Walls on the wild side

There are strong signs of vertical growth in the business of modern indoor planting. Jenny Dalton reports on the designers taking gardening inside

A Biotecture wall in Le Pain Quotidien, Westfield, London
A Biotecture wall in Le Pain Quotidien, Westfield, London | Image: Biotecture Ltd

When Isabelle Palmer, director of The Balcony Gardener webstore, reaches for fresh herbs in her kitchen, she reaches not down, not across, but up to the upside-down rosemary hanging from her ceiling in its topsy-turvy planter. “It’s genius,” says Palmer of the innovative, inverted design known as the Sky Planter. “Not only does it supply me with fresh herbs, but it’s a stylish way to house your plant and creates a real focus point in the room.”

Self-watering and highly original, the pot was designed by Royal College of Art MA student Patrick Morris for Boskke. The ceramic planter (from £22.50) has already sold 120,000 units worldwide – the newer recycled version (from £15), 75,000 units – and won numerous accolades. It has grabbed attention, says Palmer, because new indoor-planting trends are “pushing boundaries and the common belief that a house plant constitutes a fern or an orchid”.

One of Grubb’s framed vertical gardens in a San Francisco courtyard
One of Grubb’s framed vertical gardens in a San Francisco courtyard | Image: Marion Brenner

Although her own company was born from the idea that limited outdoor spaces have spawned a new generation of terrace or window-box “gardens”, Palmer maintains indoor planting is coming into the spotlight as the next untapped space ready for a modern makeover. She recently spotted a vertical wall-mounted garden designed and implemented by San Francisco-based florist Flora Grubb “using tillandsia, which are epiphytic [air] plants. They had been placed in a fabulous design using steel tripods to mount them so they appeared to be growing out of the wall. Tillandsia do not need to root in soil and can grow on objects such as trees, buildings or phone wire, so are great for vertical gardens.”

Grubb sells wall-mounted or hanging terrariums (miniature gardens under glass) and aeriums (air plants within glass) from $22, and also carries out domestic and corporate plant installations, sometimes with architect Seth Boor, such as their 2008 air-plant wall in the Bardessono hotel in Napa Valley. But she is not alone in revisiting ideas of the past and bringing them into the 21st century.

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In New York, Jeffrey Schneider – known as James Modern – could not find beautiful and minimal terrariums that suited his personal aesthetic (which is influenced by the likes of Anish Kapoor and Dale Chihuly); so he decided to design and manufacture them himself. Each miniature scene (from around $175) resembles a real-life landscape he has seen on his travels, and is designed to complement the homes of his customers.

In South Africa, florist Marissa Pretorius, founder of Opus Studio, creates whimsical indoor hanging gardens (from R100, about £8). These are produced using a Japanese technique whereby a kokedama (moss ball) is wrapped around the plant roots. She creates the suspended gardens for everyone from “plant lovers to creatives”.

A wall panel of succulents designed by Flora Grubb
A wall panel of succulents designed by Flora Grubb | Image: Marion Brenner

Meanwhile, UK product designer Samuel Wilkinson has created the Biome, a space-age-looking container for varied indoor plants designed to be controlled (water levels, climate, etc) by an iPad or smartphone. They look magnificently sculptural in clusters filled with orchids. It is such new technologies that are to some extent making indoor planting the next frontier of horticulture. Mark Laurence, creative director of living-wall specialist Biotecture, says that a growing number of clients are requesting indoor installations and that domestic projects (from around £700 per square metre) now make up around 30 per cent of business.

Ian Drummond, the creative director of Indoor Garden Design, who creates planting schemes for Elton John’s White Tie and Tiara balls (such as rosemaries and coloured mosses cut low into flowerless landscapes, and a 4m-high vodka bottle made purely of lavender) has clients who will spend up to £100,000 on living plants rather than flowers. He says that although living walls and hanging gardens have made an impact upon urban outdoor planting over the past 10 to 15 years, it is only recently that improved irrigation systems have allowed a similar indoor flowering of the trend.

A Biotecture wall in Zizzi Restaurant in Gateshead
A Biotecture wall in Zizzi Restaurant in Gateshead | Image: Biotecture Ltd

“Green walls outside were the first to capture people’s imagination. It’s natural to want to move the trend indoors,” says Drummond. “New systems are so small and sophisticated that they can monitor a change in watering, and even detect when a plant’s had too much water. It allowed us in a recent refurbishment project in London to bring nature into every room – from holes in each wall filled with plants to whole green walls inside, and it’s all quite easy to maintain.”

