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‘Living walls’ bringing the benefits of nature indoors

AKRON, Ohio – At Goodyear’s global headquarters, the walls are alive.

Well, two of them, anyway. They’re living walls, vertical arrays of plants that serve as art while bringing the outside in.

“It has a little bit of a wow factor,” Marty Ganzer, the company’s director of facilities, said of the two walls that decorate the atrium of the environmentally sustainable building in East Akron. The display is so striking, he said, that “everybody has to touch it and feel it, because nobody believes it’s real.”

With their sculptural quality and element of surprise, living walls make a powerful design statement. They bring artistic interest to a commercial or residential space, along with all the health and psychological benefits associated with plants.

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The increasing popularity of living walls – also called green walls – is widely credited to Patrick Blanc, a French botanist who has been instrumental in spreading the concept around the world. Many green walls are outdoors, but technology such as automated watering systems and lightweight support structures allow their installation inside, too.

Keri Algar believes living walls are catching on as interior decorations because people are increasingly removed from nature and hungry to reconnect.

“Busy lives, stress, no time, these are all things that are eased when tending a garden” – even a garden that hangs on a wall, said Algar, author of the book DIY Vertical Gardens.

While living walls can be as simple as an arrangement of plant containers hung on a vertical surface, they usually involve some sort of structure that covers a large area of a wall. Many use plants as the medium for artistic designs that play off the plants’ varied textures and colors.

But the benefits of living walls go beyond beauty, Algar said. Green walls promote a sense of well-being, clean the air, absorb noise and odors and can even produce herbs or other food, she noted. And they do all of that while saving space, a bonus in the smaller urban quarters where many people live.

Elaborate living walls like the two at Goodyear are typically installed and maintained by professionals, with automated drip watering systems to simplify maintenance. But do-it-yourselfers can also create green walls using commercial products such as wall-hung growing pockets or by creating them from gutters or other containers.

Ellet gardener Cindy Lorenz has made small versions of living walls, which are essentially homemade shadow-box frames. She lines a shallow, framed wood box with waterproof landscape fabric, fills it with growing medium and covers the opening with chicken wire to hold the medium in place and provide spaces to stick in plants such as succulents and ferns. When the plants need watering, the whole thing is just taken off the wall.

Lorenz said she started making the wall-hung gardens as a way to bring plants into her home in winter and provide a sense of calm while her husband was struggling with health problems.

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“It’s been a spiritual thing for me more than anything,” she said.

Considerably more complex are the living wall systems made by Filtrexx International, a company based in Bath Township.

Living walls constructed with the VerTexx system from Filtrexx, a company based in Bath Township.(Courtesy of Filtrexx)

Living walls constructed with the VerTexx system from Filtrexx, a company based in Bath Township.(Courtesy of Filtrexx)

Filtrexx’s LivingWalls division in suburban St. Louis produces components for several systems, all suitable for large-scale installations. Its newest, the VerTexx system, is made up of gutterlike trays that snap onto a welded wire screen, with a waterproof backing for interior installations.

The trays hold mesh tubes that the plants grow out of. The 5-inch-diameter tubes are like sausages filled with a compost-based material, and holes are cut in them for adding the plants, explained Mark Woolbright, LivingWalls division manager.

The walls don’t come cheap. VerTexx walls cost about $100 to $150 a square foot, which Woolbright said is about half the cost of some other companies’ systems.

Living walls take commitment, too. Even if watering is automated, the structures need to be monitored and the watering adjusted when needed, and plants may need periodic trimming, he said.

Ganzer said one of the plant varieties in the Goodyear walls – maidenhair fern – had to be replaced. It required so much water that the roots of the other plants were rotting.

Finding plants with similar water and light requirements is one of the challenges of creating a living wall.

Success with green walls requires careful planning, Algar cautions in her book. Plants need to be shallow-rooted and matched to the light and temperature conditions of the space. Consideration needs to be given to the size and shape of the plants, how fast they’ll grow and how much water they’ll need. And the supporting wall has to waterproofed and able to bear the weight of the entire structure, which can be heavy when the plants are newly watered.

The growing medium is crucial, too, Algar said. It needs to be made from quality ingredients and tailored to the plant and the growing conditions.

But she believe the work is worth it for the pleasure living walls provide.

“Put simply, plants make people happy,” she said.


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