The summer heat is fast approaching the UAE, but how about building a cool green shield on your balcony? Installing a vertical garden lining the walls or railing can not only help purify the air in a small way, but also provide therapeutic benefits through its relaxing, biophilic design and leave your balcony looking like your very own little forest.
“Vertical gardens recreate the comfort of a garden in a limited balcony space,” says Ajayan Vasudevan, horticulturist and division manager at Uniflora, a UAE-based landscaping and flower delivery company that installs living walls. Not to mention also provide herbs and vegetables for cooking if you grow a kitchen garden.
You can use shelves for vibrant rows of plants, a trellis or frame for creepers, or even hanging plants –the options are endless. Jessica Abou Haidar, architect at Baituti Home, design and furniture company in the UAE, explains that the benefits may extend to others as well: “It's always relaxing when people are surrounded with greenery because - it's a living thing and the colour is fresh.
Imagine a tower has more than 100 apartments, and each apartment has 20 per cent of greenery. Imagine - not only in terms of home space, but in terms of urban design of the city, how the city would improve - how the pollution would be reduced, how air would be purified.
“Imagine a tower has more than 100 apartments, and each apartment has 20 per cent of greenery. Imagine - not only in terms of home space, but in terms of urban design of the city, how the city would improve - how the pollution would be reduced, how air would be purified. So in this way, a person could help purify the air in their home space, but at the same time, enhance the city life.”
Here's how to do it, as advised by Vasudevan and Haidar:
1. Find a suitable space or wall
“The ideal location is where the vertical garden is going to be placed should have the correct light,” says Vasudevan. Although your balcony may not have much wall space, you could utilise the space between the railings and the glass doors, or just use vertical shelves on the left and right of your balcony, and hanging plants from the ceiling.
Haidar explains that especially in a rented apartment, building the vertical gardens should protect the built environment already. So, using wooden frames close to the walls, or creepers that climb up the wall may not be ideal as they could damage the building.
2. Choose a shelf, trellis or other product as the frame
“Out of the many products available in market, it is better to choose a suitable system which fits into the purpose, budget and ease of maintenance,“ says Vasudevan.
“For general balcony living wall purposes, it is recommended to go with user-friendly DIY systems, which are easy to assemble and install. These come in lightweight containers with inbuilt irrigation and drainage connections, which can easily be connected to a water tapping point in the balcony. Hydroponic systems involve soil-less growing, which are also popular in the market with the same purpose. Growing climbers or creepers in wired trellis or vertical support is the basic form of vertical greening and much advancements have occurred with integrated systems under the modern trends of vertical gardening.”
These are some options for you:
• Trellis – These are often criss-crossed frames which can be home to creepers, or on which wire frames can hold potted plants. However, Haidar warns against using wood as it may not only expand with heat during summers, but bring humidity to the building structure – which may damage it. Instead, she recommends metal as a base.
• Tutuer – This is a type of 3D trellis that provides a frame for creepers, but is placed on the ground. This can work especially well if there is not much wall space.
• Landscape fabric holders – Remember the fabric wall hangings often found to keep cosmetics by your washbasin? Well, if they are made of landscape fabric that can cutely house a set of small plants as well and just need to be installed on a hook in a corner of your balcony.
• Ladder-like shelving – One of the easiest options is to buy a vertical shelf and place potted plants in rows on it – whether upright or tilted at an angle, based on the available structure.
• Hanging clay pot row – Hanging plants are perfect for balconies with less space, and could include more than one hanging plant on each hook.
• DIY grid wall/wooden pallet/frames with wire frames for plant pots: You can find a DIY wall unit for purchase with frames present to place plant pots.
You can also choose to professionally install living wall systems on all wall space in a balcony.
3. Install and assemble the system
“It is important to get the system fixed and commissioned by experts or installation can be done as per the manual in case of DIY systems,” says Vasudevan.
For some cases, you may have the option of installing automated irrigation connected to your water tap in a balcony, and in others, you may have to water manually using a hose and spray.
4. Choose the plants
This is the most important step. “It's very critical and difficult to deal with plants because different plants have different needs of watering and different needs of sunlight. So, it becomes a little bit challenging for people who are not really aware of it,” says Haidar.
“Some plants don't need that much sunlight, so you can put them on the shaded side and the plants that need sunlight, you could put them at the side where the sun hits the shelf.”
Vasudevan recommends consulting a specialist in selecting plants for the planting design, and if you’re looking to grow vegetables and greens, you can pick according to your needs. Then, put together a plan for maintaining your different plants, including their sunlight, water and fertiliser needs so you can place them accordingly.
These are some plants suggested by Vasudevan and Haidar:
Outdoor potted plants
• Chinese violet or creeping foxglove
• Sprenger’s asparagus
• Wild jasmine
• Blood leaf
• Elephant bush
• Wild petunia
• Fire cracker plant
• Snake plant
• Peace lily
• Golden pothos
• Bamboo palm
• Boston fern
• Spider plant
• Chinese evergreen
• Broadleaf lady palm
Top tips: If you’re using a vertical shelf, adding trailing plants such as the spider plant and golden pothos, also known as money plant, can make your vertical garden look fuller. These also work well for hanging plants.
For your little kitchen garden, Vasudevan recommends these herbs and vegetables:
• Rocket leaves
• Eggplant dwarf
• Tomato dwarf
Are you looking to include creepers as well?
Haidar says, “I don't really think creepers are suitable for the climate in the UAE, honestly, because it might dry up really quickly.” If you would like to grow one, Haidar recommends not to attach it to the wall but rather a metal frame and it would need to be watered very regularly – or use artificial creepers. She adds, “That way it would be floating on the garden, but it won't damage the built environment.” You may also need permission from the building authorities if looking to use creepers that touch the wall.
5. Install the plants
“Planting works can be done as per the guidelines specified for each living wall system,” says Vasudevan.
To make the most of your space, you can also use hanging plants.
6. Maintain and nurture your vertical garden
“This is the most important post-installation activity for a vertical garden. This involves cutting back extra growth, cleaning the plants, feeding nutrients, monitoring irrigation, adding new plants, etc. to keep the living wall in good shape and form. If the balcony living wall is regularly maintained, it can become the focal point of the outdoor living space,” says Vasudevan.
This is the most important post-installation activity for a vertical garden. This involves cutting back extra growth, cleaning the plants, feeding nutrients, monitoring irrigation, adding new plants, etc. to keep the living wall in good shape and form. If the balcony living wall is regularly maintained, it can become the focal point of the outdoor living space,
Why not make a plant planner? If you have too many plants to keep track of, you can write down and track their needs in a diary or even an app.
And voilà! With a little planning, building and lots of love and care – you can create a peaceful green nook for your morning cuppa or meditation, and just a fresh, living space for you to wind down after your day.
(Note: This article was first published in July 2022)