An Upcycle Garden Idea: Build a Living Wall

By Wendy Diaz, EMGV

The first time I remember seeing a living wall (or vertical garden) was along ‘Museum Mile’ in Madrid, Spain on April 2010 (see photo 1). The green wall was designed by Patrick Blanc, a French botanist famous for creating vertical gardens in Europe1. I was intrigued and took several photographs because I just couldn’t believe the scale of this immense beautiful patterned wall covered in very healthy and vibrant plants. It did not seem possible that so many plants could be so healthy on a very narrow vertical surface and it did not even cross my mind at the time to attempt a vertical garden at home. 

Photo 1 Living Wall designed by Patrick Blanc along Museum Mile in Madrid, Spain. Photo by Wendy Diaz April, 2010

Then, I attended a Durham Garden Forum Talk at Duke Gardens on February 20, 2018 by Leslie Herndon of Greenscapes, Inc.2 and she inspired me to think about attempting a scaled down version of vertical gardening using, among other things, nothing simpler than a wooden pallet. All any home gardener needed was a little inspiration, and in my case, my husband to help me lift and assemble the required materials. I decided it was something I wanted to try doing and I had just the spot. The idea for the location presented itself last fall when I cut down the wisteria in my backyard (see photo 2), on the east side and backyard of our property, as part of my ongoing plan to remove all invasive species from my yard. It left a bare hole (see photo 3 and 4) between two remaining support posts of an old children’s fort my husband built many years ago.  We decided to hang the pallet from the cross board between the posts to provide a screen in the backyard until my newly planted cross vine spread. 

Photo 2 Chinese wisteria (Wisteria sinensis) before removal in my back yard. Photo taken November 5, 2018 by Wendy Diaz
Photo 3 Chinese wisteria (Wisteria sinensis) stems after cut-back. Photo taken November 11, 2018 by Wendy Diaz
Photo 4 Hole in landscape between two support posts after Chinese wisteria removed. Two birds enjoy the new space created. Photograph taken November 12, 2018 by Wendy Diaz

Materials 
Oak pallet
Staple gun and staples
Three coffee bean bags burlap, no holes
Potting soil (about 1 cubic feet)
Scissors or knife to cut burlap

Plants
Sedum (spreading variety)
Coleus (Plectranthus scutellarioides)
Basil
Spider plants (Chlorophytum comosum)
Caladium

I didn’t want to spend a lot of money so I split some of my houseplants, propagated some basil, used some extra caladium bulbs I saved from last year’s frost and uprooted some ground-cover sedum from my yard. I did purchase the coleus and salvia. I already had a small wood pallet left over from a recent bathroom renovation.

I went to the Scrap Exchange and purchased used coffee bags for $2 each and borrowed my husband’s staple gun. I cut the coffee bags along their seams for a single layer and cut out a space in the bag for the center post of the pallet and wrapped the bags around each wooden plat to make a pouch for the potting soil and stapled it to the boards (see photo 5 and 6).

Photo 5 Bottom right hand corner of Hanging Garden with burlap wrapping to make plant pouches. The rabbit is curious. Photo taken April 13, 2019 by Wendy Diaz
Photo 6 Side view of burlap coffee bag wrappings. Hanging Garden also provides a perch for birds. Photograph taken May 6, 2019 by Wendy Diaz

Initially, we used two stainless steel screw eyes to hang the pallet but it almost touched the ground (see photo 7) so my husband raised it to the first notch on the side panels and screwed it to the cross beam between the support posts (see photo 8). My husband had to secure the posts with concrete due to the weight of the oak wood pallet and wet soil. It took just over a month to for the plants to fill in (see photo 9).

