Published September 28, 2012

Thinking outside the plot

People are making the most of their balcony space and gardens to help cope with the pressures of city living. By LISA-ANN LEE

PICTURE this scenario: You have three cars and a finite amount of space in your residential compound. Do you:

Turn the garden in your front yard into a parking lot, or
Sell two of the cars so you can continue enjoying the greenery?

If you are a home owner grappling with this dilemma, here is the tip: You can now have your garden and your parking lot too.

Veera Sekaran, managing director and principal consultant of vertical greenery specialist Greenology, recalls how a client had asked him to create a garden and yet leave parking space for three cars.

"If we had done a horizontal garden, he would only have been able to park one," he says.

The solution lay in transposing the home owner's horizontal garden onto a wall in front of his house, "so not only does he have permanent greenery, he can also park his three cars - that's valuable space for him".

A popular landscape design feature in Europe, green walls have only started catching on here in the last three to five years, says Luke Lee, a landscape architect at Nature Landscapes. "We're fighting for space. In landed properties, people will maximise their space to make their homes more valuable so they can demand a higher selling price when they sell them down the road."

Another reason for the popularity of green walls is the fact that they reduce the heat of the day and dampen noise.

Mr Sekaran says that many of the Vertical Greenery Systems erected by his company are used in east and west-facing properties and where terraced houses and bungalows are packed closely together.

Demand for his green walls have jumped more than 50 per cent in the last year; many clients ask for greenery to be mounted vertically so that heat conduction into those walls is reduced - by 5-10 per cent in some cases - thus cooling the whole house.

And as green walls often cannot be seen from the outside, they have the additional allure of creating a private sanctuary for the home owner, says Terrence Tan, executive director of Greenearth Landscape Designers and Planners. "Most of the time, when we look out of our home, we don't want to look at a wall, so it becomes an integral part of the design by softening the view that home owners get from inside their homes."

Greening the roof of a property is a variant solution, says Nature Landscapes' Mr Lee. Green roofs act as a sound buffer during heavy rain and reduce the heat reflected from the concrete surface of the house.

Australia-based landscape designer Jim Fogarty, who will partner English garden designer Andy Sturgeon and Singapore-based Stephen Caffyn of Stephen Caffyn Landscape Design, in launching a company providing garden design services to high-end private residential projects here and in Asia, offers another view of current landscaping trends. "I think generally what you are seeing - and it's much the same everywhere in the world - is a drive to connect more with nature. People want to see more green spaces in cities and are realising the potential of making the most of their balcony space, back gardens, and front gardens as sanctuaries from the pressures of city living."

Not only are there benefits from a psychological and health point of view, it also provides fun for home owners and the benefits of using these garden spaces for entertaining, he says.

For time-starved home owners who do not have the time to potter around in their garden regularly, green walls offer a low-fuss alternative to their horizontal cousins.

Mr Sekaran counts several clients who do the maintenance of their 20-30 sq m of green walls themselves; some walls even do not need tending to for six to seven months.

Even setting up these gardens is easy. They come in a "plug-and-play" format in that they can be installed anywhere in homes by connecting them to a power point. The key to this is choosing the right kind of plants and using the right fertilisers and lighting if they are installed on a wall indoors.

Michael Teh, managing director of Nature Landscapes, offered his own green wall as an example, explaining that he uses sun-loving plants such as excoecaria cochinchinensis, asparagus meyerii and ixoras outdoors; indoors, he uses the shade-loving agloanema Thai hybrids, peperomia, assorted ferns and calathea insignis.

Installing a proper system that supplies water and fertiliser is key to cutting down on maintenance, he added.

Vertical gardens are not as expensive to install as people think. The final bill is tied to how high the green wall goes. Greenology's Mr Sekaran said that his prices start at $500 to $650 per sq m.

Contractors say that one needs to take into consideration a number of factors before commissioning a green wall. The first is knowing why you want one. Is it purely for aesthetics or to address an environmental or health issue?

Another factor is the overall architectural design and theme of your home. Mr Tan said that landscaping goes far beyond just putting trees and shrubs in the garden; it is about putting the different components of the home together.

If the garden is to be on the roof, home owners need to understand the structure and drainage system of their home, and whether the roof can support the weight of the garden.

Mr Tan said: "I have a client who wanted a jacuzzi on his roof. It can be done, but you need to know whether the building can take the weight."