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It's Not Easy Being Green: The Challenges of Living Walls With SFMOMA's Plant Guy

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Will the record-setting design shape up and grow in time for the museum's big opening?

If you plant it, it will grow. But how fast?

Last year, when we first got a look at the new living wall that straddles SFMOMA's third-floor sculpture terrace, it looked like a promising start but was admittedly rather patchy, being as it was the dead of October and much of its surface was still freshly planted.

At this week's media preview of the full museum (opening to the public May 14), the leafy levee looked much improved, visibly attracting springtime pollinators.

David Brenner, principal for Habitat Horticulture — the design firm behind SFMOMA's living wall and, indeed, nearly every green gable in the city — was noticeably proud of his baby. After all, the overgrown rampart is 4,399 square feet (the largest living wall in the U.S.) and bristes with 19,422 individual plants of 37 species.

But Brenner was also a touch concerned that it might not be trying quite hard enough. "I look at the plants sometimes and I say, come on, is that it?" says Brenner. He estimates that the wall is about a month away from growing into its full potential, which means it will be a little bit shy of full bloom for May's big opening.

Brenner sometimes spends his hours off driving to the literally dozens of living walls he’s sown in San Francisco and the Bay Area, making sure they’re coming in properly. He just can’t help keeping tabs.

A lot of planning goes into these blooming bulwarks: light analysis, climate projections, growth profiles. The wall itself is several layers of steel, felt, and polycarbon, watered through a hidden, internal irrigation system.

Every little detail must be accounted for just so. For example, Brenner points out the orange-tipped huckleberry and the yerba buena (the minty bush that provided San Francisco’s original name). Both are specimens he wanted to use more of, but they’re both sensitive and slow growers. The wall gets little direct light (there’s a 10-story building in the way, after all), and could only accommodate a few of the fragile florals.

But all the calculation in the world won’t tell Brenner or anyone else exactly what the final showing will look like, because after all, they’re plants. They don’t follow directions; mostly they just grow. That’s the worry, but also the reward. This is an epic piece of art that is ever-changing.

If Brenner wants to continue keeping tabs on whether all of his budding barricades are up to snuff, we helpfully compiled a gallery of his other San Francisco works. Hopefully it saves him some gas.


SFMOMA

147 Minna St, San Francisco, CA 94103