Wowed by green walls

Homes may have grown smaller but that has not stopped people from seeking ways to add greenery to their dwellings.

With less floor space to work with, home owners have taken to using their walls to house plants, sparking a rising trend in living green walls.

The vertical garden business has picked up in the last two years, especially as costs have come down with better technology, say companies that specialise in this.

Mr Veera Sekaran, managing director and principal consultant of vertical greenery specialist Greenology in Farnborough Road in Changi, says costs have dipped by almost half. His company charges about $500 to $700 a square metre to set up a green wall with a built-in watering system.

Mr Darren Neo of Vertical Green, a landscaping company in Soon Lee Street, estimates that costs have dropped by 20 to 40 per cent.

Both companies started about six years ago.

Mr Sekaran says: "It was considered expensive just four years ago, but now it has a life of its own as people are more conscious about climate change. Or they decide that a green wall can be used as a screen for privacy rather than putting up a concrete wall."

He adds: "The environmental benefits are far more than what they expect. Having a green wall can reduce heat in rooms, make your house aesthetically pleasing and be an alternative food source if you grow herbs."

Assistant director Steven Ng of The Nature Company in Joan Road says it has seen a 20 per cent jump in the number of residential projects asking for vertical greenery in the last two years.

The vertical garden concept was modernised by French botanist Patrick Blanc, who patented it in 1988. He has several projects in many cities around the world, including Singapore, such as the Rainforest Rhapsody in Battery Road, which was completed in 2011.

Skyrise greenery made the news last week when Tree House, a 24-storey condominium in Bukit Timah, clinched a Guinness World Record for having the world's largest vertical garden.

There are other such notable green lungs here, such as the seven-storey green wall with 13,000 plants at office building 158 Cecil Street and the 2,125 sq m garden at Ocean Financial Centre in Raffles Place. The Ocean Financial Centre wall used to hold the record as the world's largest vertical garden, with 51,000 potted plants arranged to form the map of Singapore.

More private home owners, too, believe green is in. For Mrs C. Loke, a vertical garden was a must when she built a wall to give her semi-detached house in Serangoon Gardens Way some privacy.

The 1.5m-tall green wall, which is 11m long, features seven species of plants tucked into felt pockets which are mounted on a panel. She paid Vertical Green about $10,000 last year for the installation and now spends $180 to $200 every three months for maintenance.

The 43-year-old, who works in the banking industry, lives with her businessman husband and their 16-year-old son. The family also have a small soil garden next to the vertical wall, where they grow plants such as a frangipani tree, red ginger and a yellow bell tree.

She says: "We like plants and nature, but we're often not home and don't have a maid to help us water the plants. The vertical garden is perfect because it is automated and grows lushly, creating a resort feel. We get a lot of compliments from our guests. It was the best decision I made for the house."

Life! talks to vertical garden companies to find out how to get started.

1 The type of wall to pick

As vertical gardens are customisable, almost any wall would do.

Mr Neo, who owns Vertical Green, says: "There are systems which have to be drilled into the wall to be mounted, so you should make sure that the wall is suitable to hold the weight of the system.

"Alternatively, I have standalone systems of about 2m high, which have a water base to make sure the structure would not fall. This is an option to consider if you do not want to drill holes in your wall."

As for size, all the companies Life! spoke to say they can work with even tiny spaces. For example, The Nature Company can make a vertical garden with just a spot that is 40cm wide and 90cm tall.

2 Installation costs and systems

There are many types of vertical gardens to choose from, such as those which use a fibre mesh or one with creepers. There is also a pot system where plants grow in individual pots hung on a frame.

Vertical greenery specialist Greenology uses a constructed frame secured with brackets, which is then mounted on the wall.

The Greenology Vertical Greenery system, as it is called, uses GMatrix, a patented engineered growing medium as a substitute for soil, and a material called GNanofibre on which plant roots anchor.

An automated irrigation system is worked in to water the plants at intervals and dispense liquid fertiliser. It costs between $500 and $700 a square metre to set up the green wall.

Over at Vertical Green, the structure consists of a swath of felt carpeting material with pockets where the plants are placed in soil. Prices start from $1,500 for a 2.2m by 1m wall, a size that most HDB flat-dwellers go for.

The Nature Company, which offers a pot system, says the cost depends on the type of system, the size of the wall, the plant species and light conditions. Its prices vary from $380 to $450 a square metre for a potted system.

It also offers a system which uses felt fabric to create pockets, and this costs $600 to $800 a square metre. Final costs also depend on the profile of the wall, whether it is curved or flat.

Depending on the size of the vertical garden, installation can take up to three days for residential projects. Most companies will also suss out the condition of the designated wall and advise home owners on the plants that best suit the area.

Vertical gardens should be located near a water point so plants can be irrigated throughout the day, while the vertical systems have to be plugged into an electrical socket for the interval timer and fertiliser injector to work.

3 What plants to pick

The plants depend on where the wall is. Factors to consider include how much sunlight or shade the area gets, how strong the winds are and if you want other colours to make your wall pop.

Most companies provide ample options. Greenology, for example, has 500 plant species to choose from while Vertical Green has about 80 options.

Common plants used in skyrise gardens include leafy greens from the Philodendron species, Syngonium and Monstera. Colours are added with red Begonias or the festive-looking Caladiums.

You can also turn your vertical garden into an edible one by opting for herbs such as Thai basil, peppermint and chives. Even vegetables such as lettuce and cabbages can be grown.

But Mr Neo cautions: "Every time you pluck the vegetables, you have to replant new seedlings or the pockets will be empty, leaving bare spots in the wall.

"As for herbs, if you don't eat or use them often, they will overgrow and can make the wall look messy.

