Fascinated with the possibility of planting vertically, we asked Chris Bribach to share his knowledge about living wall systems. Chris began his studies of organic architectural building systems at the prestigious Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-ARC) and now serves as the CEO of San Francisco-based PlantsOnWalls.
Q. What is the origin of living walls and how did you develop your system?
A. The origin of vertical gardens began in nature where nutrient rich water flows over rock faces supporting plant life. In the 1970s Paris, Patric Blanc explored the use of synthetic materials to re-create natural vertical habitats. Through his hydroponic installations, he has proven the success of vertical plantings in a wide variety of locations.
In recent years a number of systems have emerged in the market that have problems with binding roots, are highly complex, heavy and expensive. Our experience with vertical growing led us to develop a system that is light-weight, waterproof, quickly installed and movable. Our goal is to provide a vertical growing system that both engineers and ordinary gardeners can use. By creating a modular panel system with an array of pockets made from recycled PET plastic felt, we've created a way to include soil which allows for a more people-friendly way to grow -- not so different from simple container gardening that we are all familiar with.
Q. Living walls are no doubt beautiful, but are they practical for the average homeowner in terms of cost and maintenance?
A. There are many types of vertical gardens and living walls out there. Our primary goal was to make this accessible to the home gardener and landscape designers. We developed vertical garden panels with an array of pockets that plants can simply be placed in and grown in their original soil. The felt acts as a water wicking method to evenly distribute water to the roots while allowing the soil to breathe.
Q. You offer several products -- living wall kits (Floraframe), vertical gardens (Florafelt) and even a root wrapping system. It is it feasible for an adventurous homeowner to install these products himself? Which systems which work better for interior vs. exterior applications?
A. The average homeowner can easily hang the Florafelt vertical garden panels outdoors from the provided tabs at the top. Such a simple installation can grow herbs, vegetables, or flowers in the full sun, or ferns or mosses or annuals that thrive in shade. Interior installations are made simple with our freestanding Floraframe Recirc systems that are framed and have a tank to recirculate water or the Florframe Living Wall Kits that can be installed and connected to internal water and drainage systems in the home for automated watering.
Q. The goal is usually to keep water away from the surface of a wall, so applying plants vertically seems counter-intuitive when it comes to preserving a home's structural integrity and avoiding mold. How are surfaces water-proofed to receive a living wall system?
A. The best way to protect a structure is to provide an air gap between the living wall and the building. Within the breathable air space, plants and mold will not grow. Our Florafelt vertical garden panels have a lightweight plastic backing board that is channeled to breathe, preventing condensation on the back side. Our Floraframe living wall kits provide mounting spacers that support the panels away from the wall which allows for air circulation.
Q. What types of plants thrive in living wall systems?
A. Choosing the right plants for the right spot is key. High sun exposure offers the use of rugged sedums, succulents, and cacti varieties. In shaded areas, there are countless varieties of ferns and shade-loving plants that will thrive. Part-shade offers opportunities to use varieties such as grasses, flowers, herbs and vegetables. Interior spaces offer opportunities to grow tropicals that thrive in the low-light and warm conditions where you'll find common house plants. We have tried everything from cuttings and seeds, to woody shrubs and found budding new growth to emerge from our living walls. Finding the right balance between watering, feeding and light can create a harmony that all gardeners seek to create.
Q. How do these systems benefit the environment and contribute to making a home more 'green'?
A. Living Walls decrease energy transfers through walls and can absorb solar gain on sun-facing walls. The micro-biology in plants absorb toxins and filter the air which reduces air handling costs. Growing food locally saves enormous resources while teaching children to interact with nature and learn about horticulture.
Q. Tell me about a residential living wall project that you've completed and what made it successful in terms of the design and location of the wall.
One of our first residential projects was the installation of a fern wall. Two years ago we planted a variety of ferns in our vertical pocket panels. We chose ferns because we had a full shade location outside that received bright indirect light. We used a Floraframe Living Wall Kit 64" x 51" and used a Water & Feeding Kit to provide a steady flow of moisture and nutrients. We set the timers to run for 1 minute every day and used organic based Maxsea fertilizer. The ferns filled in the entire panel with lush growth, completely covering the panels themselves. It has been a successful low-maintenance living wall that flourishes with delightful beauty every day. We offer design and installation services to designers and architects, a line of products to DIY vertical gardeners, and resources for vertical garden industry professionals.
Many thanks to Chris for speaking with us about living wall systems. For more information, visit PlantsonWalls.com.