By Steven Hightower, Sonoma County Master Gardener
My first exposure to a vertical garden was Jeff Koons’ “Puppy” at the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao—a 43-foot tall mass of potted flowers in the shape of a West Highland Terrier. Patrick Blanc is the European visionary who started installing large-scale vertical gardens in hotels, office buildings and airports in the early ‘90’s. This gardening trend has been slower coming to this country. In 2009 garden designer and nursery owner Flora Grubb in San Francisco began creating vertical gardens for West coast clients on a home scale.
When you think about it, many of us have been doing some version of vertical gardening for years—tomatoes in cages, apples or camellias espaliered against a fence, or creeping vines trained up a wall. The difference between those techniques and the new vertical gardens is that the growing medium—soil or other—is also vertical, rather than the plants growing up from ground level and being trained. These new vertical gardens don’t require any ‘connection’ to the ground, and can be any size, any way up a wall or fence.
So I put on my old engineer/home tinkerer hat, cruised a few hardware stores, and finally ended up at the Container Store looking for things with which I could create a vertical garden framework. The key requirements seemed to me that, save for the outside frame, it all had to be made out of some sort of wire or mesh, so that roots could knit together and water migrate through, and that it had to be modular, so that plants could be replaced as necessary without disturbing the whole composition.
I ended up building a redwood frame, and slightly re-working some shallow metal mesh containers meant to hold silverware in a drawer. Screws and copper wire hold the whole thing together. For ease of watering, I wove inline emitter line with 6” spacing throughout the grid—this is connected to an electric valve attached to my irrigation system.
What to plant? I’d seen epiphytes, bromeliads, succulents, ferns and other things in various examples. The look I liked the best, which seemed to be a reasonable beginner’s place to start is a conglomeration of succulents and cacti—sempervivums, aloe, sedums and tiny cactus. I filled the whole grid (on the horizontal at this point, remember) with a layer of sphagnum moss as backing, and then the plants just fit in. This first “wall garden” is about 2 1/2 feet square. It took a surprising number of 2” and 4” potted plants to complete the grid—60 or more. Achieving an interesting look was a bit like doing a puzzle, and is very much up to personal taste.
Everyone who’s seen it so far has been captivated and enthused. There’s a pretty big ‘wow’ factor, due to the newness of the concept. Next up: the vertical herb garden. Flora Grubb Gardens now has available a $99 20”x20” modular tray that contains 45 slanted planting cells—two of those in a frame should be enough for an herb garden containing all that my kitchen requires.