"There's also the issue of attracting pests such as caterpillars, which feed on these plants. You can't use pesticides because you're eating these herbs and vegetables, so you have to remove them by hand."

4 Maintenance

All the vertical greening companies Life! spoke to say keeping a green wall is easy. As the systems are automated - the daily watering needs are taken care of and plants will be well fertilised - not much hands-on work is required once they are installed.

But Living Water Resources' owner Joseph Tan says home owners need to watch over the green wall carefully. After all, he says, the vertical garden is a living thing. His company in Sims Drive sells irrigation systems and fittings for green walls.

"Pruning is a very important part of having a green wall. If you leave it alone, it will go out of shape. Home owners have to spend the time to trim it and replace dying plants. If not, the wall will be an eyesore."

Depending on the species and their growth rate, pruning should be done at least every month and replacing each plant costs $2 to $10. Prices vary from company to company.

Home owners can also ask their vertical greening companies to help maintain their gardens at regular intervals, such as every one to two months. It is hard to pin down a maintenance cost, says Greenology's Mr Sekaran, as it depends on the height and size of the wall. His company's charges range from $100 to a few thousand dollars for a 500 sq m wall.

To those who worry about water-pipe issues, he says replacing burst or faulty pipes is an easy job that home owners can do themselves.

"Our systems are easy to access and the irrigation parts are visible at the top. However, it's unlikely that the system will break down, unless the pipes are clogged or the system is not installed properly."

Mr Neo says his vertical gardens have a lifespan of three to five years, while Mr Sekaran says his walls can last up to a decade.

5 Fake greens

If all you want is a pretty wall without having to worry about trimming and cleaning, outdoor living specialist company Absolut Outdoors can create a vertical garden with fake plants that can pass off as the real deal.

The size of the structure can be as small as about 30cm by 30cm and costs range from about $250 to $800 a square metre. The artificial plants are hung on screens that are drilled into the wall.

There are ready-to-use designs that come in various sizes or home owners can customise their own walls. The company has about 100 types of faux plants for customers to choose from, such as Staghorn Ferns, Diefenbacchia, Pothos and Croton.

Absolut Outdoors' marketing manager Joyce Tan says: "With live green walls, there are many variables to consider, from installing water pipes to worrying about the weather.

"Some people just want a nice wall to look at. These are like art pieces, which can be changed and removed as you wish. All you need to do is just to dust them from time to time."

Soak up the soothing ambience

Each time civil servant Joanne Quek takes a bath, she relaxes among lush greenery in the background.

The 29-year-old has created a cosy nook in her bedroom - a wooden bathtub is set against a green wall, making the space look like a chic, New-Age bathroom.

She merged two rooms to create a bedroom with an open-concept bathroom as well as a small area for her two rabbits.

Together with vertical garden specialist Greenology, she picked a mix of ferns and leaves to create a 4 sq m indoor wall with automated watering and fertilising capacities about two months ago.

She spent about $4,000 on the feature, which includes LED lights to help the plants photosynthesise.

Ms Quek, who lives with her mother and brother in a 173 sq m HDB jumbo flat, says: "It's the first time I've had a green wall and I think it's a great idea.

"It's now the centrepiece of the room and I find it a calming addition."

When she first had the system installed, she opted to grow herbs such as basil and coriander on it so she could feed her rabbits. But the plants attracted a couple of tiny flies, which proved a nuisance indoors. So she changed the plants to non-edibles.

These do not draw insects, though there were some creatures such as snails when the plants were delivered from the nursery. She has had no trouble with garden pests since she pulled those out.

So far, the biggest downside to the green wall is having to sweep up the fallen leaves. Otherwise, Ms Quek says maintaining the wall has been easy. She gives it a trim every day, a job which takes her no more than 10 minutes with a pair of kitchen scissors.

"As it is inside my apartment, I want to keep it neat. It doesn't take too long to trim and the process is quite relaxing."

Dull wall gets jazzed up

When stay-home mum Wang Huay Yeun, 42, walked out to her balcony in the past, all she was faced with was a boring brown wall. So two years ago, she decided to green up the wall.

Ms Wang, who has three children aged between six and 12, says: "This area is where we have our meals and hold barbecues. Rather than a dull wall, I thought we could put in some plants and make use of the space."

She moved into the 2,500 sq ft penthouse off Bayshore Road about two years ago with her husband, their children and a maid.

They spent about $6,000 with vertical greening company Vertical Green to install and set up a 3.2m-tall structure, which has about seven different plants such as the money plant. They also installed pipes, which run along the wall, to link up the water point so the plants can be irrigated.

Ms Wang says she was inspired by vertical gardens she saw at the Singapore Garden Festival and the way property developers decked out the facades of some projects.

"I like that the system can be customised. I didn't want the plants to protrude too much as it would eat into the balcony space. I'm quite happy with what we have worked out."

There have been some hiccups along the way, though, such as plants dying or growing excessively. But Ms Wang does not find maintenance a hassle.

"I usually just sweep up the leaves and get the company to come in to fix the bald spots where the plants have died. If I go to the nursery, I'll snap pictures of the plants I like so the company can replace them with those the next time round."

The maintenance works, which are carried out every three to four months, cost $100 to $200 each time.

While she recommends a green wall for its aesthetic appeal, she does have her concerns too. For example, she worries about having to replace the entire system if the water pipe bursts inside the felt wall system, or that the fabric will tear if it stretches too much from the constant adding and removing of plants.

But she says: "So far, nothing has happened. I will have no qualms about getting a new system in five years' time if this has to be replaced. Having a green wall adds a relaxed vibe to our house."

This article was first published on June 21, 2014.
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