Duluth Living Walls, an interior plantscaping company offering the design, setup and maintenance of installations and plants from Bill and Kate Isles.
The partners — in business, marriage and music — launched Duluth Living Walls last year after seeing the idea in a Florida restaurant. And it was a perfect fit. “She’s always been a plant person, I’ve always been a builder, so here we are, building and planting,” Bill said.
Standing outside their Lakeside home, Kate points to her husband’s woodwork: the picnic table, the garage, the back of the house. With his skills, they made it up as they went, she said.
He started by building a bookcase with slanted shelving. But, they wanted to avoid the plants looking like they were sitting on something. They also wanted the plant to be the focus.
And they created just that.
For Wild State Cider’s piece, the Isleses used a black waterproof background and black pots. The pothos, croton, bird’s nest fern and more dangled over each other near the cidery’s ceiling.
You get a better view of it from the second floor.
Stand closer to the living walls at Lake Avenue Restaurant & Bar or Vanilla Bean, and see the leaves are tender, shiny with new growth budding.
They get their plants from a wholesaler in the Twin Cities, but maintenance is a service Kate is happy to provide for their business.
“You have to be there with the plants, with your hands on them, or it won’t look the way it looks. I’m a real stickler,” she said.
Each Thursday, she travels to their different Duluth sites with a syringe, a moisture checker, scissors, a hand broom, dustpan and a jug of water — she likes bringing her own because it’s the right temperature.
At Vanilla Bean recently, she took pots out, checked their moisture level. Some she hand-watered with a syringe filled to 50 milliliters. Some she trimmed before returning to their spots and arranging their long leaves.
“They like to be touched and talked to. They’re like a puppy," she said.
Kate has always been a plant person, and every plant in her house has a story or history.
In their kitchen are plants from a brother, a pot from her mother. There's a propagation station on the table: several cuttings awaited roots in tiny glasses of water.
Their dining room table was covered with tiny succulents and a larger potted cactus, a snake plant and a fern she saw and had to have. On it is a long growth that branches out several inches, looking unlike its other leaves.
“The quirkier, the better. I wouldn’t cut that off,” she said.
Their guest room has also been converted to a plant room for storage and staging. With the help of a big heater, they used to house 200 plants in the garage, but it's too risky with our temperature changes, they said.
And: “We always have plants, we rarely have guests,” Bill added.
Kate said there are about 10 plants that aren’t doing well. They're in the basement, and she plans to nurse them back to health.
This is how people will see them when it’s on the wall, she said, gesturing to the healthy pothos in the guest room. They need to look like this all the time.
Some of the plant options they offer for their hangings are rubber plants, ZZ plants, kangaroo ferns. Kate is not partial to peace lily or ivy, and she always has backups, just in case.
When they transported plants to Wild State Cider last year, they did it in two carloads. It was 10 below zero, and the pothos died, Bill said.
He built the cidery’s 3-foot-by-37-foot installation in 8-foot sections for transport, and he created separate valves for every line called drip meters that prevent dripping to a certain point.
In one minute, 45 seconds, the system dispenses water for the plants, but Kate spends about 90 minutes every other week, going plant by plant.
Adam Ruhland, co-owner of Wild State Cider, said he thought the wall would fit well in a tavern with an adventure-based brand.
Ruhland said Kate was mindful of plant placement, and employees are aware of the facility’s big garage door, which they don’t open unless the temperature is in a certain range — so they don’t lose anything to the cold.
Ruhland has plants at home, and called the installation "life on the wall" and "a welcoming freshness when you walk in."
Jerome Fischer bartends at the cidery, and he also owns Back Alley Duluth, which has its own piece from Duluth Living Walls.
“It’s colorful, it’s green, it brings a little bit of what everyone in Duluth likes from the outdoors to the indoors,” he said of their work.
Of their partnership, Bill and Kate have always gotten along well. They acknowledge limitations, and “don’t expect somebody to do what they’re not going to be able to do,” Bill said. “It’s fun to create something like this together."
Kate most looks forward to the plant care of their business. “Someone else put them in these grow pots, and they came to us like this, but to keep them healthy and trimmed, that’s what I like.”
The big payoff for her husband is watching people look at their work, he said.
“People just feel good when they walk into a place that has plants. I think it’s automatic,” she said.