Horticulturist Steph Kantorski describes her experience using the Florafelt System for the San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers vertical garden.
by Steph Kantorski
A redesign of the vestibule in San Francisco’s historic Conservatory of Flowers has created a breathtaking introduction for visitors to this world-famous Victorian structure. One of the largest and most beautiful vertical green walls in the city is now on full display for visitors inside North America’s oldest public wood-and-glass greenhouse.
This dramatic 360-pocket wall (created with 30 Florafelt 12-pocket panels) reflects the spirit of the Conservatory. It was created with donated materials and labor by people with an enthusiastic love for plants. The result is an exquisite display of tropical greenery, flowering varieties and colorful vines for a luscious eye-catching wall that stirs the imagination.
It all began with the 2012 San Francisco Decorator Showcase that featured an exterior green wall designed by Davis Dalbok of Living Green Design and member of the Conservatory’s Advisory Council. The planted entry wall was made using the Florafelt vertical garden system invented by Chris Bribach of Plants On Walls.
Jane Scurich (above right), Director of Development at the Conservatory of Flowers, remembers the Decorator Showcase wall as “breathtaking.” After the event, she asked Davis about acquiring a section of the display. Davis replied, “You don’t want a postage stamp, Jane, you want it to be the whole wall.” Davis contacted Chris about the project, who donated a custom-designed system to one of San Francisco’s most prestigious and beloved institutions. It was installed behind the greeter desk with special requirements to preserve the integrity of the elegant Victorian structure.
Around that time, volunteer Conservatory greeter Marilyn Singer passed away and her family donated many of the first plants in her memory. Later San Francisco Foliage donated more greenery. Senior Nursery Specialist Guadalupe Cota culled prime specimens from her greenhouse. As the number and variety of plants grew, it became clear that a stunning attraction was being created.
A dripline water and nutrient-delivery system also donated by Plants On Walls kept it lush and beautiful. Not long after, Guadalupe left the Conservatory and Nursery Specialist Mario Vega maintained it for the next few months. That’s about where I came in.
Originally volunteering as a docent, I switched to the horticulture side in 2013 out of sheer fascination with the plants themselves. I was beyond thrilled when Mario put me on “vertical garden duty.” The last three years have been an invaluable education in what tropical flora do when prepared in Root Wraps, or the recycled PET “diapers” (as I affectionately call them), and stuffed inside pockets to grow vertically.
As I worked with the vertical garden, I found that plants were so happy they began to take over. The vanilla orchid vine grew with such force it pushed its neighbors up out of their pockets. The bromeliads flowered furiously and the philodendrons’ roots clamped on so ferociously I had to cut out entire pockets. Gesneriads, lipstick vines and exotic grasses spilled over and fought for light.
When the wall garden was finally tamed, I added more specimens to vary the color and texture. Now there’s a habanero pepper plant and two carnivorous Nepenthes, which I keep neatly trimmed because they tend to take over.
In early 2016, the Conservatory welcomed its new Director Matthew Stephens. Among his other exciting plans, the greeter desk was moved to the other side of the entryway allowing everyone to experience the living wall up close. The larger foliage at the top has been trimmed to reveal the building’s beautiful original stained glass. With the wall now on full display, this unique and astounding vertical jungle finally feels complete.
For a small entry fee you can visit the Conservatory of Flowers and take a free tour or stroll around on your own. You can also just step into the vestibule without a ticket to experience the living wall for yourself.