Vertical gardens aka green walls aka living walls aka mur vegetal (the creator’s French) and even “Vegetation-Bearing Architectonic Structures and Systems” are the biggest, newest…’coolest’ thing to have happened to the gardening world right now. Trending big time.
Patrick Blanc, a French botanist who specialises in tropical plants, with an obviously creative flair - he has green hair! - hit upon the idea during his numerous trips to the tropics. He noticed that as long as there is water available throughout the year, several species can grow without the need for soil. Plants were growing on rocks, tree stumps, cliffs, even caves. For instance, in Malaysia, 2500 of the 8000 known species grow without soil.
There were species with naturally curved branches, which indicated they originated from natural steep surfaces and not from flat areas. Putting two and two together – he realised it was possible for plants to grow on virtually any vertical surface nearly free-of-ground, as long as there was no permanent shortage of water.
From the jungle to Emporio Armani
I took this photograph at the Siam Paragon in Bangkok, Thailand almost 2 years ago. I had walked in for some last minute shopping and was astounded at finding this wall of nature, made by the master himself. It was breathtaking and I was convinced that this was the future.
For a young urban permaculturist like myself it made perfect sense. The endless walls of concrete in Bombay were waiting to be made into gardens - perfect for cooling down buildings, providing some much needed oxygen and all round making the city beautiful. I was convinced.
Until I started getting the calls.
It started with hotels and offices; but I was soon asked to measure peoples’ bedroom walls to see if it was possible. I was neck deep in the logistics of making my first vertical garden when halfway through negotiating the price of metal with a contractor, I realised there was absolutely nothing permaculture or even sustainable about what I was doing.
Mr. Blanc’s method is to attach a metal grid onto the entire face of the wall; this is lined with PVC to waterproof the building. Finally there is a layer of felt onto which the plants are planted.
Taken by me at the Athenaeum Hotel in London
The felt layer is constantly supplied with mineral-rich water from above which the felt absorbs and stores for the roots to take in as needed.
Besides the plants, the walls are basically made of : Metal, Plastic (man made felt is made of rayon = plastic) and Copious Amounts of Water.
Permaculture teaches us to keep every step sustainable - ends do not condone the means. I couldn’t calculate whether the amount of water needed for a wall in Bombay could be compensated for by using less energy for air-conditioning, nor whether the metal and plastic used would be made up by the oxygen the walls provided…but I suddenly realised why it was only posh hotels, Armani stores and French government buildings that had Patrick Blanc’s work. Vertical Gardens are bloody expensive.
I sat down to think about it and used permaculture’s first rule when in a dilemma - observe, observe, observe.
On the same trip to London, I had seen this beautiful building with a green wall and more…
Ivy that changed colour in autumn!
Creepers and climbers were and are the easiest ways to get a wall green. You could use something really clingy like Ivy, or with the help of a trellis you could pretty much grow anything. But maybe that’s a bit boring…maybe you want something for the indoors? Something with a bit more of a ‘design’ element?
This is something I created for a recent client.
@ Greko, Mumbai (the plants are still young but I’ve decided not to wait three months before taking pictures coz otherwise they never get taken!)
I used old mango crates (practically free) which were varnished for waterproofing and made a super lightweight soil mix of composted cow dung (it’s lighter than soil and more mineral rich - in India we call it khaad), coco-peat - coconut fibre and husk that has been wet with cow dung slurry and some thermacol that I found lying around at the office. Thermacol keeps it light and absorbs water that the roots can use when needed.
I planted different kinds of money plant that are guaranteed to grow well indoors and are known to improve the air quality inside your home (or, in this case, restaurant).
On a parting note - I have absolute respect and awe for the work Patrick Blanc does. As a botanist, he is one of the finest and there are few who can compare with his brand of bringing science and creativity together…
One of my favourites — Patrick Blanc for Jean Paul Gaultier :)