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Growing UP - Vertical gardens create buildings that are vibrantly verdant, dynamic

  • Marybeth Kampman

    While walking down the streets of Paris, I suddenly stopped dead in my tracks. I had been impressed by the beauty of Paris, but had never seen anything quite like this before. The building in front of me was literally alive. The walls were covered with plants, moss, ferns and orchids. It was a living flower mosaic.


    I had stumbled upon the renowned Quai Branly Museum.
    It is the site of one of Patrick Blanc’s “mur végétal”, or vertical gardens. I was intrigued and amazed. When I returned home I did some research on his work. I discovered that he has created living walls all over the world, including indoor and outdoor installations. His unique work can be seen stretching stories high on the outside of office buildings or free standing in arcades and parks, spas, museums, businesses, embassies, stores and private residences.
    Blanc studied plants in tropical and temperate forests and observed that many grew on rocks, tree trunks or soilless slopes. It was these investigations that inspired his work. The genius of Blanc’s installations is that he uses no soil. Instead he builds a metal frame, which can be free standing or attached to a wall. A 1-cintimeter-thick PVC sheet is attached to the frame, making a waterproof surface. A felt layer is then attached to the PVC. This is the medium in which the plants grow. An automated system allows water and fertilizer to drip down from the top of the structure. The roots of the plants spread along the felt rather than going down into it.
    The whole structure is extremely lightweight. The weight of a garden, including the plants, is less than 6 pounds per square yard; this is why it is possible for his gardens to be so large and elaborate.
    Vertical plant walls have become popular with urban designers. They provide visual interest with a natural twist, in places it would be impossible to do more conventional plantings. Besides being beautiful, they are energy efficient. When installed on the outside of a large urban building they provide insulation, lowering the temperature in the summer and retaining heat in the winter months.
    The plants provide oxygen, and the planting medium, the felt, actually traps pollutants present in the air.
    Vertical gardens are popular in Europe. What has recently come into vogue in the States are decorative vertical or living walls built ion a smaller scale for use in houses or businesses.
    These living walls differ from those of Blanc’s because they use soil.
    There are many styles, but they are all basically a system of modular planting pots contained within a frame. The frame is made so that it can be attached vertically to a wall or remain free standing. Each pot is positioned at an angle creating a planting pocket allowing the plants to face outward without falling out.
    Most designs involve the use of a top trough which is used for watering and fertilizing. Water is poured in the trough and then trickles through the back panel of each planting cell.
    After seeing a few examples in gardening magazines, I knew I needed to turn the barren view outside my workroom window into a pleasurable vertical garden. I did some Web searching to find out where to purchase the materials to create a vertical garden.
    I found planting systems that met my needs but not my pocketbook. I decided to embrace the spirit of recycling and repurposing to create my own unique - some would say quirky - living wall.
    I had already installed an old iron headboard as a trellis outside my workroom window, but none of the vines I had chosen had cooperated in growing up it. It would be the perfect structure on which to build my vertical garden.
    But what would I use to plant the plants in? While fooling around trying out different ideas, I stuck a gallon pot in between the spokes in the headboard and, voila, it fit perfectly.
    A trip to the local gardening store provided me with enough inexpensive e, black-plastic, gallon flowerpots to fill in the whole headboard. I also purchased cable ties. I then corralled my husband into giving up a Saturday afternoon to help me construct my dream.
    Because I wanted to be water wise in my project, I decided to use succulents. I chose 4-inch pots of sempervivum tectorum (hen and chicks) and a variety of echeveria, for the center displays.
    I filled in the borders with six-packs of fast-growing and trailing sedum and polygonum capitatum. I laid the plants out on the ground and moved them around until I was pleased with the overall design.
    To construct our living wall we punched two holes on opposite sides of the rips of the pots and ran cable ties through them. We attached the pots at about a 15-degree angle cinching in the cable ties to hold them in place. My husband devised a very simple drip irrigation system, delivering one section of drip hose through the bottom of each pot.
    A small amount of dirt was placed in each pot. The plant was placed at an angle facing forward. More dirt and mulch was then added.
    After a few months the plants have begun to fill in nicely. I am quite pleased with my garden with its unique French accent.