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How to Design and Install a Living Wall

Planning a green space.



As rooftop gardens, hydroponic installations and the like continue to grow in popularity among restaurants and other retail businesses, designers now find the need to build their list of contacts to help them learn more about designing and even constructing green spaces. lowres3SPECIFIERThe patio space at The Gilmore Collection's B.O.B. includes a green wall.

Designing and installing green or living walls have certainly become a big part of the mix, and while they might not be the most complicated to maintain, they require some careful planning and collaboration prior to installation.

“Installing a green wall is not cheap, but it can be a strong branding or storytelling opportunity, and some restaurants use them to grow herbs and vegetables for the menu,” says Mike Bell, CEO of Bell’s Landscape Services Inc., in Wixom, Mich., which provides commercial and residential landscape construction and maintenance. Bell has worked with a variety of green wall suppliers.

“There is a lot of strategy that goes into designing them — more than people might think,” Bell adds. And he should know. Bell designed and installed two green walls at Brome Burgers & Shakes in Dearborn, Mich., among other green walls in restaurants, offices and other building spaces throughout the state.

Here Bell offers a quick list of the top steps involved in designing, installing and maintaining green walls.

Step 1: Choose Your System

It’s best to first decide what you want the living wall to do for your operation because this impacts what type of system you choose, says Bell. A restaurant might view a green wall as a way to support a farm-to-table message, offer a different kind of artwork, or think of it as functional, such as a way to grow herbs and vegetables for the menu.

Some green walls use hydroponic growing systems that expose the roots of the plants to trickling water via a drip system set at an angle so the water cascades down the unit. This system may be easier to install but the danger of having open water flowing creates the potential for fungus and mold to develop, Bell says.

Another system uses soil and planter boxes with probes that send water directly to the roots. Because of the use of soil, this system can accommodate both smaller and larger plants, including vegetables.

Step 2: Choose the Location of the Wall

The particular system Bell works with can retrofit to any interior or exterior location because the entire planter system bolts to the wall with a rubber backing for more protection.

However, in new-build situations, Bell has seen some architects decide on the location for the green wall first, and then set the wall back so the living wall becomes more of a part of the wall, rather than protruding out.

Typically, Bell waits to receive mechanical drawings from the architect, then designs the planter box installation within those dimensions. Lately, he’s been working with a restaurant in downtown Detroit that wants to install its green wall across the ceiling.

Step 3: Determine Lighting Needs and Plant Selection

The No. 1 factor behind plant selection for interior green walls is the quality of the light in the building. Some restaurant spaces have more natural light than others, and this impacts what type of plants will thrive in the space.

In some cases, the living wall will require grow lights. Even in the presence of a skylights, lower levels of a living wall – those areas that get less exposure to the natural light – may require grow lights, too. There are more options these days for LED grow lighting that cast more of a natural light on plants, rather than the bright blue or purple light most commonly found in greenhouses, Bell says.

Herbs and vegetables especially need more natural light, but thrive in interior settings with the right irrigation and lighting setup.

After lighting, regionality impacts plant selection. Certain plants grow better in certain parts of the country. In fact, Bell follows the USDA’s Plant Hardiness Zone map when making decisions about which plants to use — or not use — in his green wall installations. He also follows the USDA’s latest guidelines about specific plants; for example, Colorado blue spruces are no longer permitted in Michigan because they spread a needle rust disease.

“A lot of times I’ve run into issues where a landscape architect out of California, for example, did a design for a business in Michigan, but selected all plants native to California,” Bell says.

Step 4: Maintain the System Properly

Regular maintenance is key to maintaining your green wall, says Bell, who will perform regular maintenance and pest control checks every two to three months. He also encourages restaurant owners to keep tabs on their systems.lowres1SPECIFIERTrimming and pest control checks are routine green wall maintenance tasks.

Many green walls have built-in, automatic irrigation systems that water once or twice weekly, but it’s important to keep an eye on the plants to see if that needs to be adjusted, Bell says. Drooping plants want water, whereas plants with yellow spots might indicate a fungus.

In interior restaurant settings where there might be more grease and dust particles in the air, it might be necessary to actually wash the plant leaves with a mild soap and water because grease can accumulate and prevent the plants from being able to photosynthesize light. “These plants don’t get the opportunity to be rained on, which would otherwise help clean them naturally,” Bell says.

Large ceiling fans also have the potential to dry out parts of the green wall faster, so it’s important to make watering adjustments based on those factors as well.

Properly managing perennials in areas with strong winters, such as Michigan, becomes important, too. During last year’s warmer fall, for example, the restaurant covered up the planter boxes in anticipation of the coming winter but did so too soon and before the weather changed, so the plants continued to want to grow but were not watered or maintained properly and perished.

In addition, be weary of bringing in other competing plants. “One restaurant brought in outside plants from another supplier and they were contaminated with mites, which proceeded to attack the wall unit,” Bell says.

Pruning is important, too. Just like a haircut, trimming back the vines and leaves helps invigorate more healthy growth from the roots. “Think of it like layering your hair — you want some short and some long vines so everything blends together,” Bell says. “And remember, call for help when it looks like there might be a problem, not when the plants are dead!”

With careful planning, maintenance and working with a landscape design expert such as Bell, installing a green wall can be a relatively straightforward process with a bountiful reward.

Green Wall in Action at B.O.B.

The green wall at Grand Rapids, Mich.-based The Gilmore Collection’s B.O.B. (Big Old Building), a 70,000-square-foot, multivenue space, features a double-sided installation totaling 608 square feet. Three exterior sections (48 inches in height) with integrated irrigation are attached to the outside of the fencing that surrounds the patio. Facing out to the street, these sections frame the Sky Patio bar on three sides with flowering annuals and perennials. The plants grow in removable, interchangeable plastic planter inserts attached to the wall’s rails. There are five interior sections (45.5 inches in height), three on the inside of the perimeter fence and two on the back wall of the building. In addition to flowers, the interior sections include vegetables and herbs used in the kitchen. Two new green walls have already been installed at other locations, and more are in the planning stage.