Clean, green and good-smelling: Why Metro Detroiters are embracing living plant walls
By Danielle Alexander
When Diane Gloomis was remodeling her Shelby Township salon in 2019, she decided to do something unique: cover one wall with living plants. There was just one problem — she didn’t know who could help her carry out her vision.
“I found a handful of local people who could do outdoor living walls but couldn’t find anyone who could do indoor ones,” says Gloomis, who owns HairLines Salon & Spa. Enter Mark Hanford, the founder of Vertical Earth Detroit based in Keego Harbor. Alongside AguaFina Gardens International in Sylvan Lake, Hanford brought Gloomis’ vision to life — literally — designing and installing a living wall in the salon. “My clients [are] always complimenting the look and smell of it, especially right after it’s watered,” says Gloomis, whose wall was installed to feature greenery including Rex begonia, polka dot plant, spider plant and more.
Known as living walls, these vertical-built, vegetation-covered structures are on the rise across Metro Detroit, from restaurants and office buildings to the Delta terminal at Detroit Metro Airport (where there are two). Homeowners are jumping on the bandwagon, too: Hanford says that living walls are drawing more attention at area home and garden shows and points to an increase in vertical gardening products at local stores. “There is a growing emphasis on greening our cities and now also our lives,” says Hanford, who has a degree in Ornamental Horticulture Technology from Ferris State University and extensive experience in garden design. “The living wall market has a large growth potential, especially within our urban farming and habitat-minded communities.”
One possible reason for the uptick: Living walls are good for the environment, something people tend to care more about these days. They purify the air, offer an efficient use of water and energy, and are often made of compost and recycled materials. (On the types of walls Hanford designs, the trays that hold the plants are made of used baby bottles.) They also increase green space, biodiversity, habitat and forage for pollinators like bees and butterflies.
In addition to the eco-benefits of living walls, Hanford points to a growing interest in biophilia, another word for design inspired by and including natural elements. Some studies show that biophilic design yields lower stress levels, anxiety and blood pressure while simultaneously improving cognitive functions, productivity and mood. “Many of my clients look forward to being in their gardens, describing how they feel a sense of tranquility,” he says. “Knowing this, we, as designers, aim to incorporate design elements to improve human health.”
To date, Hanford’s favorite vertical garden project was designing and installing an eight-foot by six-foot system on a customer’s deck that included a small waterfall, which flowed from the top growing level to a basin containing fish and aquatic plants. “I like to think out of the box with living walls,” he says. “They can be more than just walls with plants on it.” (He’s Michigan’s only licensed distributor of a system called Varden Living Walls, which grows both ornamental and edible plants that thrive in and outdoors — perfect for the state’s four-season climate.)
From productive urban farms to the planting of mini forests, Hanford says the Metro Detroit area is already experiencing an “amazing movement” when it comes to the greening of our cities. “As we continue forward in our efforts toward a greener, more sustainable tomorrow, I believe that vertical gardens and living walls will be a big part of that.”