14 Aug Made in the Shade: Building a Vertical Garden Under the Canopy of Our Guava Tree
Our feijoa guava is one of those trees that asks for so little (just one deep watering a week) and yet bestows so much: 50+ pounds of fruit September through November, fodder for our guava gin, and an excuse to throw our infamous “guava jams” — that is, the rowdy parties we throw to celebrate the harvest and C’s birthday. When people ask us what grows here in our tucked-away lot, our guava tree, which is at least 60 years old, is usually the very first plant we name.
But something has always bothered us about its surroundings.
The tree, y’see, has the most beautiful bark; its trunk and branches glow with a metallic radiance especially around sunset. (A magical contrast to its dark leathery leaves and delicate brunch-tastic edible flowers.) Problem is, the drab reed fencing behind our Acca sellowiana makes for an absolutely unworthy backdrop.
Our first act of restitution was to build this beautiful feathered table in its center, designed and crafted by RB and painted a color (Behr “Artisan”) that matched the feijoa bark brilliantly.
But a table, no matter how spectacular, can only do so much to distract from a tragically frumpy surface that we aren’t allow to tear out. For Phase Two we went into cloaking mode: It was time to cover up our dreary border with something vital and a bit unruly…like a living wall! Using Woolly Pockets!
Anything we planted in a vertical garden here would live beneath the guava’s canopy, so we knew we had to bring in shade-loving specimens: ferns, caladium, calathea, coleus, bromeliads and the like. (Keep reading for our numbered ID chart.)
With that in mind, we created our vertical garden…make that vertical shade garden.
First, we assessed the mess — i.e., our design challenges:
1. We needed a portable design that we could take with us when/if we move away.
2. Our weathered reed fence is backed by a concrete retainer wall, meaning we could not secure the pockets directly to the fence.
3. This location, canopied by the 30-foot wide spread of the guava tree, is shady with dappled light. Perfect for shade plants! However, aside from our natal lilies (which were here when we moved in) and our Nepenthes, we had little experience tending shade plants.
4. The dimensions for our vertical garden (7 feet wide by 6 feet high) was too narrow for 4 columns of Wally One Woolly Pockets, and too wide for 3 columns.
5. Sourcing the Woolly Pockets. Considering Challenge #4, did we need 8 Woolly Pockets…or 10? And due to popular demand, Wally One in black sometimes can be difficult to find.
6. We knew we would need very good soil with very good drainage.
7. Creating an arrangement of plants that would distribute the colors and textures organically, pleasingly across the wall.
8. Especially with thirsty shade plants, regular waterings are a must. Watering a boisterous vertical wall with foliage blocking the soil can be quite the challenge with a hose.
9. Illuminating a vertical garden at night.
Next — through building, painting and planting — we addressed our design challenges one by one:
Solution 1 & 2: Building a portable wall to support our pockets. RB custom-built three fence sections so that they formed a perfect 7-foot-wide by 6-foot-high wall behind the tree. The design required just one screw to secure it to the fence post behind it. All the Woolly Pockets could now be arranged and fastened to this solid wood wall. RB painted the wall with the same Behr exterior paint and primer (in “Artisan”) as the table, to compliment the color of the tree.
Painting the fence also protects the wood from the moisture and potential rot from frequent waterings.
Solution 3: Sourcing the shade plants. During our skull-hunting trips to Kobey’s Swap Meet, we would often pass by an unnamed tent bursting with shade plants. One day we stepped inside, and jackpot! Not only was there a wide variety of sun-shunning species, the plants were very healthy and at bargain-basement prices of $6 to $8 per pot. Considering we needed 16 to 20 plants, budget was a major consideration. We’re now on a first-name basis with owner Jose, who advised using potting mix and keeping the soil moist, with good drainage.
Solution 4: Plotting the Woolly Pocket grid. Back at home, we needed to plot out our Woolly Pockets across the abovementioned 7-foot-wide by 6-foot-high wall. Woolly Pocket’s instructions recommend creating a 22-inch by 13-inch grid to ensure a lush wall, a robust vertical garden. On an 84-inch-wide wall, three columns would only cover 66″ (too narrow) and four columns would cover 88″ (too wide). Our solution was to space out three columns of pockets and rely on our voluptuous plants to fill in the gaps! Our center column would have only two Woolly Pockets because the table would interfere with the bottom two. That’s a total of 10 pockets.
Solution 5: Sourcing and attaching the Woolly Pockets. For our vertical gardening idea, we initially ordered eight Wally One Woolly Pockets on sale for $35 each (normally $40 retail) on Fab.com. We ordered the interior/exterior pockets in black to blend in with the guava tree’s moody shadows. Expect to pay between $40-50 per pocket.
After laying out the grid on the blank wall, we realized that we were two pockets short and found ourselves smack dab in the middle of the Great Wally One Shortage of 2013; not a single online company, not one, had the black Wally One in stock before July 9th. (This project was taking place in mid-June.) One call, however, to our favorite San Diego home/garden design store, Pigment, yielded our 11th-hour source for the final two pockets. $40 each.
After marking the grid, each Woolly Pocket only required two screws (included) at the top to secure to the wall. Attaching them to the wall is the simplest part of the job.
Solutions 6 & 7: Mixing the soil, assuring drainage and placing the plants. Woolly Pocket’s breathable sides prevent over-watering because excess water will always drain out through the bottom portion of the pocket and onto the plant below.
Per a recommendation of Jose at the swap meet and the Woolly Pocket literature, we used an organic potting mix soil. We added some pumice into our Kellogg’s organic potting mix to assure even better drainage and to also prevent soil clumping. We also added some sphagnum peat moss to help retain a little a bit more of the water between waterings.
To prep the pockets for plants, we used a spare plastic pot to scoop the soil into each pocket, until about halfway full.
We decided to place two medium plants per pocket. We staged the plants in their pots in front of the wall before actually placing them in their pockets so that we could get a sense of how the arrangement would look. Confession: Even after doing so, we ended up switching around the plants about twenty times before finalizing the positions.
After placing the final arrangement of plants in their pockets, we packed in additional soil around the rootballs and filled the upper half of each pocket. We made sure the roots were against the back of the pocket, where there is flap that draws up moisture from the bottom to the rest of the soil after watering. Genius.
Solution 8: Installing an irrigation system. Fearing that neither C nor RB would remember to stand in front of the wall three times a week to keep these guys quenched, we decided to install an irrigation system.
Water and good drainage are essential to maintaining a properly jungly living wall. We installed a drip irrigation system diverted from the water circuitry we already have in place for the citrus and guava trees.
Watch this space for our drip system tutorial! For the time being, note that all your fittings and tubing can be bought at a hardware store, and there are numerous YouTube videos on the topic. We installed two variable drip heads per pocket and positioned them near each stem. The plants seem to love them.
Solution 9: Finally, illuminating the wall! This step is optional to most but critical to us. We didn’t want our living wall fading into the shadows at night, so we installed a spotlight and directed it upward from the back of the tree to highlight the its peachy warmth.
For now we are illuminating the front of the wall with C9 lights strung across the canopy of the guava tree. We are in the process of sourcing and installing additional spotlights, which will add more dramatic depth to the living wall at night.
Here are some more photos of the final product — including a numbered chart of the plants included in the vertical shade garden! Also, be sure to check out this and other projects RB’s design site.