In my last post, I covered the principles of building a vertical garden — but no living wall is complete without some knowledge of the best plants for the system. As we discovered, there are different systems used to create living walls. These different structures and systems help determine what species of plants will work, but there are other factors that come into play as well, from light conditions to an owner’s plant preference.
My own aesthetic preferences came into play for my vertical garden, but I wanted to make sure the plants worked. I would have loved to grow bromeliads and orchids in my wall, but from what I discovered, the lighting and watering conditions wouldn't have been adequate for maintaining either species over a long period of time.
Additionally, my 5’ x 8’ vertical garden was designed for a wall perpendicular to a south-facing window. That means that the plants closer to the window get much more light than those away from the window. Light metering helps determine what plant species will grow best.
You must also take into account the fact that plants have different growth structures. Some grow upwards; some climb; some drape; and all of them will hopefully grow bigger. Plants like Pothos and Philodendrons will grow down and shade other species below, so you should be mindful of that characteristic.
From my own personal experience with my living wall, these are the top 10 plants I have found work well within my own system.
1. Pothos (Epipremnum sp.)
One of the best indoor plants for low-light situations, pothos is a vining plant that's super easy to care for and can be coaxed to climb or to hang from its resting place. Most of the plants I have are prolific growers, particularly if they have adequate light, and some have grown longer than 20 feet. They can get a little wiry and spindly as they get longer, so don’t feel bad when cutting them back.
2. Lipstick plant (Aeschynanthus radicans)
One of best houseplants for the hanging basket, it takes lower light levels and dry conditions with ease. This free-flowering species has cascading, shiny green leaves with burgundy underneath. Rich red flowers emerge from black calyces with waves of bloom appearing throughout the year.
3. Sword Fern (Nephrolepis exaltata)
I hadn’t had much luck growing ferns, but the Sword Fern is relatively easy to take care of and has proven to be a good grower in my vertical garden. It’s more common in tropical regions and humid forests, so it likes to be on the wetter side. I have these ferns placed closer to the base, so it’s easier to for them to soak up the water.
4. Rabbit’s foot fern (Davallia fejeensis)
One of the goals for my green wall, seeing that it was on a sub-irrigation system, was to grow plants that I previously had difficulty growing. Mingo helped me pick out some ferns, including this cute little plant that has fuzzy little “feet” that stick out from its base. These furry roots will actually establish themselves if given soil, or you can even break them off and put them into moist soil secured with a hairpin to establish more plants. Unlike other ferns, this fern doesn’t like to be moist all the time and prefers indirect to low light.
5. Cretan brake fern (Pteris cretica)
This is one of the more fickle ferns in my green wall, but if conditions are right, they grow well. The plant has no tolerance whatsoever to dry soil, so the base of it should always be close to the water source. The fronds are pale green, which I like against the darker leaves of my other species. The name Pteris is also Greek for “feather,” which refers to its delicate and graceful appearance. If you aren’t afraid of slow-growing plants, I’d highly recommend this one, if only for the unique appearance.
6. Wedding Vine (Stephanotis floribunda)
I had a fragrant wedding vine already growing in my place near a north-facing window and it proved to be a very quick grower, and fairly tolerant to wet and dry conditions, so I decided to try one in my green wall. This was a good move. The wedding vine, which gets its name from its heavy use in wedding ceremonies, is a vining evergreen plant with large white tubular flowers that can grow over 20 feet. I put this one on top of my vertical garden and have since let it trail up towards the ceiling.
7. Peace Lily (Spathiphyllum wallisii)
Peace lilies are common in the home and are generally easy-to-care-for plants that can tolerate lower light and lower humidity. It's a good bloomer, so for those who want flowers on their green wall, this is a good option. Even when the flowers age, they generally turn green, so it looks as if it's in bloom for most of the year.
8. Dracaena (Dracaena sp.)
Dracaenas are popular plants for the home, and a majority of them grow upright with strap-like leaves. The leaves are often multicolored with whites, creams, yellows and reds. They grow well across a range of temperatures, but they tend not to like any chilly environments. If you place them away from the light, the leaf color may fade slightly, but they can tolerate slightly lower light conditions. Keep in mind that these plants like to be a little drier, so I have these elevated from the base so they take up less water.
9. Crotons (Codiaeum variegatum pictum)
Croton is a colorful shrub with leathery leaves that are most colorful in bright light. In low-light conditions, new leaves will be smaller and less intensely pigmented. Grow croton at 60 to 85 degrees F with high humidity. Allow the soil surface to dry between waterings.
10. Philodendron (Philodendron sp.)
Quite possibly one of the most popular ornamental plants, the majority of philodendrons that I’ve seen on my myriad travels are normally living in the upper reaches of trees in tropical forest habitats. If you’ve grown a wide variety of philos in your house, you can see how many of them get around. Some species shoot out rather aggressive aerial roots that embed into just about anything — including a nearby houseplant or a crack in the wall. Their name in Greek literally translates to “tree lover,” so I suppose they definitely earned that name. Take a look into the Brasil, heartleaf, and velvet-leaf varieties, all of which I have growing in my green wall.