Sunday, November 15, 2009

Living Walls are Growing

Last week I attended an event hosted by Armstrong Growers promoting their collaboration with ELT Living Walls to contract grow modular live wall and green roof systems. I had a chance to handle the goods, which I always appreciate, and also had a chance sighting of a fellow designer whose work I admire very much (more on that below).

Armstrong is just one of a few wholesale growers offering contract growing in modular roof or wall trays (Native Sons growers in California's central coast area uses the LiveRoof system) and testing a range of plants for tolerance of the ELT mounting system's shallow cells. In addition to the commonly used Sedum (and other favorite succulents), test pods contained Viola, Ajuga, Heuchera, Begonia and Sanservia. Ferns, grasses, herbs, vegetables and tropical standbys were also included.

Living walls, like murals, are an artistic treatment for a vertical space but the similarity stops there. Some colleagues in attendance seemed put off by the news that irrigation and maintenance, though not extremely complicated, are just as necessary in a vertical landscape as in a landscape at grade. Perhaps you, too, hoped that vertical gardens are maintenance free?

A true living wall needs more than the bi-weekly dusting you give your favorite painting. These installations, intended to be as permanent as any garden or architectural trend, vary in maintenance needs depending on plants used and design executed -- just as our at-grade plantings do. More vigorous plants can grow to shade tighter growers, monocarpic Sempervivum can eventually bloom and die out, and plants may suffer during the first three weeks while irrigation is fine-tuned to suite the microclimate in which the vertical garden has been installed. At a cost of about $125-$150 per square foot, a living wall is a significant addition to both architecture and landscape. In a small space, such as an urban courtyard or backyard, the expense of this single feature can be well worth it. And, while an entire wall is stunning, a smaller feature such as the now infamous, and absolutely perfect design by Flora Grubb (below) can be just right.

Ok, so if you admire art and design you, too, may have a few favorite people whose design and the character that emanates from it gives you a little feeling of glee each time you see it. That's how I feel about the work of Los Angeles designer Ketti Kupper. She and her team produce wonderfully artful work that, I think, projects a glow of happiness high into the cosmos. So, naturally, I was delighted to see Ketti Kupper's name at the registration table for the green walls event, and equally as delighted to meet her in person. (It's not stalking if I signed up for the event without knowing she would be there, right?) Not everyone takes well to the gushing of a perfect stranger but, fortunately for me, Ketti and (daughter and collaborator) Ashley Ford were every bit as gracious and good humored as their work.

Those of you allergic to anything non-native should avert your eyes from this final bit of eye-candy. Large-scale growers don't put all of their eggs in one basket, and Armstrong wholesale supplies many of the plants used in the seasonal displays dreamed up for Las Vegas casinos such as the Venetian, the Bellagio, Wynn and others. As a promo for that side of their work, the grower ushered our group through the poinsettia houses where the colors were striking. Unlike others among us, I'm not afraid to say I admire the occasional pink poinsettia for the holidays. Right plant, right place after all!

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