Photo 7 Initially the Hanging Garden was suspended by two screw eyes but it was too close to the ground and my sedum would not be able to trail over the edge of the bottom pouch. Photograph taken on April 13, 2019 by Wendy Diaz

Photo 8 Hanging Garden secured to cross beam between two support posts about 1 foot above the ground surface. Plants were placed in three layers on April 13, 2019. Photo taken April 24, 2019 by Wendy Diaz
Photo 9 Plants are thriving in Hanging Garden and most of the pallet is covered with plants. Photo taken July 25, 2019 by Wendy Diaz

Leslie Herndon recommended an Internet search on the words “DIY Living Wall” to get some ideas and see other projects. She also recommended fabric stapled to the back of the pallet to protect the wall but because we were suspending it from old support posts, I decided to try to achieve the reversible affect and hope the plants would grow in front and back (see photo 10). After a few months, plants grew out of the back, though not as fully due to shade and the burlap covering. I now call my living wall the Hanging Garden and it achieved my purpose of providing a screen and filling in the hole left by the wisteria vine. In the end, my Hanging Garden became the most thriving part of my backyard during our heat wave in July and a focal point looking out our picture window. I am well pleased with our efforts.  

Photo 10 View of shaded back of Hanging Garden in the morning. Photo taken July 30, 2019 by Wendy Diaz

In Hindsight
One of things that I will do differently next time is to install an automatic watering system because we had to hand water the shallow soil pockets twice a day to prevent wilting in July. We would also put more concrete in the hole of the north support post because it is now leaning with all the weight of the established plants. Next time, I will not plant salvia (not enough sun at this location) and I would place basil in the top pouch of the pallet and try some coral bells. Maybe next spring I will arrange plants to make a geometric design with common plant textures and more colors and even add a nonliving accessory as recommended by Ms. Herndon2.

I am not a professional and my first attempt wasn’t a work of art nor to the scale of a Patrick Blanc creation, but it surpassed my expectations so I am going to replant it next year!

Photo 11 Photograph taken July 30, 2019 by Wendy Diaz

References:

  1. https://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2017/07/09/495905421/hot-dry-madrid-aims-for-a-cooler-greener-future
  2. https://www.greenscapeinc.com/gallery/commercial-property-gallery/retail

More reading:

  1. http://www.greenroofs.com/projects/
  2. http://www.greenscapeinc.com/blog/how-much-do-living-walls-cost
  3. http://www.verticalgardenpatrickblanc.com

Ten Plants That Can Take the Heat

by Andrea Laine, EMGV

Come July, I am unlikely to be outdoors — much less gardening—unless watering or weeding is absolutely required. I dislike the heat of a North Carolina Piedmont summer. Luckily for my garden and the birds and insects who visit it, there are perennials and annuals that do just fine despite the heat and even when rain is not plentiful.  

I’ve been noticing those plants more lately as it has been almost two weeks since a measurable amount of rain has fallen on my garden. And, we’ve had some very hot days, with heat indexes of 100 or more. I watered six days ago and again this morning (July 20).

Plants begin suffering physiological damage at 86 degrees and above1. Keeping up with watering is important, especially for the newer additions to the garden or those recently transplanted. An established tree, shrub or plant will fare better due to a stronger, more settled root system.  

Here are 10 plants that tolerate sunny, hot, and dry conditions reasonably well:

Perennials

Blackberry Lily or Leopard Flower (Belamcanda) This is my first experience with this semi-hardy summer bulb. It prefers morning sun, but this plant is doing very well in afternoon sun in well-drained soil. The dainty flowers began blooming in July atop stalks 30 to 36 inches high. Blackberry refers to the black seeds that follow flowering. Store corms in dry sand at 35-41 degrees.


Catmint (Nepeta ‘Walker’s Low’) This is another plant I had never grown before this year and so far I am very pleased. Lavender spikes of flowers (10 inches high) appear late spring to mid-summer and flowers are always crowded with bees, moths and butterflies. It is deer resistant. Photo credit: Debbie Roos


Lantana (Lantana Camara) The ‘Miss Huff’ cultivar is a generally reliable perennial in the Piedmont region of NC. Treat all other cultivars as annuals here. Miss Huff is a woody evergreen shrub that will grow 4’ high and wide in full sun. It blooms from late spring to fall and flowers are a mix of orange, yellow and pink. Cut it down to four to six inches in the spring before new growth begins.


