Wall Flowers: LiveRoof's "Living" Green Wall System Could Turn Your Wall Into a Vegetable Garden

In the not-too-near-future, your next home or office lobby may not be painted, or even decorated with wall paper. It could be alive.

Alive with plants, of course. But before we go planting gardens indoors, perhaps we should start with "living" exterior walls and roofs, first. Here, in South Florida, the idea hasn't taken root (sorry, I had to) the way it has in cities like Manhattan, Chicago, Seattle and Portland, where green building has become a popular trend.

When it comes to living roofs and walls on commercial buildings, the U.S. is still far behind many countries across Europe, where green roofs and walls -- both indoors and out -- have been in use for close to 30 years. Taking the trend one step further, cities like Toronto, Canada and Copenhagen, Denmark have started specific mandates for the installation of green roofs on most new construction.

Why? Turns out growing a garden on your building can save a lot of money -- and the environment.

French botanist Patrick Blanc is often credited for developing the vertical gardening concept in the late '80s when the first green wall was built at the Museum of Science and Industry in Paris in 1988. However, it was actually American Stanley Hart White who patented the green wall system in 1938 during his tenure as a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Illinois. Even so, it took more than 60 years before the first commercial building installed the first green wall in the U.S., and the practice has yet to be more widely used stateside.

Although considerably more expensive to install over a standard asphalt or shingle roof, living roofs and walls offer major environmental and economic advantages, effecting things like storm water runoff and energy costs, while simultaneously helping to cool overheated cities and even clean smog-polluted air.

As many European cities compete for the title of having the "greenest rooftops," today the U.S. has only a few large-scale commercial projects to boast, a list that includes a 2.5-acre garden strip on the roof of the U.S. Postal Service's Morgan Processing and Distribution facility in midtown Manhattan. The New York Times reported that since the roof was installed in 2008, the building's storm water runoff into the city's municipal water system has been reduced by as much as 75 percent in summer, and 40 percent in the winter. Meanwhile, the U.S. Postal Service estimates a $30,000 annual savings in energy costs thanks to its living roof.

Turns out transforming an ordinary wall or roof into a vertical garden is not only eco-friendly -- it's also a big money-saver. That would be especially true here in South Florida, where -- come summer -- all those heat-regulating plants will mean less air conditioning.

But even though a living roof can be an eco-friendly, money-saving investment for any business or home, many states across the U.S. -- including Florida -- have strict building codes that make them difficult to implement. According to Michigan-based Hortech, creator of LiveRoof and LiveWall -- one of only several U.S.-based living roof and wall systems that do professional installation of their products -- Florida's building codes (and similarly Miami-Dade and other county-level building codes) have not yet established parameters for green roofs to be evaluated, which limits their product's use.

To expand options for those unable to install a living roof system, Hortech decided to create a vertical garden unit known as LiveWall in 2008. The idea behind the new product was simple: provide consumers with a wall-mounted unit they could use almost anywhere, would be easy to install, and even easier to maintain.

Hortech spent four years developing LiveWall, working with a team of horticultural scientists, landscape professionals, architects, roofing specialists and green building experts to offer a product that's not only easy to use, but also better performing. In contrast to many do-it-yourself wall-mounted planting systems that force plants to grow sideways, and utilize a drip irrigation method, LiveWall grows plants with slanted slots for upright growth, and has developed an innovative RainRail mounting track with a hidden conduit for built-in nozzles that gently mist each individual plant.

According to Hortech president and horticulturalist Dave MacKenzie, (and thanks to our year-round beautiful weather) a planted wall in South Florida can support a variety of plants, including annuals, perennials, succulents, tropical plants -- even some food-bearing plants. Plus, it can still provide enough shading to help insulate a building, which translates to energy savings come summer. We at Clean Plate Charlie think it's a great idea -- especially for restaurants interested in growing their own herbs and vegetables.

Not sure you can mount a garden-growing system to your wall? Yet another product, known as LiveScreen, is the company's newest mobile version of LiveWall, a double-sided, easily-detachable unit on wheels. The portable system makes it easy to pick-up and move your garden -- something that can come in handy for anyone who doesn't have room to spare, but would like to grow their own food or plants, including college students, renters and seasonal residents.

Prices for a professionally installed system can range from $90 to $125 per square foot (depending upon the size of the system, local labor rates, and the type of plants). That price typically includes planning and design, a pre-installation consultation, the system, plants, delivery and installation.

Even if you decide to go the route of do-it-yourself systems, many of which are available for creating a living wall at your home or office, there are still a few things to consider:

1) Do your walls have good lighting? The more natural sunlight your living wall can get, the better. Little or no sunlight could limit the type of plants you can successfully grow.

2) Be ready to do some prep-work. Many do-it-yourself kits have angled potters, which means your plants will need to be grown vertically to establish some roots before you can mount them to the wall. Kits are available from Flora Grubb Gardens, Bright Green, Plants On Walls and Succulent Gardens -- or start small with a Woolly Pocket. Or go for LiveScreen, the do-it-yourself system from Hortech.

3) Living wall systems can be heavy. Make sure the wall you plan to use is designed to handle a heavy load.

To learn more about Hortech's LiveRoof, LiveWall or LiveScreen visit the company website and Facebook page, or call 800-875-1392. Hortech employs licensed regional growers and installation experts across the U.S. and Canada.

Follow Nicole Danna at @SoFloNicole.

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