S.F. man leaves mark on Tel Aviv wall: a vertical garden

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As David Brenner’s Birthright trip was winding down in August, the San Jose native decided to extend his stay in Israel another 10 days. Not only was he enamored with the place, he felt he needed to give something back.

“I had a fantastic time,” said Brenner, 27, of San Francisco. “The whole time, I was thinking, ‘It’s a free trip — what’s the catch?’ And I guess the catch is that you meet 40 new amazing people and wind up with what will probably be lifelong friends.”

Wanting to mark the momentous experience, Brenner turned to what he knew best. On the side of a commercial building in a busy Tel Aviv shopping district, he created a 9-foot-wide living wall: an aesthetically pleasing, fully functioning vertical garden, complete with an irrigation system, that will grow and change for years to come.

 

David Brenner stands by his living wall in Tel Aviv.

As the founder and principal designer at Habitat Horticulture in San Francisco, Brenner has created living walls for residential and commercial spaces since graduating from Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo.

 

One recent project, an expanse of vines with swaths of pink, purple, yellow and white flowers, was created at the California Academy of Sciences, which commissioned his work. Brenner also recently installed living wall panels on the roof of the Metreon in downtown San Francisco.

But the task of creating a living wall in Tel Aviv — a project for which Brenner purchased and donated all the materials and performed  most of the installation himself — provided a new challenge.

After putting the word out to drum up interest in his idea, Brenner received a call from a Tel Aviv clothing merchant that his shop at 40 Sheinken St. had a suitable exterior wall. Brenner then set about borrowing tools, trekking out to a kibbutz barnyard for a special kind of cloth he needed, and taking the bus around Tel Aviv toting unwieldy metal scraps and planting equipment.

Some materials were more readily available than he expected. “When it comes to the agricultural movement, Israel is really high-tech,” he said. “Several parts of the irrigation system I use [at home] were invented in Israel.”

Brenner notes on HabitatHorticulture.com  that the environmental benefits to living walls are plentiful, such as plants filtering toxins out of the air and reducing energy costs by acting as insulation. But he also sees what he does as an art.

“I try to look at every piece as a composition, and use each plant as a different paint,” he said. “I always try to combine textures and colors and flowering times to create a beautiful composition.”

Drawn to plants and gardening from a young age, Brenner majored in environmental horticulture sciences. He continued his studies with endangered plants at London’s Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, before returning to start his business in the Bay Area.

“I became really interested in how people relate to plants — the energy you get when you’re in a really comfortable space with a nice garden,” Brenner said. “And there’s so much research that shows the effects plants have on our well-being. I wanted to focus on bringing vegetation into urban areas, and since there’s so little space in a lot of cities, it’s perfect to be able to do something vertically.”

In Tel Aviv, Brenner and an Israeli friend, Yael Maor, were up until 5 a.m. the day of his flight home, putting the finishing touches on the project. Deep green and red plants fill the wall. Below, a painted bird is depicted as speaking a dedication, in English and Hebrew: “This living wall is a donation from David Brenner in honor of Taglit-Birthright Israel as an appreciation for their activity in Israel. Thanks for the best trip and the lifelong friendships!”

Brenner left the shop owner with instructions on how to care for the wall, and Maor and a cousin of Brenner’s, David Shilo, are keeping him updated on how it changes as the plants grow by sending photos.

“The last one I saw, some of the white flowers had just bloomed,” reported Brenner. “It’s nice to know that things are blooming on the other side of the world because of you.”

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.