Garden Sage (Salvia Officinalis) This plant is the star of my herb garden – good-looking, evergreen and productive all year. It is planted in well-drained soil and receives four to six hours of sun; that’s about as ‘full’ as my heavily wooded property allows, but obviously it has been good enough for this plant.  


Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)  Being native to the southeast United States, it’s not a great surprise that the purple coneflower tolerates heat and drought. But it also tolerates humidity and poor soil and can grow in full sun or part shade. Pinkish-purple flowers appear from May to October. It is deer resistant, too. Photo credit: https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/echinacea-purpurea/

Annuals

Summer snapdragon (Angelonia angustifolia)  For years now I have relied on this annual to add color and grace to my front walkway. I choose white and purple flowering cultivars but there are pink and variegated ones, too.  It grows at a medium rate and flowers from June through September. I bet it would do well in a container. Actually, most plants that tolerate drought probably would.


Begonia x ‘Dragonwing’ This has long been my favorite begonia because it fills out so nicely. I don’t readily think of begonias as being heat and drought tolerant, but I’ve included this one because of my firsthand experience with it under exactly those conditions. I love its drooping clusters of flowers. I usually plant this in a container on my deck which receives morning sun. This year I put it in the ground outside my front door,  a western exposure that also receives a good bit of shade. As you can see, it is doing well.


Evolvulus  glomeratus ‘Blue daze’ It was serendipity when I spotted this plant in a nursery in Mebane last summer. I was through with my planting for the season (or so I told myself) but just couldn’t resist its charms. I do like plants with blue flowers. I brought it home without knowing anything about it. I put it in the ground in full sun among some perennial grasses and it proceeded to take over! I eventually learned that it is a ground cover in the morning-glory family. It’s flowers close at dusk or on cloudy days. If planted in the ground, it forms sprawling mounds nine to 18 inches tall2, which was precisely what I experienced. I would plant it again, but in a more open space. It was yet another lesson in “right plant, right place.” Photo credit: JC Raulston Arboretum


Mandevilla (Dipladenia sanderi) Every summer my mother planted this tropical vine in a container (with trellis for climbing) on her deck in Southeast Pennsylvania. In a short time, it looked spectacular. I’ve often considered doing the same, but the vines have become more expensive than I care to spend for a one-season plant. So, imagine my glee this spring when I noticed a new compact mounding cultivar for $6 in a big box store. I planted three in the ground; I mulched but have not been aggressive with water. They attract hummingbirds and butterflies. NC State Extension says they can be wintered indoors in a container.  


Portulaca grandiflora This is an old favorite of mine that I have not planted in a great while but is such a crowd pleaser. I think it might come to own this sloped spot (therefore, well-draining) among the native pink muhly grasses. There are varieties that flower in a single color, but I enjoy the ones with a variety of colors on one plant. So cheerful! Like evolvulus, the flowers close on cloudy days.

I’ll be looking to add more of these plants to my garden in future years. I am so grateful that some like it hot!


Footnotes, Resources & Further Reading

1. https://www.ahsgardening.org/gardening-resources/gardening-maps/heat-zone-map

2. https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/evolvulus-glomeratus/

https://extensiongardener.ces.ncsu.edu/extgardener-salvias-for-the-sage-gardener/

https://www.uaex.edu/yard-garden/resource-library/plant-week/begonia-dragonwings.aspx

Learn more about other plants listed above: https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/

Unless otherwise noted, photos taken by A. Laine

Enjoying a Morning Cup of Coffee with My Houseplants

by Jane Malec, EMGV

A morning cup of coffee is a necessity at my house. It is just a part of getting the day started and I love everything about it — making it the night before, turning the pot on in the morning, and the aroma when it’s brewing. Over the years our coffee habits have changed due to the ever-fluctuating studies on the healthiness of, optimum consumption levels, or brew strength of a cup of coffee. It’s mostly decaf and fewer cups for us now.  Still, it remains a force of habit to pour the same level of water and ground coffee beans into the brewer regardless if we are running out the door or having a leisurely morning. Even if I reheat a cup later in the day, there is always a little left over brew sitting in the pot.

