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Night of the “Living” Wall: Living Wall to bloom again by the end of spring semester

Living wall black and white

MCC’s former “living wall”. Photo from MD Archives/Anthony Bristol

In 2011, MCC renovated Building 9 to add more classrooms and teaching space. With it came a study area equipped with chalkboards, and a wall of plants to liven up the area in the gloomy winter months. However,

“The intent of the living wall was to create more of an inside-outside space… because, in the winter here, we just don’t get enough,” according to Dan Robertson, Interim Dean of the Biology Department. “It wasn’t, in terms of the actual budget, for the renovations for Building 9. This was a separate thing; it was grant-funded by the college, so it was part of an internal grant.”

The College itself has its own small grant program. Mainly used for small, departmental projects, the grant allows for different, fun things for students and faculty at the college. This year, the Biology department will take advantage of one of those grants to revive the living wall.

Half of the materials and time for the project have been donated by an outside consultant. “What’s hanging up there now is the trays that the plants will go in. Those were donated, and all the plants and the expertise and the training for it, that’s what [the grant] will pay for.”

Three different plants will be brought in for the Living Wall, called ‘pothos’ plants. “We don’t want to plant monoculture. While it looks very even, if something goes wrong with it, everything dies,” said Robertson.

Once planted, the plants will need time to grow and lay down roots. “To get the roots set, it’ll take about a month in the greenhouse. Because if you don’t get the roots set, and then put them in vertically, the roots won’t settle,” said Robertson. Ultimately, one to two thousand plants will go up on the wall. These plants are currently growing in the greenhouse.

The wall itself consists of two large panels set into the wall. The plants will be installed one panel at a time, once they’ve had enough time to set in the soil. Once both panels are up, they will stay there.

“They type of media…we have on order right now are what are called ‘rock-wool cubes’, which basically retain moisture in every one of those cells, and a soil mixture,” according to Robertson. The supplies to revive the living wall are coming from local suppliers. There are a couple of different companies in the mix, though Robertson is trying to narrow down which to go with.

“We also need to enhance the lighting out there… we have done lighting studies that show we need to improve that… some plants need to just rest and not be under light all the time.” The original system used a reflective sheet placed across from the living wall to reflect sunlight from the skylight to the living wall, allowing the plants to photosynthesize. This didn’t work as well as intended, and was one factor in the death of the original living wall.

Some students were able to get involved with this project: “The Women Engineering club took their own light readings, and our own in-house lighting guy took his own readings, and what we found was that there’s always some light in there.”

Natural light versus artificial light was one consideration made in the living wall revival project. “While there is some natural light in that area, it’s not direct. It’s meant to come off that wall [across from the living wall], but it doesn’t,” said James Murphy, Chairperson for the Biology Department. Artificial light will always be a consideration for the plants, as they are housed indoors.

The living wall in its former state. The new plants are called 'pothos' plants which can tolerate both low and high amounts of lights.

The living wall in its former state. The new plants are called ‘pothos’ plants which can tolerate both low and high amounts of lights. Photo courtesy MCC Biology Department.

The lights in the study area across from the living wall are on a motion sensor. Every time someone walks by, the lights turn on and stay that way for several minutes. Even in the middle of the night, MCC has custodians walking around and cleaning up, which keeps the lights on a lot more, even at night.

“At the level we’re getting light, it shouldn’t be the problem; we shouldn’t be killing these plants with too much light. We killed them before with not enough light,” said Robertson.

After the plants have set their roots, putting them on the wall will be easy. When the racks are set up, they can be hung easily on the wall. “If we’re doing one panel at a time, [it would take] a couple of days to hang them,” said Robertson. The original living wall didn’t set roots to keep them in the wall when hung vertically, and some plants fell out. This time, a layer of moss will grow over the entire wall, with holes for the plants to grow through that will also prevent the plants from falling out again.

“We’re trying to be a little wiser about everything… we’re learning from our mistakes,” said Robertson.

The living wall is expected to be fully assembled by May 2017.

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