Plant Power


With their calming effect, aesthetic appeal and ability to combat air pollution in the home, living walls have become so much more than beautiful adornments, as Julia Millen discover

You’d be hard pressed not to notice the plants and flowers, most commonly referred to as living walls that have been springing up on buildings around the globe in the last few years; within hotels, universities, offices and even designer boutiques. In many ways a tribute to the global phenomenon known as biophilia, which describes a person’s innate affinity to living systems, this new green trend has become a by-word for a generation of people including scientists and urban designers, who understand that this human relationship with nature, especially in an urban setting, is supremely important to our health and wellbeing.

Living walls certainly make our cities, industrial spaces and offices greener and more vibrant, but also improve the aesthetic of a building and enhancing air quality, deadening noise and reducing energy consumption by keeping buildings cooler in summer and warmer in the winter.

Plants are nature’s natural ventilation system by removing toxins from the air and releasing oxygen, they trap microscopic pollutants which in high concentrations can cause health problems, including skin complaints and respiratory illnesses.

A case in point is Mexico City, one of the most polluted areas in the world which has spent the past few years building gardens wherever it can, in the hope that the extra greenery will improve the city’s poor air quality. In the guise of hospital roof oases, vertical gardens on government buildings and even a multi-toned, sloping garden installation along the façade of the Universidad del Claustro de Sor Juana, the city has certainly taken living walls to new heights.

Aside from their success in the commercial sphere, living walls are proving ideal ‘accent’ features in private gardens –often bringing life to an otherwise unused space. They can be planted with annuals, perennials, herbs and vegetables, providing a welcome splash of texture and colour. Simple kits are now readily available, enabling you to create a bijoux balcony, or a bespoke garden. You can also ‘bring the outside in’ to create a unique interior space, for instance an indoor living wall in your lounge or a vertical herb garden in your kitchen. Installations should ideally be relatively compact– less than 50cm or be able to withstand regular pruning. It’s best to use young shrubs as this will make it easier to establish your wall and group plants in vertical or angled drifts, to ensure that higher greenery doesn’t shade out those below. Alternatively, you could try grouping the plants in bold squares or rectangles for a modern twist.

With a global drive to encourage greener living, it seems that this growing trend, is here to stay, as Calvin Dalrymple, a living wall consultant with ANS Global, one of the country’s leading suppliers says: “Demand is definitely increasing. There’s been a steady rise in interest over the past few years, and a noticeable increase since the beginning of this year”

And according to Benz Kotzen of the Green Roofs and Living Walls Centre at the University of Greenwich, London: “It’s no longer good enough to have a building facade that just keeps out the weather. In the future, building facades will need to be much more functional– cleaning the air, collecting energy and improving biodiversity.” Vertical gardens could also be used to grow food, he said, adding that herbs, strawberries, tomatoes and rocket did particularly well.

A swelling global population with a notable increase inurban city dwellers, has led to a considerable increase in air pollution and loss of green spaces as these areas give way to more homes. In the UK alone, between 28,000 and 36,000 deaths each year have been attributed by Public Health England to long-term exposure to air pollution. With this in mind, it’s little surprise that living walls are expected to become more commonplace in the years to come.

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