Hot walls can change your garden for good

Great theater helps us transcend reality and rise above our everyday vexations. It captures us in a way that is contemplative and inspirational by stimulating brainwaves we often overlook in this frenetic world. Perhaps this is why one hot wall in a room of the house or in a garden can make profound changes to the character of the adjacent space. Hot colors are stimulating to the eye, but nowhere do they function as well as when painted on a garden’s accent wall.

What makes a hot red or orange or neon yellow wall so amazing is how it works with green plants. Red hues are complimentary to greens making them visually vibrate when paired. That’s why having a hot wall can become a real theater for featuring your most beautiful plants.

When you grow a succulent in front of a hot wall, something unique happens. These often rigid and geometrically-shaped plants feature crisp clean edges and bold forms compared to softer shrubs and perennials. In the open air, these edges aren’t as crisp because backgrounds are more neutral, so they can lose some of their drama this way. An ordinary prickly pear cactus against a wall reveals its ping-pong paddle shaped stems in a whole new way year-round. Special effects come with spring flowers and summer fruits that ripen yellow and orange.

With plants such as the Southwestern native Ocotillo, the stems are stiff, rod-like and thorny. When dormant, which can be any time of year, the bare wood is just as attractive against a hot wall. This plant offers textural interest to contemporary structures without maintenance.

Big potted plants are outstanding against a hot wall. It’s also the perfect background for art. Blend all of these together for a beautiful composition of plants and accents to show off their own texture, color and form.

Never forget that walls are shadow boxes. If front lighted by placing the low voltage fixture in front of the plants, their shadows are cast onto the wall behind. Shadows can elongate to exaggerate spines or other shapes for dramatic effects. It’s great fun to use a solar light to illuminate the plants and create the larger shadow result you have in mind. Try a low voltage light for more light and longer shadows necessary with taller plants and walls.

For those who’ve never experimented with hot walls, the key is to do a color test before you decide on the hue. Do a color test on the wall you have in mind by painting each possible candidate color in a sizable square. This lets you see how hot it really is in the sunlight. Study your colors at different times of day to see how they appear then, and under night lighting as well. This should help you make a choice in real time, not off a swatch or at the store, so that wall pops the way you want it to.

Hot walls are ideally stucco, but any kind of siding or fence material can take hot color, too. Use in any scenario as an immediate problem solver, particularly in small city gardens and rental yards. For under $20, you can create your own hot wall in a weekend. Turn the back of the old shed into a beautiful setting for your own personal space. Control your patio views by offering a visually compelling focal point. Make that old condo courtyard new with 21st century modern hues.

The beauty of one hot wall is you can change it next year, and the one after that. It can evolve with your own interests and palette over time. You’re not committing to a huge area, so if it doesn’t look quite right, try another shade. And if you’re in love with cactus and succulents, there is no better way to get that California designer look than setting them off on a hot wall.


Maureen Gilmer is an author, horticulturist and landscape designer. Learn more at