Higher plants resist the forces of gravity and powerful lateral forces through the cumulative strength of the walls that surround individual cells. These walls consist mainly of cellulose, noncellulosic polysaccharides and lignin, in proportions that depend upon the specific functions of the cell and its stage of development. Spatially and temporally controlled heterogeneity in the physicochemical properties of wall polysaccharides is observed at the tissue and individual cell levels, and emerging in situ technologies are providing evidence that this heterogeneity also occurs across a single cell wall. We consider the origins of cell wall heterogeneity and identify contributing factors that are inherent in the molecular mechanisms of polysaccharide biosynthesis and are crucial for the changing biological functions of the wall during growth and development. We propose several key questions to be addressed in cell wall biology, together with an alternative two-phase model for the assembly of noncellulosic polysaccharides in plants.