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The Lush Life
Lauren Murrow | Photo: Garry Belinsky | May 2, 2016
A San Jose native's passion for plants manifests itself in dramatic living walls that grace homes and establishments all over the Bay Area.
To hear horticulturist David Brenner talk about plants is like listening to someone describe the stages of an epic romance. “I’ll be walking down the street or through a botanic garden and a plant will stop me,” he says. “Like ‘Wow, what is that? What’s your name? Nice to meet you. I have to know you.’”
Back in college, he would surreptitiously take a small cutting and nurture the mystery plant to health in his uncommonly eclectic Cal Poly greenhouse. These days, though, he’s more likely to collaborate with a trusted local grower to propagate the species. As the founder of Habitat Horticulture and the leading gravity-defying landscape architect in California, Brenner keeps a climate-controlled San Jose warehouse filled to the brim with hundreds of varieties of flora. And thanks to a spate of increasingly ambitious commissions, he needs a forest’s worth of plants at his fingertips.
At 31, Brenner’s mesmerizing vertical gardens have made him Silicon Valley’s go-to green thumb. In addition to homes in the Peninsula and South Bay, his verdant displays can be found in myriad tech offices—including leafy lettering at Facebook’s Menlo Park campus; a 20-foot vine-swathed column at Tesla in Fremont; a textured green wall at Dailymotion in Palo Alto; a 15-by-30-foot living collage at BD Biosciences in San Jose; and a 30-foot backdrop at 415 Mathilda, Sunnyvale’s new net-zero-energy office. Among his commercial works are Bay Meadows’ welcome center and A3 restaurant in San Mateo, as well as City Sports Club in Mountain View. On May 14, Brenner will unveil his most high-profile installation to date: a 4,400-square-foot living wall on the third floor of the new SFMOMA, the largest such green wall in the country.
Despite his sought-after status, the soft-spoken Brenner is disarmingly mellow, a trait he attributes to his San Jose upbringing. His current Laurel Heights apartment teems with nearly 50 potted plants. “After a certain point, it turns into a jungle,” he says sheepishly. “Plants are taking over my life.” It’s the unavoidable consequence of a longtime affair with horticulture. Brenner studied landscape design and psychology at Cal Poly, assessing the effect of outdoor rooms and small gardens on mood. An encouraging professor lent him the keys to a greenhouse, allowing him to experiment with photosynthetic pursuits. “It was like my laboratory in there,” he recalls. While in school, Brenner earned a internship with the tropical nursery of the Royal Botanic Gardens in London, where he encountered the work of French botanist Patrick Blanc, the green-haired godfather of the living wall. “That’s when I discovered the vertical realm,” Brenner continues. Though Blanc’s installations were catching on in Europe in the early aughts, the technique was still relatively rare at the time in the United States.
Post-graduation, in 2009, Brenner launched Habitat Horticulture, a design firm specializing in living walls. He engineered and manufactured his own green-wall system, an interconnected structure that consists of a metal backbone, a polycarbonate sheet and two layers of custom felt fashioned into pockets—composed partially of recycled plastic bottles—that retain water and nutrients. Though each pocket is filled initially with a peat and perlite soil mix, the plant’s roots eventually grow directly into the felt.
The creative process of building a green wall is as much a science as an art. Using the Brushes and Procreate apps, Brenner begins by sketching swaths on his iPad, in which each tract signifies a different plant species. “Then I’ll step back and say ‘Okay, I want this color and this texture,’” Brenner says. “What plants do I have to work with?” His ever-expanding Rolodex of plants, sourced from growers in Half Moon Bay, Monterey and Watsonville, numbers in the hundreds.
The customized combination of plants for each project is based on a range of aesthetic and biological considerations. Brenner scouts each living-wall site weeks in advance—tracking wind, moisture, sunlight and shade. In regular ramblings through botanic gardens and hikes up Mount Tamalpais, he travels with pocket-size light sensors that measure how particular plants thrive in varying degrees of sunlight. Every living wall is different, but “they all keep me up at night,” he confesses. Technology provides some comfort: His vertical gardens are outfitted with alarm-equipped moisture sensors and are watered automatically through an internal irrigation system. On large-scale installations, he’ll even insert a series of tiny cameras, which allow him to zoom in on a single leaf to check for pests or signs of stress.
As Brenner’s projects have grown in scale, the logistics of installation have become increasingly daring, often involving ladders, scissor lifts and articulating booms. (For a 90-foot-tall living wall covering the side of the Jasper, a new luxury apartment building in San Francisco, a brave team of horticulturists took the elevator up to the 40th floor, then rappelled down the side of the building on a plant-packed swing stage.) Adding a layer of difficulty, the initial stage of the process requires darkness: Brenner projects his color-coded pattern onto the wall to provide a guide for planting. Each plant corresponds to a pocket, a method Brenner calls “plant by number.”
In the seven years since founding Habitat Horticulture, Brenner’s company has grown from a one-man show to 15 employees, filling a modest office in San Francisco’s Mission district. He currently holds the title for both the tallest and the largest living walls in the country. But though business is booming, “I don’t want to get much bigger,” Brenner says. He still designs each vertical garden by hand, introducing unique species into every project. On Sundays, he drives around the Bay Area to check up on his installations—a weekly joy ride that’s gradually becoming longer as his work proliferates across Silicon Valley. He worries, half-jokingly, about his ability to compartmentalize. “Putting your happiness in the hands of plants is probably not the best idea,” he admits, “but I’m very affected by the work I do. If they’re happy, I’m happy.”
Originally published in the May issue of Silicon Valley