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Vertical Gardening: Nothing Flaccid About It
updated: Sep 03, 2011, 10:00 AM

By Billy Goodnick

Done! I like to get my juvenile sexual innuendo out of the way in the title, so I can start pounding away at the meat of my column.

This week, boys and girls, we'll be talking about the hottest trend in horticulture: vertical gardening. It's also known as "green facades" or "living walls", but simply put, we're talking about getting a lot of green stuff to climb up, poke out of, or spill down from a flat, vertical surface.

Though the term vertical gardening has developed a contemporary cache, the practice has been around since about 600 BC, when King Nebuchadnezzar II told his gardener, "Dude, I'm seeing waaaaaay too much of that taupe wall." And so was born one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Since then, people have used trellises, arbors, walls, fences, and spillers to pack the maximum amount of green into a minimal footprint.

But the guy who really put green walls on the map is Patrick Blanc, a visionary French botanist with a passion for slathering enormous buildings with gravity defying tapestries in every shade of green. Blanc's projects combine his expertise in science with his elegant artistry (NY Times article) and include shopping centers, museums,embassies, and hotels in major cities around the world.

But you don't have to wait for a commission from the Grande Theatre of Provence to get in on the action. I received a newsletter today from Island View Nursery in Carpinteria with this enticing imageā€¦

Their very own design wizard, Nacho Mendez, has been creating skinny home and garden sized works for those with less room and smaller budgets than Monsieur Blanc's clients. The one pictured above uses exotic Neoregelia bromeliads, holly ferns, and other greenery mounted on a kit manufactured by PlantsOnWalls Vertical Gardening Systems of San Francisco. Island View sells the kits and also makes their own custom frames that can be used indoors or outside. There are practical reasons why people are embracing vertical gardens. As Jax Donnelly at Island View told me, "People are downsizing their gardens; boomers and new gardeners have smaller outdoor spaces and want to be water-wise. Vertical gardens answer those concerns."

Green walls were also on my radar last week when I was in Indianapolis for a garden writer's symposium where Susan Morrison and Rebecca Sweet, the authors of Garden Up!: Smart Vertical Gardening for Small and Large Spaces, talked about their new book.

These Bay Area landscape designers have used their extensive artistic and writing talents to produce an inspiring, lusciously illustrated, practical book that offers solutions to a host of landscaping problems: narrow side yards, less-than- lovely views in need of screening, creating privacy for personal retreats, and growing edibles in postage stamp-size spaces.

Photo by Angela Davis, Seattle

Here's an ambitious undertaking that created a lot of buzz at the San Francisco Flower and Garden Show a couple of years ago. It's a walk-through room with exterior walls decorated in a sea of succulents. The plants are set in plastic honeycomb-shaped grids that are mounted to the walls, an approach that can be used around any garden. Though I'm not all that crazy about the ultimate visual effect (I find the crisp outline of each section jarring), the concept knocks me out.

This is my favorite small scale vertical garden, a featured focal point at Flora Grubb Gardens Flora Grubb Gardens in San Francisco. There's something about the barely tamed chaos set against the Barbie pink corrugated wall that speaks to me. The no nonsense plant selections include Echevaria, Sedum, and Sempervivum species that thrive on neglect and grow slowly.

Years before the vertical gardening label was being applied to these types of projects, I tried my hand in a collaboration with local horticulturist and succulent expert, Diane Dunhill. My clients had a big, blank, west-facing wall that received filtered afternoon sunlight through the canopy of a massive California pepper tree. My original idea was to attach potted plants like fuchsias, ferns, and begonias to a robust grid of two-by-fours and see what happened. Then my clients met Diane, who put her skills to work creating this wonderful world of epiphytic "air plants" (tillandias) and bromeliads.

In Diane's garden, a blanket of tillandias covers the fence; light and dark stripes are the result of shadows from the patio cover above.

I took my own lazy and thrifty approach to vertical gardening. I live in my Crocs and hate to throw anything away. So when my clown shoes wear out, I swing the heel strap to the underside of the shoe, literally "shove a sock in it", fill the sock with potting soil, poke a few succulents in, and hang them on a nail on my garage wall. When it's time to water, I dunk the whole thing in a bucket and I'm done. No drainage problems here.

Have you ventured into the land of vertical gardens? You can share your photos here at Edhat.

* * *

Contest Winner! My July 23 column offered a chance to win a copy of Reimagining the California Lawn. The lucky winner, selected through the use of my hi-tech iPhone random number generator, is commenter #22, Edhat handle OjaiDebs. Congratulations. Please keep us informed about your lawn murdering exploits.


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