The green-wall installations (from £600 per square metre) are increasing as the trend for indoor planting grows, and Drummond is determined to keep experimenting and educating people in what is possible. Next up are terrariums “you can pretty much walk into”. They are the total antithesis of the “plant in the corner, which is still what most people think of when they consider indoor greenery”.

An air-plant wall in the Bardessono hotel, Napa Valley, by Flora Grubb and Seth Boor
An air-plant wall in the Bardessono hotel, Napa Valley, by Flora Grubb and Seth Boor | Image: Seth Boor

Planters too are catching up with modern demands. Drummond will often design his own containers, but he will also use those by Serralunga, the Italian brand that specialises in terrace living and whose collection includes such gems as the Lluna window box, a freestanding piece with planting space along the top (about £432), and the Philippe Starck-designed Holly All Flowerpot, a tall chair and planter combined (£1,248).

Newer hardware designs include the wall-mounted Miroir en Herbe window box, designed by Jean-Jacques Hubert for French brand Compagnie (£208); grouped together, they need only the most subtle of planting for maximum impact. Authentics recently launched its range of Urban Garden planters by the renowned “green” architect and designer Patrick Nadeau, including a tiered black potting-bag system with a watertight membrane that hangs from your ceiling (from £39.60), so plants are one above the other. South African designer Joe Paine’s Kreep Planter (£280), with its multi-pot-holding steel arms, is a great addition to wall-mounted planters. And The Balcony Gardener stocks the Verti-Plant by Burgon & Ball, a sealed, heavy-duty fabric pocket planter (£12.95) that lets you hang up to 16 plants in each segment.

Miroir en Herbe window boxes, £208 each, by Jean-Jacques Hubert for Compagnie
Miroir en Herbe window boxes, £208 each, by Jean-Jacques Hubert for Compagnie

Boskke’s new series of the Sky Planter is decorated by east London design company JaguarShoes Collective and features black and white bird graphics, or multicoloured florals (from £85). Finally, Wilkinson hopes to find a commercial manufacturer for his Biome. “We’ve had huge interest from consumers,” he says. “Because there is something calming about plants that cannot be recreated by other things.”

“Modern lives can be quite devoid of plant life,” says Morris. He admits that the creation of the Sky Planter was a reaction to having landed in London from a childhood based in New Zealand: “I missed being surrounded by greenery. And at the time I was living in a 12th-floor flat in Islington.” He is waiting for his new flat to be ready for “a large canopy of Sky Planters. Even in my old flat we had around 30, and one of the best uses of it I’ve seen was a full canopy at The Old Shoreditch Station in London, which had around 75 plants growing in a 20sq m space.”

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Schneider says that the new terrariums are the perfect choice for those with limited spare time who still appreciate greenery at home: “You can create an entire miniature environment in a terrarium – one that’s easier to maintain than most house plants. There’s a serenity and peace that comes from creating and looking into them. They say aquariums lower blood pressure and I’m certain terrariums do the same.”

He is surprised the UK is not yet leading the way in modern indoor planting, considering terrariums were originally a Victorian fad. (The Dutch, says Drummond, are the dominant plant and container commercial force in the world today.) But the potential for future growth is huge, says Pretorius: “The trend is definitely in its infancy. There are a lot of old and existing ideas being adapted and contemporised.”

Jackie Herald, of UK-based design studio The Extra Room, specialising in the spaces in between outdoors and indoors (from £80 an hour), says the earliest-possible planning helps realise projects cost-effectively – for both new architecture and refurbishment schemes. “People in the UK are still rather nervous about introducing living plants into their home – they’re worried about damp walls or dirt, but anywhere you can install a fish tank, you can have decorative planting,” she explains. “If you’re doing a refurb and are digging out floors for drainage arrangements anyway, it’s easy to have fabulous planting, too.”

Laurence considers that there are few impediments to indoor installations: “A modern human habitat these days is pretty much the same the world over in terms of temperature and humidity, and ‘house plants’ are used to subtropical conditions similar to internal environments. It’s just all about picking the right plants.”

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