So I often walk around the house pouring the remaining cold coffee onto thirsty house plants. Our current home has a private well and I am ever more conscious of water usage. I make sure to pat myself on the back over my dedication to water conservation with every cup of coffee that soaks into the potting soil. I even wander outside to share the wealth with my container plants. A win-win, right? Or, maybe not. If there is a debate on human coffee consumption, I suddenly wondered if there might be one on plant consumption.

Coffee comes to us through a complicated path. To begin with, there are several species of coffee plants or trees, the two most commonly grown are Coffea arabica and Coffea canephora which is also called Coffea robusta. Arabica coffee is considered superior and commands a higher price than the robusta. Coffee production is a labor intensive process. The berries are picked by hand, sorted and allowed to ferment which removes a gelatinous tissue layer. Then they are washed with large amounts of fresh water. The seed of each berry, which is the bean, is roasted and then ground before becoming the beverage we enjoy. The degree of roasting the beans will determine the flavor, but not the caffeine level. Interestingly, the lighter roasts contain more caffeine so watch out you breakfast blend drinkers!

Which leads back to my curious question — is liquid coffee good for plants? There is a good amount of anecdotal information (on the Internet) concerning the use of brewed coffee for watering plants. However, there is little research-based information on this nor on liquid coffee’s benefits to soil.

However, there are some basic guidelines to help us understand if my “coffee watering practice” is helping or harming to plants. While coffee grounds tend to have a pH around 6.5 to 6.8 which is nearly neutral on the scale (neutral is 7), brewed liquid coffee is reported to have a pH level ranging from 5.2 to 6.9 depending on the type of coffee and how it is prepared. The lower the pH the higher the acidity; A drop in one full pH equals a factor of 10. For example, if the brewed coffee is 5.5 pH and the grounds are 6.5 pH, the brewed coffee is 10 times more acidic than the grounds.

Understanding that most plants like a slightly acidic to neutral pH and factoring in that most municipal water is slightly alkaline (pH greater than 7), it is possible that the acidity of the coffee could benefit plants. Also there are small measurable amounts of magnesium and potassium which are plant nutrients. Keep in mind that this information can only serve as a guideline as there can be other factors in play, for instance, if you have a private or community well, and whether or not you use a water softener.

The best recommendation is to follow some simple rules. Make sure the coffee is cold and then water it down. Never water with coffee if you add milk, cream or sugar. Know your plants pH happiness levels and then watch the impact this is having on your plants over time.  Adjust your morning coffee routine.   

Remember too much of a good thing is, well, too much of a good thing. Resign yourself to pouring some of the leftovers down the drain or on your compost pile. 

Maybe I could starting singing to my plants instead?  Hmm. 

Resources:

Coffee as Fertilizer?
https://web.extension.illinois.edu/dmp/palette/110109.html

Yard and Garden
https://extension.unl.edu/statewide/buffalo/Watering%20House%20Plants%20With%20Water%20%26%20Coffee%2C%20March%205%2C%202011.pdf

Clay soils
https://durham.ces.ncsu.edu/files/library/32/UNH%203.PDF

 

Best Practices for Container Gardening

by Andrea Laine, EMGV

Containers enable practically anyone to cultivate a garden. Containers can be placed inside or outdoors. Annuals or perennials, flowers or vegetables can be grown in containers. Herbs are especially well-suited for containers, and even trees and shrubs can be contained. Success lies in matching a plant’s growth requirements and growing conditions (Right Plant, Right Place) to the appropriate container and following good planting practices. Here is a primer on best practices for container gardening outdoors.

