Transforming Common Spaces with Vertical Landscaping

Adding a green wall spruces up drab space and increases curb appeal.

Curt Alexander, president of Urban Jungle of Philadelphia, is a pioneer in the use of vertical space landscaping, which he defines as gardening that attaches living, green plants to a wall to create a unique ecosystem. By leveraging the city’s concrete and brick walls, he and others are creating green décor that’s transforming common surfaces into dynamic, living works of art. Alexander talked to MHN about what to expect when using this innovative green design for multi-housing properties.

Why are multifamily owners/investors interested in creating vertical gardens on their properties? How has the concept been received in Philadelphia?

The primary benefit is differentiation. With a green wall you have instant impact. In a 24-hour period you can transform a lobby or outdoor space. There are not that many who are doing it right now [in Philadelphia], and having a vertical garden wall makes a property unique. It makes it a landmark—not just another building. We’re finding that certain property managers are latching on and using it to their advantage by putting it in lobbies to create a unique look. They are also using it in their marketing materials to attract new residents.

What do property managers need to know before they install?

If they are installing the wall inside, there must be sufficient light and power sources. If there is an issue with heat, we have to account for any cold draft situation as most of the plants we use are tropical house-type plants. There really is no preparation needed for the wall surface. You do, however, need a good structural foundation behind the wall.

What lessons have you learned since your initial installment?

Plant selection is key. Maintenance is a necessity, as are design and planning. Buy-in from the property’s operations team is also very important. Everybody needs to be committed to this as a project. It’s not just putting up sheetrock; it’s creating a living, breathing wall that needs particular attention.

What is the installation cost, and what type of maintenance does this wall require?

The average price of an installation runs from $100 to $150 per square foot. Vertical garden walls require hydration. As a general rule, the more money put in up-front, the less maintenance there will be because of the self-regulating systems that have automatic irrigation built in. These systems not only guarantee that the plants get hydrated but also that there is a timer, pump and reservoir tank to re-circulate the water, which also minimizes drips. A critical maintenance issue is preparing outdoor green walls for winter. Both plant material and the irrigation systems need to be winterized and protected from wind damage.

With which plants have you found the most success thus far?

We are coming up with new species all the time that work well, and we are always experimenting.  Dracaena, Neanthe bella palm and ivy are great for interior walls. Another great selection is Bromeliad, which has the most impact, comes in a lot of different colors, gives great coverage and requires little maintenance. For exterior walls in Philadelphia, we use a lot of evergreens that stay green all winter and keep the wall looking like it has a design. If you build the design into the wall and use different plant materials to create the design, it will maintain the design regardless of the season. It will just go from green to brown in the winter and back to green in the spring.

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