Small space living is on the rise for many reasons. More people are moving to urban areas and living in apartments and condos for convenience and walkability. Many are starting families later in life. According to U.S. Census statistics, in 2009, 201 million people lived in owner-occupied homes, while 90 million lived in renter-occupied spaces. Since then, the owner-occupied figures have continued to hover around 201 or 202 million, but people living in apartments and other rentals have soared to 106 million as of the most recent 2015 survey.

With living walls, small space dwellers can maximize what indoor and outdoor areas they have, but homeowners can also add dimension, privacy and beauty with vertical gardens. Independent garden centers can cater to these customers by offering living wall systems. According to a study conducted by Chicago Botanic Garden and authored by Richard Hawke, CBG plant evaluation manager, the number of green roofs in urban settings have steadily increased over the past 20 years. But green roof gardens aren’t always practical for residential homes. Water leaks, improper drainage and excess weight on the structure below can all turn an environmentally friendly garden into a repair nightmare.

With proper installation and maintenance of vertical planting systems, most of these drawbacks have been mitigated.

This living wall built by Chalet includes Ajuga ‘Burgundy Glow,’ Sedum ‘Angelina,’ ornamental kale and Sempervivum.

Definition of a green wall

“A living wall is a self-sufficient form of a garden attached to the interior or exterior of a building (or home) that receives its water and nutrients from within,” says Chad Osborn, senior horticulturist at Sagegreenlife in Chicago.

Systems run the gamut from tile-based to those using trays or channels to others donning pots. Jim Mumford, owner of Good Earth Plants in San Diego, Calif., says he’s trialed more than 30 different systems and it feels as if a new one comes out every day.

The growing medium can be rock wool, fabric, soil or something else, Mumford says. No matter what the system or which type of medium it uses, there are two vital keys to success, he says.

“You need an even distribution of light and a way to get water to the plants,” Mumford says. “Beyond that, these walls require an attachment system that works with concrete, wood or whatever material the house, condo or apartment is built from, and regular maintenance.”

Praiseworthy benefits

Depending on whether the vertical garden resides inside or outside the home, the advantages differ, although one upside is universal for both. Mumford says a living wall represents a piece of art and many people are willing to spend substantial money on art.

The LiveWall system used by Chalet Landscape, Nursery and Garden Center in Wilmette, Ill., is meant to respond to the high-end market, says Robert Milani, senior landscape architect at Chalet.

“A fully installed LiveWall that measures 72 inches by 48 inches and includes the infrastructure, plant material, irrigation and decorative framing ranges in price from $5,500 to $7,500,” Milani says.

Chalet developed an outdoor office setting featuring a living wall as part of an event encouraging landscape companies to create out-of-the-box ideas.

Owners like them because green walls soften the façade so you see greenery instead of brick or whatever the wall is made of, says Milani. Living walls allow people to have gardens where they usually aren’t accessible, like the balcony of an apartment. When the plantings cover the entire side of a building, they also absorb noise and help keep the house cool, he says.

LiveWall says their vertical gardens create habitats, promote health and well-being, and can even provide sustenance. (Editor’s note: Read more about LiveWall in the article, “A tapestry of plants” in the January 2014 issue of Garden Center magazine:

This vertical wall system from Greenwall Solutions houses plants in individual pots.

Best plants

Not all garden center owners and horticulturists agree on what thrives on a green wall. Milani says chefs can grow the herbs they use in cooking on a green wall. Osborn says it’s impossible to grow herbs and vegetables on a wall, while Mumford says that only rosemary and mint survive, so unless you know from personal experience, you should probably avoid conversations with customers about growing herbs and vegetables.

“Houseplants grow best on interior walls, while we favor succulents for exteriors,” Mumford says. “They typically stay small and don’t have massive root structures.”

Osborn likes indoor aromatic gardens sporting rosemary, lavender and scented geraniums. But because these require intense light for 12 hours of the day, they usually work best in commercial buildings, not homes.

No matter what plants adorn the wall, a degree of maintenance is required. Be skeptical of the inaccurate articles on the internet that claim otherwise, Mumford says.

Someone needs to make sure the irrigation system (if there is one) is working, the water is draining and no pest or disease has infested the wall. Plants on the wall must be pruned to keep them from wandering outside the original pattern. As an IGC, you can supply this maintenance or partner with someone who can.

Marketing for success

But first, you need to sell your customer on a living wall, and prior to that, you need to find the right one to carry in your store.

“Go to a trade show or jump on the internet and find some different wall systems so your staff can play with them,” Mumford says. “When they learn the system, they can sell it.”

When you’re ready to make sales, build one in front of your garden center where everyone can see it. Reference that you now offer living walls, the plants for them and ongoing maintenance on your website and in your e-newsletters.

Heather is a freelancer based in Washington and a frequent contributor to GIE Media publications.