Plants
Choose plants with a confined or compact growth habit. Most annuals fit this description as well as nearly all leafy green vegetables and some fruit trees – apples, peaches and figs. If perennials are your choice, look for ones labeled “bush,” “dwarf,” “miniature,” or “specifically bred for containers.”

Container Depth and Diameter
Match the size of the container to the plant’s growth requirements. You want to give the roots room to spread and take hold.

  • Annuals have shallow roots so a 6- to 8-inch depth container will do.
  • Perennials or plants with a taproot (carrots) require greater depth — 10 to 12 inches.
  • Herbs can thrive in 4- to 6-inch depth.
  • Shrubs and trees need a depth and diameter of 12 inches each.

The number of plants you intend to include in one container and their size at maturity are factors to consider when choosing the diameter of a container. In general, larger containers do not dry out as quickly and are less likely to restrict growth, flowering and fruiting.

Container Material
Be mindful of the porosity of the container you choose.

  • Nonporous: plastic, metal, fiberglass, glazed
  • Semi-porous: wood, pressed fiber
  • Porous: clay, unglazed ceramic, terracotta

semiporus container kathleen_moore ccby20
Containers made from wood are semi-porous. credit: Kathleen Moore cc by-2.0

Porous containers like terracotta lose moisture more readily. They are ideal for growing plants that prefer drier conditions like cacti or succulents. Nonporous materials will hold moisture in, thus require less frequent watering. Unglazed ceramic is not recommended for a winter garden it is capable of absorbing water which under freezing conditions may cause the pot to crack.

Container Drainage
Holes are necessary in ALL containers! This is a conundrum for those of us who are drawn to the many attractive containers on the market that do not offer drainage. Once upon a time, people would add stone or gravel to the bottom of the container to create drainage. The experts now recommend against doing that because it causes water to collect in the potting mix just above the gravel. Only when no air space is left in the potting mix will the water drain into the gravel below. In the meantime, plant roots are standing in water and developing root rot. Double-potting is the solution. Put the plant in a pot with drainage holes and place it inside the pot without holes. Remove the pot to water and drain.

Container Color
The color of the container also comes with consequences. Dark-colored containers will absorb heat. This is a plus in winter, but could be a drawback in summer as the potting mix will heat up and dry out. Avoid placing dark- colored containers in full sun. Metal containers also get very hot in the sun as do blacktop driveways. Containers placed on black-top surfaces may need extra care.

Potting Mix
Do not use soil from your yard! Purchase a quality potting mix or medium made especially for the type of gardening you will do. There are commercial mixes that are customized for indoor gardening, outdoor gardening, vegetables, cacti, African violets, orchids, etc. These mixes will have the right balance of fine and coarse textured components for what you want to grow. Plus there will be no weed seeds, disease or insects.

5-Steps to Planting Success
You’ve chosen a container, plant(s) and potting mix; Now it’s time to pull it all together and assemble your container garden. Aim for the soil line to be a quarter- to 3-inches from the top of the container. Plant the crown at the soil line.

  1. Fill container one-third with lightly damp potting mix.
  2. Remove plant(s) from its nursery container. Gently splay roots. Center plant in pot.
  3. Fill potting mix around the roots and up to the crown. Spread potting mix evenly. Do not tamp down the potting mix.
  4. Water well – until water drips from the container’s bottom. This initial watering will settle the potting mix. Add more potting mix if a water well forms.
  5. Top dress with mulch to reduce moisture loss. Be sure to keep mulch a few inches clear of the plant stem so air can circulate. Scatter pine cones or the spiky fruit of a sweetgum tree on top to discourage critters from digging.

Now sit back and watch your garden grow. Don’t forget to water regularly, fertilize periodically, and always site the container according to the plant’s light and temperature needs.

Container_garden_on_front_porch
Photo Credit: Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0


RESOURCES
Master Gardener Handbook: Plants Grown in Containers
https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/extension-gardener-handbook/18-plants-grown-in-containers

Container Gardening Planting Calendar for Edibles
https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/container-garden-planting-calendar-for-edibles-in-the-piedmont