Growing up: How vertical plantscapes are bringing the outdoors inside

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For some, having a large blank wall in a home might be soothing, but others feel the need to fill such spaces with a showstopper like original art, or maybe a gallery wall or a beautiful piece of furniture. But what about a wall of … plants?

Vertical gardens, essentially landscapes installed on walls with watering systems built in, were once rarely found outside of larger corporate and public building spaces like Google, Symantec or Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. Over the past few years, that’s changed as more and more residents have started installing “living walls” in their homes.

David Brenner, founder of Habitat Horticulture and who is known for creating massive living walls at some of Silicon Valley’s biggest tech companies, said his work is now spent busily installing outdoor and indoor dramatic living walls at homes throughout the Bay Area, as well as other settings like the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Residential projects have included everything from installing gardens as high as 16 feet tall to creating small, dramatic walls at the end of a pool area. One Los Altos client tired of staring at concrete in his basement lightwell hired Brenner to create a lush green-on-green mini jungle. Another resident in Mountain View asked him to install a vertical garden that hangs from vaulted ceilings over an open-plan living area.

Natural landscapes are his inspiration

Brenner got his inspiration to create living walls while studying horticulture at Cal Poly. He spent his junior year abroad as an apprentice in the London’s Royal Botanic Gardens, studying tropical plants that naturally grow on rock faces. That’s when he began to think about plants that grow in unusual ways.

His imagination was sparked the first time he saw a vertical garden in Europe. When he got back, his patient parents let him 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 a moss wall in San Francisco’s Academy of Science’s basement and later installing a fresh living wall in the museum’s piazza. Brenner said his minor degree in psychology has helped him connect with clients and analyze the innate connection between humans and plants.

“I try to design in a way that’s a little more something you find in nature,” Brenner said.

There’s usually some “rhythm” or “movement,” with repetition and textures to lead the observer’s eye over the piece. While most indoor walls aren’t more than a few inches deep, Brenner uses texture and a “hierarchy of plant depth” to create dimension. With every project, he tries to include one plant he hasn’t used before, whether it’s Japanese maple, ferns, geraniums or colorful heuchera. Plant walls, he said, “open up so much more joy in life,” creating a multisensory 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 at 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 also was getting excited about integrating them with shelving.”

During her undergraduate years at Syracuse University, Goldberg built a glass-topped desk installed with plants underneath as a class project. Later when studying for her master’s degree in entrepreneurship, she focused on creating functional designs with plants.

“I’ve really always liked 3D objects,” she said.

Integrating all of her interests, Goldberg founded Planted Design less than a decade ago. The company’s warehouse is a plant-filled makerspace where reclaimed or hardwood frames are fabricated for vertical garden projects. Plants for these gardens are chosen for their shallow roots, compact growth, or leaf color. The roots tend to grow inward and then downward.

Irrigation, obviously essential for plant survival, is surprisingly simple, involving either hand-filling built-in trays or troughs with fresh water, or drip systems with emitters set on timers. Designers assess whether the wall has access to electricity or plumbing before deciding which type of irrigation system to use or whether to include lighting.

Goldberg uses pressure-treated wood for the non-visible parts of her frames, with reclaimed or hardwood for the visible parts. Brenner often uses waterproof plastic layers for interior walls before mounting a special felt fabric with holes to put the plants into. Exterior projects must take into account temperature, sunlight, and other environmental factors. Indoor ones need carefully chosen plants that can thrive without nightly drops in temperature, drastic changes in lighting or lower humidity.

Planted Design’s largest living wall is a 1,400-square-foot outdoor plant sculpture that follows a fence line. It starts with strawberries and fragrant flowers, goes into a “whole succulent swirl,” Goldberg said, then colorful flowers then a grassy meadow, ending by the home’s pool and outdoor kitchen.

“What I’m most inspired by is not doing the same thing twice,” she said. Price is also a substantial barrier to entry, so she doesn’t foresee living walls being something people could buy in a kit at a big box store.

Goldberg also creates dramatically colorful moss walls, which are portable works of art using moss. They are maintenance-free, as glycerin is used to “fill” the plants where sap would be. No watering necessary. Inside homes, common plant choices are hearty vibrant pothos, which grow as vines in tropical areas, or bromeliads, which produce large red and orange and pink flowers. Ferns and palms are other go-to plants. Many vertical gardens, Goldberg said, can be flexible, using a plug-and-play approach where potted plants can be removed and replaced. Each plant’s roots are wrapped in a special felt material before being put into a pocket. Water is circulated using a lower trough from which water is pumped up to reach all of the plants.

Most vertical gardens weigh only about 7 pounds per square foot, so generally interior walls do not need to be retrofitted before the frame is mounted. A basic Planted Design living wall starts at approximately $175 per square foot, with design, installation and delivery added after that.

For outdoor spaces, Goldberg loves bringing in flowering plants that will attract bees and butterflies, or even things like edible strawberries. The schemes are laid out 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 am 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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