Are living walls just “green bling”?


I’d recommend this article in the NYTimes for the term “green bling” alone but it also does a good job of presenting what’s good and bad about a hot new feature in the building world – vegetated walls.  What’s bad?  The systems break down, they’re heavy, people expect them to be low-maintenance and of course they aren’t.  Too bad, coz they sure look cool.

I heard about another problem with them recently – pumping water to them takes a lot of energy.  That’s why we won’t be seeing green walls at the new headquarters of the Department of Homeland Security.  Architects nixed the green walls when they discovered that the energy needed to water them would jeopardize the LEED rating they were determined to win for the project.

A case of plants being green only in color.



  1. Vertical gardens have always seemed to me to be something an uninformed architect would latch onto as a cool thing. They might actually work in a limited way if rainwater catchment and gravity were used instead of over engineered pumping systems. I feel the same way about vertical farming – sounds great but impractical and energy inefficient.

  2. Looks cool and certainly green in concept images, but will fail at scale. I work in an architecture school. The kids put a green walls on everything when the project requires sustainability. 99.9% of them have never touched a plant. I consider it illustration of the idea, not the real thing.

  3. You know, I just realized as I read this that I’d rather read about gardens and gardening on Garden Rant than the NYT, so it’s a good thing you’ve summarized the article, because I would have skipped it.

    That said, thanks for the info on the green walls. Don’t see a lot of them around here, probably because a) no water here = not much green, even on walls, and b) we’re not real trendy in these neck of the woods anyway. 😀

  4. And now that I read the article, I see that they are talking mostly of interior houseplant-type installations. That’s a different story, and I imagine easier, than the exterior walls we all see in architectural renderings.

    We want a cleaned up and purified experience of nature represented by a wall of houseplants. Why buy a 10k landscape painting when you can have a 10k wall of plants.

  5. “Green walls” like ” green roofs” are a misnomer. There is a lot of plastic and energy involved to install and maintain them. Plus, soil is not used, a mix of ” lighter weight ingredients is. That translates into chemicals, which is what “Green” is supposed to avoid.

  6. I took care of a green wall at Chicago Botanic one summer. It was planted with parsley, begonias and purple leaf lettuce. It had a drip system with timer. The bottom always got too soggy and we had to replace the plants frequently. We also had to hand water in the hotter parts of summer when the drip irrigation couldn’t keep up. The green wall is just a glorified hanging basket and comes with all the same problems.

  7. I am torn by this whole discussion. Living in Portland OR, where the Church (aka Cult) of Green is King, both green roofs and green outdoor walls are becoming more common. As a matter of fact, if you install ANY KIND of green roof on your property, it will allow you a tiny discount on your wastewater management bill. (This means you could have a dog house with a green roof.) Anyway, in this climate, where ferns will grow virtually anywhere, I think they fit in well. Technically, some can even be considered native plantings. In most climates though, they do seem incredibly excessive, though I must add that green roofs in the desert climates with succulents are an amazing thing too and more folks should consider those with their solar panels. Air conditioning costs have to go down. They are the biggest energy waste I know. (I have vines on my house. Go vines—and they work well!)

  8. Green walls were the thing at this year’s SF Flower and Garden Show. Most bloggers were very excited about them, I was probably the only one who did not find them very inspiring. Green roofs make sense to me (and they will help cool a building), green walls just seem too designed.

    This fad will pass, too…

  9. Okay, my impression on green walls seems to have panned out, pretty, but not practical. I like Xris’ comment, “its called vines.”

  10. geeze guys – call it a green wall, glorified wall planter – whatever – gardening vertically offers a REAL solution for some – why do you want to dismiss an entire concept? it can work- small domestic walls especially so – vines do not allow lettuce, chives and sage to grow on a wall – vertical gardens are NOT VINES

    I have a vertical garden and I can assure you I am growing plants on a wall that can not be grown as a vine

    – my vertical garden took 2 hours to install, plants are happy, it takes less water than my traditional terracotta pots – I am growing herbs and ornamentals – its made of recycled plastic- – i think I have addressed all your concerns – – anymore?

  11. I thought the NY Times article was a well written balanced account of the green wall trend.

    Some fail , some are environmentally appropriate and visually effective, while other are poorly conceived , implemented and maintained.

    The bottom line is that they all take various amounts of energy to install and maintain.
    They are far from a maintenance and energy free growing medium.

    The best line in the whole enlightening article was by far, ” green bling”.

    BTW, I have two living green vertical planters in my garden along with an epiphyte vertical wall planted directly on a palm tree trunk.

  12. Your rant reminded me of Linda Jewell’s article for Landscape Architecture magazine about the Yerba Buena Gardens: “When Green Isn’t Good Enough (A Critical analysis of Yerba Buena Gardens),” Landscape Architecture, August, 1994.

  13. One more thing – about this photo. It’s so gorgeous, who wouldn’t want it, but I imagine a more realistic photo would at least show empty patches. Like real gardens, that state of perfection may not be the norm.

    And Susan T, what a nice thing to say, and I’m so glad you’re coming to Buffa10. It’ll be fun.

  14. I was at a craft fair recently where someone was selling “living paintings”, basically picture frames with a “mini-garden” planted where the painting would go. It reminded me of the craze for staghorn ferns back in the 70’s, which you could mount on bark and hang on an appropriate outdoor wall (this was in northern California).

  15. Some believe that vertical gardening has merit because it allows one to grow food locally in densely populated cities. One must compare the cost of energy of growing food on a wall as opposed to energy spent trucking in food across the continent. The numbers will tell us if there is any net saving of energy. That is where the focus of this discussion should be.

  16. That article is really getting a lot of buzz. Regardless of whether or not green bling is a good idea, at least people are talking about gardening!

    **Check out Adina Sara’s gardening column in the MacArthur Metro! Visit for links to the column and her book, The Imperfect Garden**

  17. I don’t see it as any different than someone pumping water up to their house because they live on the top of a hill. I see those all the time. The city water system doesn’t have enough pressure to make it up to the home so they have to install booster pumps. I see booster pumps added to horizontal gardens too. I think from a “locavore” standpoint, why not do it? If you can grow a little of your own food you’re reducing the energy load needed to get that same food from far away.

    And for the record, lightweight soil mixes used for roof gardens are not made up of chemicals.

  18. As for energy consumption the same can be said for koi ponds. They use a lot of electricity to move water around.

    As for the moron who thinks lightweight soil if made from chemicals:YOU ARE A MISINFORMED TREE HUGGER

    The TROLL

  19. How did this discussion change to flat roof gardening? The article is 90% discussing indoor ornamental/tropical plants on your living room wall.

    It offers all the benefits of a large amount of house plants, looks cool if the owner takes care of it. I really didn’t see much discussion of growing lettuce or vegetables on a vertical wall -outside. I’m sure this is doable with some ingenuity.

    Potting soil seems to be mostly peat, perlite, vermiculite and some additives for moisture retention.

  20. I think many Rant-ers have missed the point and not read the original NYT piece – it is abut INDOOR green walls.
    Yes, outdoors we can do vines, moss, rock wall pockets, etc. But this is talking abou green walls INside and indoors all houseplant configuratuons are essentially artificial and high maintenance – you have to keep watering, fertilizing, etc.

  21. I have a wall in Miami and invite all to visit if in area. Having it in my living room has been life changing. To be able to closely observe hundreds of different plants “eyeball to eyeball”,on a 12’x12′ wall, over a long period of time is a great gift.

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