5 Pro Tips for Low Maintenance Indoor Living Walls
Before I launched Rocky Mountain Living Walls, I spent two years researching and testing living wall systems. I wanted to sell a system that was simple, versatile and low maintenance. What do I mean by “low maintenance” indoor living walls? Do I mean walls that techs visit only once a month? No. Living walls need frequent visits regardless of how well they are designed. Living walls are constantly changing, growing (or dying) and reacting to their environment. As plantscapers, we need to be aware of these changes and attend to them quickly and efficiently.
Characteristics of a low maintenance indoor living wall include minimal plant replacements (if any), robust plant varieties that can tolerate a wide range of conditions, plants that don’t experience excessive leaf die-off and a placement location that is easy to access. Here are a few tips to get you going in the right direction.
Tip #1: Choosing the right system
The first consideration is growing media—hydroponic, aeroponic or living soil? Soilless systems require your water chemistry to be on point. There is not much margin for error when plants get all their nutrients from the water. Living soil is what plants naturally grow in—let nature be your guide!
Plants should have adequate room for root growth with loose, light and aerated soil. Many systems on the market today neglect the need for adequate root space. In nature, tropicals like ficus elastica can grow up to 150 feet tall! We’ve adapted these tropical plants for our indoor use, but we can’t ignore their natural growth habits.
A good living wall system will also orient plants vertically, rather than at an angle or worse—horizontally. Plants will constantly be trying to correct their orientation to grow vertically, causing unneeded stress.
Finally— research how the living wall manufacturer supports their resellers. Are they willing to help you with post-installation issues? Do they test new plant varieties in the system and publish results? Do they actively look for customer feedback to improve their product? It’s easy to install a living wall in and have it look great on day one. But how will they support your efforts to keep it looking great?
Tip #2: Choosing soil
Let’s talk about fungus gnats. They come on many of the tropicals we all get from commercial greenhouses and let’s face it—it’s impossible to hide a yellow sticky trap in a living wall. We use a few tested practices to suppress fungus gnats.
One way is with the right soil. We like high porosity soil with a significant percentage of perlite. This keeps media from absorbing too much water and creating a habitable environment for fungus gnat larvae. We also like soil mixes with added Bacillus Pumilus bacteria which acts as a natural biofungicide.
Finally, never overwater. Adjust watering schedules frequently with the seasons and as plants transition from the greenhouse.
Tip #3 – Choosing plants
Choosing plants for a living wall is a balancing act between what customers want and what works. Every living wall we sell involves an education process for our clients. Ultimately, we are the experts and we attempt to steer clients to plant choices that meet their design goals AND are easy to maintain.
There are a few rules we always follow. All plant varieties should have similar water and light requirements. They should be able to tolerate a wide range of watering conditions and be naturally pest resistant. Varieties should be commercially available year-round in case replacements are needed. We also prefer no more than three or four different types of plants per wall. Some of the most beautiful living walls I’ve seen have only a few varieties that are in excellent health.
Another consideration with plant choices is leaf die-off. There’s a big difference in the number of leaves that die on a philodendron cordatum vs a philodendron hope selloum. The cordatum will have significant leaf die-off during transition from the greenhouse. All those dead leaves need to be removed frequently and it takes time.
Tip #4 – Designing lighting
Lighting is one of the most important elements of a successful living wall and one that is often overlooked or done incorrectly. We include supplemental lighting for almost every indoor living wall we install. Lighting should be in the appropriate spectrum, intensity and duration for the plants used.
Make sure your lighting is even across the entire surface of the living wall. You may need to mix wide beam and narrow beam bulbs to reach every space (narrow beams shoot farther). Use a programmable timer for consistent light schedules.
Don’t let lighting challenges derail your sales process. If the customer is cost sensitive, consider a simple track light that plugs into an outlet. Look for plant bulbs that can screw into a standard socket to increase your fixture options. Get creative with lighting—even articulated floor lamps with the right bulbs can work for small walls.
Tip #5 – Placement
Why do so many people want to put a living wall in a stairwell? It’s dramatic, yes, but also difficult to reach! Try to persuade customers to create a design concept on a wall that is easy and safe to access. Living walls that are easy to reach are naturally going to be more thoroughly maintained. Maintaining your wall with a cherry picker means it’s likely to get less frequent attention.
When we design an indoor living wall, we are manufacturing a one hundred percent artificial environment for healthy plant growth, and there are lots of elements in these installations that can go sideways. Set yourself up for success and plan for longevity. Your customers and your techs will thank you.
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