The first time I saw a living wall was at Salone Internazionale del Mobile 2019, the furniture fair in Milan. Every other stand had a wall planted with mosses, ferns, and other growing things. It was like being in an immaculately manicured jungle. At the high end, living walls range from the soil-based to the hydroponic, with built-in watering systems that collect and recycle the drips.
If you want a wall hung ecosystem, you can have one. The effect is spectacular, if a little corporate, but the price is astronomical. It was hard to imagine how a living wall might work in an everyday home.
As it turns out, there's more than one way of doing it. "I've done one for a client's bathroom - a real living wall in a real shower. With orchids!" says Gwen Kenny of Divine Design. "He wanted to be able to wake up and walk straight into the jungle." Six months on, the wall is thriving in the moist and steamy atmosphere. No need for an automatic watering system there!
Kenny is a big advocate of biophilic design, an emerging field of scholarship that backs up what we instinctively knew - plants are good to have around. "There's so much research on the benefits of bringing plants into your living space. They clean the air; they help us to relax… There's nothing negative about a living wall."
Agreed, but creating one is a bit of an undertaking. For a start, it will cost around €1,000 for a square metre of planting and, at that price, you'll get a wall that will take a little bit of time to come into itself. Natural gardeners will need very little instruction on tending to a living wall, but the rest of us may find the trial and error aspect of it demoralising.
"It does take a bit of looking after," Kenny explains. "Some of the plants are going to work and some of them aren't. You're always going to have that."
Alternatively, you can pay a little more to install an instantly impressive wall using plants that have already been established (between €1,300 and €1,500 per square metre). "A metre sounds small but it's half of our social distancing space," she says. "It's often big enough to make a great deal of difference to a room."
The cautious might consider a modular approach. As living walls filter down into the mainstream of interior design, starter kits are now an option and some of these are designed for small spaces.
Several years ago, Anna Lisovskaya, industrial designer, went to visit a friend's tiny ground floor apartment. "The garden was basically an alley," she says. "There's no other way of putting it. She wanted to turn it into a nice green space, but there wasn't enough room for plant pots on the ground."
Wall-based planting was the obvious solution but, at the time, installing any sort of living wall was prohibitively expensive. "I got intrigued by the issue," Lisovskaya says. "Pot gardening is accessible to most people. But planters can slowly swallow your floor space. What if the pots were on the wall?"
Several years and many prototypes later, Lisovskaya launched Horticus, a flexible system that involves a modular wall-hung frame of powder-coated steel, designed to house a series of hexagonal terracotta planters.
The planters can be lifted in and out of the frame, for maintenance and replanting. A starter kit with a single three-part frame and three planters (46 x 46cm with a depth of 18cm) costs £264 (€293). Their largest available kit is a full scale living wall with 12 frames and 24 planters (138 x 115cm) and costs £2,280 (€2,529).
One of the benefits of the Horticus system is its flexibility. The hexagonal frames are attractive looking things in themselves and can be positioned in a cluster, or asymmetrically across a wall. "You can curve it around shelves or you can put a portrait in the middle!" says Lisovskaya. "You're in control and you can decide what you want to plant in it."
Freedom to choose is a mixed blessing. Some people have a natural eye for design and a feel for planting. If you don't, Lisovskaya and team are there to advise. "Not all of us are dimensionally aware and feel confident with it," she says.
A design service, including advice on planting in terms of the orientation of your room, costs £25 (€28), which is deductible from the price of the purchase. "One of our customers created a bathroom jungle, an open shower room that's now completely surrounded by plants. It's like a little Singapore!" Another put the frame in her porch, finding that coming home to the comforting sight of growing plants helped her to relax. "It completely resets your mind to come into a green space. It slows it right down." For Lisovskaya, the Horticus project is a labour of love. "It's about wanting to share stuff with people who are passionate about plants and who live in small spaces," she says. "It's also about translating that narrative into materials."
Having worked as a graphic designer, Lisovskaya had no problem creating something that looked beautiful. The challenge of getting terracotta planters to fit into a precision-cut steel frame was something else. "It's all about getting a material that doesn't want to be rigid and precise to behave itself."
In the kitchen, the Horticus units work well for herbs. "We're experimenting with oyster mushrooms," Lisovskaya says. "It looks really bizarre and unusual. And you can harvest your own mushrooms! What surprised me is how they also popped out from the top through the grid of watering holes. I need to do more tests to encourage all of the growth from the front."
She is also working on prototypes for units that contain speakers, humidifiers, and lights, each contained in a hexagonal unit and used to punctuate the planting. "Having the spaces between the pods makes it more beautiful. It's not solid green. It's like a glade in the forest."
If a living wall is too big a commitment, there are many ways of re-wilding the home. Clever DIY people can create a living wall from a builder's palette, although this probably works best in an outdoor space. Alternatively, Ikea's Äpplarö bench (€105) has a slatted back panel on which you can hang pots to your heart's content. It's not a living wall in itself, but a little persuasion could turn it into one. Another indoor option is to use a combination of existing shelves and hanging baskets to create the effect of vertical planting. The basic idea is to get the plants off the ground. Placed at different levels, they will punch above their weight.
See divinedesign.ie, horticusliving.com, ikea.com/ie.