Genesis: How Vertical Landscaping Brings the Outdoors Indoors | News
For some, having a large blank wall in the home can be soothing, but others feel the need to fill these spaces with original pieces of art, or perhaps a gallery wall or a beautiful piece of furniture. But what about a wall of plants?
Vertical gardens, which are essentially wall-mounted landscapes with built-in irrigation systems, are rarely found outside the spaces of public buildings and large companies like Google, Symantec, or Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. Over the past few years, that has changed as more and more residents have begun installing “living walls” in their homes.
David Brenner, founder of Habitat Horticulture and known for creating massive living walls at some of Silicon Valley’s biggest tech companies, said his business is now busy installing dramatic outdoor and indoor living walls in homes throughout the Bay Area, as well as elsewhere. Places like the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Residential projects included everything from installing gardens up to 16 feet high to creating dramatic mini walls at the end of the pool area. One Los Altos client was tired of staring at the concrete in the basement of his home, so Lightwell hired Brenner to create a lush green mini-forest. Another Mountain View resident asked him to install a vertical garden hanging from the vaulted ceilings above an open-plan living area.
Landscapes are his source of inspiration
Brenner got his inspiration to create Living Walls while studying horticulture at Cal Poly. He spent his first year abroad as an intern at the Royal Botanic Gardens in London, where he studied tropical plants that naturally grow on rock surfaces. That’s when he started thinking about plants that grow in unusual ways.
His imagination was sparked when he first saw a vertical garden in Europe. When he returned, his patient parents allowed him to practice building them on the walls of his childhood home in San Jose. A few years later, Brenner started his company and began experimenting, helping to restore the moss wall in the basement of the Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, and later installing a new living wall in the museum’s plaza. Brenner said his high school degree in psychology helped him connect with clients and analyze the innate relationship between humans and plants.
“I try to design in a way that is closer to what you find in nature,” Brenner said.
There is usually some ‘rhythm’ or ‘movement’, with repetition and textures to guide the observer’s eye to the piece. While most interior walls are only a few inches deep, Brenner uses texture and a “hierarchy of plant depth” to create dimension. In each project, he tries to include one plant he hasn’t used before, whether it’s a Japanese maple, fern, geranium or colorful heuchera. He said the plant walls “unlock more joy in life” and create a multi-sensory experience.
Plants are her paint, walls are her canvas
Like Brenner, Amanda Goldberg, founder of Planted Design in Emeryville, has always been passionate about plants, but she came to her life’s work from a different direction. She studied industrial design in college, and found herself “always finding ways to make plants more functional.” I was also excited about incorporating them into shelving.
During her college years at Syracuse University, Goldberg built a desk with a glass top and plants underneath it as a class project. Later, while studying for her master’s degree in entrepreneurship, she focused on creating functional designs using plants.
“I’ve always loved 3D things,” she said.
Combining all of her interests, Goldberg founded Planted Design less than a decade ago. The company’s warehouse is a plant-filled industrial space where reclaimed or solid wood frames for vertical garden projects are manufactured. Plants for these gardens are selected for their shallow roots, compact growth or the color of their leaves. The roots tend to grow inward and then downward.
Watering is clearly essential to the plant’s survival, and is surprisingly simple, involving either manually filling built-in trays or basins with fresh water, or drip systems with emitters mounted on timers. Designers evaluate whether a wall has access to electricity or plumbing before determining what type of irrigation system to use or whether lighting will be included.
Goldberg uses pressure-treated wood for the invisible parts of its frames, with reclaimed or solid wood for the visible parts. Brenner often uses waterproof plastic layers for interior walls before installing a special fabric with holes in which to place plants. Outdoor projects must take into account temperature, sunlight, and other environmental factors. Indoor plants need carefully selected plants that can thrive without dropping nighttime temperatures, drastic changes in lighting, or low humidity.
Planted Design’s largest living wall is a 1,400-square-foot outdoor plant sculpture that follows the fence line. It starts with strawberries and fragrant flowers, then turns into a “full succulent swirl,” Goldberg said, then colorful flowers, then a grassy meadow, and ends with the home’s pool and outdoor kitchen.
“What inspires me most is never doing the same thing twice,” she said. Price is also a big barrier to entry, so she doesn’t expect living walls to become something people can buy in a kit from a big box store.
Goldberg also creates intensely colorful moss walls, which are portable works of art using moss. It is maintenance-free, as glycerin is used to “fill” the plants where the sap is present. No watering necessary. Indoors, popular plant choices are the vibrant pothos, which grows as vines in the tropics, or bromeliads, which produce large red, orange and pink flowers. Ferns and palm trees are other favorite plants. Many vertical gardens can be flexible, using a plug-and-play approach where potted plants can be removed and replaced, Goldberg said. The roots of each plant are coated with a special material before being placed in the pocket. Water is circulated using a bottom basin from which water is pumped to reach all the plants.
Most vertical gardens only weigh about 7 pounds per square foot, so interior walls generally don’t need to be retrofitted before framing is installed. A basic planted living wall starts at about $175 per square foot, with design, installation and delivery added afterward.
For outdoor spaces, Goldberg likes to bring in flowering plants that attract bees and butterflies, or even things like edible strawberries. The layouts were drawn up on a computer, with swirls of color planned to look as natural and organic as possible.
“We see plants as our paint and walls as our canvas,” she said. “I’m huge on color. Rainbow is my favorite color.”
This story originally appeared in Embarcadero Media’s Fall 2022 Home & Garden Design magazine.
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