Vertical Gardening is Growing Up in Seattle, Enlivening Walls with Upwardly Mobile Greenery

Local green thumbs are using Woolly Pockets and other “living wall” systems to grow plants up, up an
Maria Dolan  |   April 2011   |  FROM THE PRINT EDITION
SolTerra designed the massive vertical garden at this private residence in Wallingford

At the industrial Portland warehouse of solar-power and green-roof purveyor SolTerra Systems, 1,200 plants do the dusting. “We used to mop twice a week,” says SolTerra president Brian Heather of office life before greenery. “Now we mop and dust maybe once every two weeks.” These leafy merry maids, which take up particulates through their leaves and root systems, thrive not in pots on the floor but in felt pockets on a 200-square-foot vertical wall system the company designed. (The fact that they’re vertical doesn’t necessarily make the plants more efficient dusters, but it does save significant floor space.) Last year SolTerra, which also has offices in Seattle, became one of a handful of North American companies building custom green or “living” walls for homes and commercial buildings. Unlike more familiar forms of vertical gardening, such as training a vine up a trellis, these are gardens made of not just one plant but dozens, sometimes hundreds, of species. And they needn’t be vines—greenery is planted all over the wall, not merely at its base. The systems usually have some form of pocket or container for each plant. “Our goal is to create a system that emulates how plants grow out of vertical surfaces when they’re found in nature,” says Heather. SolTerra is designing a different system, which uses ambient humidity as a water source, at the Seattle office of architecture firm Perkins+Will, and in 2010 installed one of the first outdoor residential vertical gardens in Seattle, located in Wallingford.

Like green roofs, green walls can bring both beauty and environmental benefit to a space (in addition to perhaps cutting down on the cleaning). Joel Banslaben, senior sustainable strategies specialist in green building for Seattle Public Utilities, says that, at a recent conference he attended, green walls were identified as one of the hottest trends in the industry. “Folks are using them to reduce urban heat, for food production, and as noise and air-quality buffers,” he says. They can also provide thermal insulation that keeps buildings cool in the sunshine, increasing energy efficiency. They’re a modern, more ecological take on the evocative ivy-covered brick wall (which Banslaben notes shouldn’t be encouraged here, because English ivy is an invasive weed in Seattle).  

Despite all the known benefits (visit Green Roofs for Healthy Cities at greenroofs.org for acres of evidence), green walls are just now taking off—the technology of planting (and watering) on walls is evolving, and still expensive enough that few homeowners have leapt at the idea. “I bet you can count the number of full-sized Seattle-area green walls at private homes on two hands,” says Heather. “The Bill Gateses of the world have them, and nobody sees them.” One of the first and most dramatic examples of a large living wall in our area is the 800-square-foot Goodwill–Milgard Work Opportunity Center in Tacoma. It’s a tapestry-like art piece using 96 plant species designed by the French inventor of modern green walls, Patrick Blanc, and installed in late 2009. A smaller, modular wall is erected at a Starbucks in SoDo. Such walls can cost upward of $400 a square foot. Part of the cost is in creating a system that is low maintenance for owners. The Wallingford home wall, which is 300 square feet, some of it in direct sunlight, has a built-in irrigation system that filters rainwater from the home’s green roof.

Woolly Pockets Captiol Hill EnvySome Seattle garden designers have found ways to make affordable versions of green walls, scaled to suit customers with just a small patio or a kitchen wall. So far, most of those gardeners lean heavily on a California-designed, Kansas-made product called Woolly Pocket. These vertical and horizontal fabric planters come in sets of one, three or five, priced from $39 to $159. They can be hung directly on an outdoor or indoor wall. “They’re what we’ve used for all our living wall installations,” says Amoreena Herbage, a floral designer and co-owner, with her husband, of Ballard botanical shop Midnight Blossom. “We wanted something that was doable for us, and in turn, doable for other people.” She and her husband, a woodworker, first tried making their own systems of wood, but found that the Woolly Pocket planters (pictured above at Envy on Capitol Hill), made from recycled plastic bottles, were the simplest and lightest to use. (Other companies, listed in the resources box on page 67, offer different wall systems, including plastic modules to fill with soil.) An indoor wall that Herbage made at her shop using Woolly Pockets, planted to bursting with philodendrons and bromeliads, proved so popular that she eventually dismantled it to sell pockets to smitten customers, including one visiting from Paris. (She has since constructed a new one.) Pockets created for the outdoors are made to drain (in order to handle rainwater overflow), so they are usually recommended for locations that can get damp. Indoor pockets are made with extra fabric and no drainage, protecting walls from moisture.

Jay Longtin of the Capitol Hill garden store Envy, another fan of the pockets, says people come into his shop to study his wall display. “I think as more people see them, they will become more popular—they’re definitely a space saver.” He has installed a handful of green walls for clients using the system, including one that took up an entire wall, six pockets tall.

According to Herbage, green wall plantings with well-selected plants can thrive in many different conditions. At her shop, an outdoor display wall is hung with Woolly Pockets planted with rosemary, creeping jenny, lemon balm and other sun-loving herbs. She watered it about every four days last summer, and not once during the winter. A 21-foot wall she planted in near-shade at HG Lodge, a nightclub on Capitol Hill, thrives using only one plant, pothos, which is up to the challenge.

Herbage says that, in addition to gaining the environmental benefits of her vertical greenery, it’s a nice change from traditional patio gardening. “You can always put plants in pots in rows, but with this, it’s more of a jungle kind of feeling,” she says. “It feels like nature’s breaking through the walls.”

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Vertical Gardens To Look Up To
Living walls are sprouting up everywhere! Here are a few in the public view:

Wallingford: Private residence at Burke Avenue N and N 38th Street (on retaining wall near sidewalk)

SoDo: Starbucks, 4115 Fourth Ave. S (Fourth and Diagonal); gsky.com/projects/starbucks

Tacoma: Goodwill’s Milgard Work Opportunity Center, 714 S 27th St.; tacomagoodwill.org/about/mwoc

Portland: Hotel Modera, courtyard at SW Sixth Avenue and SW Clay Street

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Easy Green
According to Envy’s Jay Longtin, you can erect a pleasing plant wall with Woolly Pocket planters in only a few hours (though some plants may take a while to fill in).

Step 1: Follow manufacturer’s instructions for where to hang the pockets. Put up the first pocket using screws and fasteners included. Level it. You can level the others, too, or just eyeball them.

Step 2: Pick out at least two 6-inch (in potting terms) plants per pocket. Indoors, out of direct sun, good plants include peace lilies, spider plants, asparagus fern, pothos, birdnest fern and philodendrons. Outdoors, Longtin prefers a variety of ornamental grasses, small phormiums and ivies. A spot with direct sun, indoors or out, can also work well as an herb garden for plants such as thyme, oregano and rosemary. “Things that both grow up and hang over look best,” he says. Leave the plants in the pots as you move them around in the pockets to determine the best arrangement.

Step 3: Decant plants keeping track of the arrangement you chose. Place in pockets, along with soil. Tamp down extra soil to fill the bags. Water immediately from behind (see instructions included with pockets) with a watering can indoors, or use a hose outside.

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Modular green wall kits for home use are available at:

Envy
Capitol Hill
1546 15th Ave.; 206.588.2498;
envygrows.com

Midnight Blossom
Ballard
1101 Northwest Ballard Way;
206.784.2707; midnightblossom.com

Woolly Pocket Garden Company
Phoenix, Arizona
woollypocket.com

ELT EasyGreen
Brantford, Ontario
elteasygreen.myshopify.com

GSky Plant Systems
Vancouver, British Columbia
gsky.com

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