with the sight of three blank, concrete walls or timber fence panels. It’s like they are a problem to be covered as quickly and as cheaply as possible, rather than an opportunity to introduce another, living dimension to the home.
Once the domain of the specialists, green walls and vertical gardening systems are now widely available in garden centres and home stores. These are interlocking, plastic cell systems, similar in appearance to window boxes. They attach together to obscure a wall. When planted, these create a stunning, soft effect and most systems are designed to be self-watering and will survive on rainwater.
However, depending on the plants used and on how much rain does or doesn’t fall, a garden hose may be required. In fact, one of the beneficial environmental features of this type of landscaping, particularly in a large urban environment, is that these green walls absorb a lot of rainwater and substantially reduce the speed and volume of water travelling into storm drains.
I’ve been rather taken, recently, with other materials used to create living walls or just panels of colour, namely canvas planters.
I have seen many of them at shows in the UK, but have yet to see them widely available in retail outlets here in Ireland. That is, perhaps, a business opportunity for someone. These are attached to the wall with screws and made from a canvas material, with pockets in which to grow the plants. Even when not covered with vegetation, they can look well, as the planters themselves aren’t unattractive.
Then, there are the more traditional types of planters, such as window boxes, which are designed to be attached to walls. These are great if you just want splashes of colour about the place.
Green walls have traditionally been planted with Sedums and similar type, low-growing succulents and alpine plants. However, in recent times, I’m glad to see that more and more projects are using all types of plants, including small ornamental grasses and perennials and even bedding plants.
The advantage of using the Sedum-type plants is that they will have a longer life in this type of system than the more vigorous growers, so bear that in mind when choosing which plants to use.
If you have a fence or wall that gets a lot of sunshine, facing south or west, then why not grow a herb or an edible wall. Most herbs will grow perfectly in this type of system, as will your salad crops — the coloured lettuces that will look and taste great, and fruit, such as strawberries. The vertical element keeps the leaves and fruit off the ground and thus mud and spatter-free.
Any good garden should be an extension of the home and you can bring the garden inside, via a vertical growing system or canvas wall planter, and use it to grow some of the herbs more suited to the indoors, such as Basil, mixed with some ornamental house plants, perhaps Kalanchoe, to give good visual effect.
Whatever herbs you use can be grown indoors in this way, ensuring that your garden ties in with your home, but also that you have a ready supply of fresh herbs.
The only ‘must have’ is sunlight. The internal wall will have to be receiving good levels of natural sunlight.
If this all seems like too much work, then walls and fences can also be brought to life with good climbing plants and with paint. Again, tie the walls into the design of the home by using the same material and by painting them the same colour as the exterior of the house. This helps to create that ‘outdoor room’ feel.
There are many different climbing plants from which to choose, and a trip to your local garden centre will help you to determine which are the correct ones for your needs, but do yourself, and your garden, one favour and don’t just go with the quickest-growing and cheapest one that you find.
Work for the week
Keep the secateurs to hand from now on for there is much in the garden that needs to be pruned at the moment. Early spring flowering forsythias which have been brightening up gardens for the last few weeks should be cut back soon after flowering. Cut back quite hard to healthy new shoots.
This will prevent the plant from getting too large and producing weaker, shoots on top of woody growth as it matures. Winter heathers too should be cut back now. The best tool for this is a strong sharp scissors. Cut just below the dead flowers, slightly into the foliage. If this isn’t done, the plant will grow upwards creating an unsightly, woody mess. Pruning it will ensure it stays low and horizontal and keeps producing healthy green growth low in the plant.