Living Walls: A Low-Water Use Landscaping Option

Sometimes square pegs fit in round holes: a living wall on a curved surface.
The finished Planned Parenthood living wall project.

This living wall shows how a small project can make a cold patio instantly inviting and full of nature.

Part two of a three part series

Southern Californians are finally breaking their addition to lush green lawns. In the midst of a drought, the days of spraying drinking water on a lawn day after day to keep it looking good are over. Admit it, aren’t you glad at the thought of tossing your lawn mower for good?

Some homeowners install a great deal of hardscaping elements in their yards, substituting patios and other decorative structures, with very few plants. While this is water efficient, it’s a little sad for me as a person who loves plants to see them disappearing from yards. It’s also unhealthy. Being close to plants has a positive impact on an individual’s well-being. Even seeing nature in the work or home environment can increase productivity and happiness.

Living walls allow creation of gardens when space is at a premium. Did you know living walls also make gardens possible that are low-water use, while still offering a beautiful burst of green in your environment?

If you are replacing lawns with hardscaping, walls, or have pillars for patio covers, consider using these new structures to support a living wall. Walls and exterior spaces of homes are often used to support a living wall system, and they don’t require significant additional construction work. Sometimes the wall can be modified with minimal additional support, or freestanding structures or old school trellises can be used to create a vertical garden.

Living walls need a regular water supply, and the irrigation should be considered before the time of installation. There are two general types of irrigation: direct and recirculating irrigation.

With a very small living wall, the most simple direct irrigation can be done by hand, or even by “bottle irrigation,” which involves filling a large bottle with water, turning it upside down and burying it into the soil or growing medium where it will slowly release water to plant roots.

A direct irrigation system does not have a water tank or pump. The water comes directly from an external water source such as your water utility company. The water pressure in the plumbing distributes the water, most commonly through a drip irrigation system. Water is distributed to the plants of the wall, starting at the top and pulled downward by gravity. If there is any excess irrigation water, it drains off. With these systems, it’s important to time and automate the irrigation to minimize water waste just like in a traditional yard.

Direct irrigation systems housed outdoors can be set up to use greywater or recycled water (the “purple pipe” water) that is safe for use in irrigation. These are incredibly efficient ways to water your garden and enjoy all the benefits of plants without using extremely valuable potable water.

More complex systems can recirculate water, reusing water by pumping it into the living wall from a holding tank to the top of the wall. It runs through, and any excess at the bottom goes back into the tank, starting the irrigation cycle over until there is no water left in the system-holding tank, which can then be refilled.

Sometimes square pegs fit in round holes: a living wall on a curved surface.

This living wall on the exterior of a home adds beautiful curb appeal landscaping without the need for a thirsty lawn.

Depending on where you install your living wall, it can help insulate your house and decrease your energy use especially in the summer months by cooling your home. It improves the carbon footprint and releases oxygen into the air. It provides critical habitat for insects and birds. It also preserves your property value by making your home attractive and inviting; that all-important “curb appeal” we still want even without lush landscaping that includes lawns.

People want plants, and people need plants. Green walls can give you a dramatic and colorful burst of nature that really makes a statement. Living walls can be incredibly water efficient and you won’t end up missing your thirsty lawn one bit.

Read our previous post in this three-part series, “Getting Waterwise in San Diego, Inside and Out