Living walls bring fresh flora to Steenbock’s BioCommons space

Need a break from your desk or lab bench? Itching to get out and enjoy the spring weather? We have a proposed destination for you: Check out the new living walls at Steenbock Library.

finished wall crop
The living wall located near the information center in Steenbock Library. Photo: Amy Bethel

The living walls, made up of rows of potted plants, were recently installed in the BioCommons space, a resource area for biology undergrads located on the library’s lower level. There are a total of three walls – one by the information monitor and two others over the study booths.

“The idea of having plants in the space came from town hall meetings and focus groups we held to get feedback on the initial idea of the BioCommons,” says Amy Bethel, project manager for BioCommons. “We all thought that a space for the life sciences ought to have some real life in it.”

Earlier this month that life appeared. Michael Dziennik, president of the UW-Madison Horticulture Society, rounded up club members, and the volunteers potted the plants and installed them on the walls. It took about five hours from start to finish, and the process was captured in this time lapse-video. The plants immediately brightened the space and brought in some fresh color.

Michael Dziennik and Megan Hophan from the Horticultural Society of UW-Madison install plants in a living wall in the BioCommons. Photo: Peter Kleppin

So how do the living walls work? They are from a company called DIRTT (Do It Right This Time), and under the lines of pots are a series of watering troughs connected with tubing. Each pot has a wick hanging from its bottom that dips into the trough below and sucks up water. This makes watering the plants very simple: just fill the trough system with water and then the wicks do the rest.

The plants—which were chosen because of their low light and water requirements—will soon start to grow and fill in, covering the pots. Eventually, the wall will appear to be completely made of plants. BioCommons student staff and Horiculture Society members, aided by Steenbock staff, will take charge of the indoor gardening, seeing to it that the plants are watered and the walls are looking good.

And there will soon be even more colorful life in the BioCommons space. An aquarium is set to be installed later this semester, thanks to Garritt Moede of the UW-Madison Aquarium Enthusiast Club and retired faculty member John Glaeser, who has installed several aquariums and paludariums on campus.