The Vertical Garden

As a gardener, much to my family’s consternation I’m always planning, plotting, dreaming, designing and doing. Ever since I saw Patrick Blanc’s vertical garden at the Musee de Quai Bramley in 2007, I’ve been wanting to create one of my own. I was positively besotted with the idea. Some plans get executed right away and some require a period of incubation. This one was certainly of the latter persuasion.

The project persisted on my mind. Placed on the back burner but always atop a steady, low flame. I’d never heard of or seen an outdoor vertical garden anywhere in the northeast. The problem of plants surviving our winters was the elephant in the room. There are versions of “vertical” garden kits sold at various garden centers and they are all meant really for annual displays to present a much too preciously pretty sight. I mean no harm to those who like such things but my bar had been set high by Patrick Blanc. I was gearing up for a somewhat ambitious endeavor.

Selecting the site was easy. A lengthy foundation wall running along the driveway looked rather blah and seemed highly suitable for my purpose. The down side was that it is a north facing wall. This naturally pointed to hardy, shade growers. My first and obvious choice was ferns. They are remarkably resilient having survived millennia, come in an amazing variety, grow reliably under low light and not so perfect conditions and best of all, do not demand great fuss and coddling. Perfect!

In this mix of ferns, I envisioned adding heuchera. Another shade plant that comes in many colors (foliage), unfussy and hardy. I wanted the wall to be simple in that only these two types of plants would be planted. All the visual interest would be provided by the different varieties of foliage.

To keep myself from getting overwhelmed, I decided that for this first attempt, we’d concentrate on only ferns. Low to mid- height ferns as anything taller would be constantly brushed and possibly bruised by cars going down the driveway. Choosing ferns was easy but I’m really quite unfamiliar with most of them. I know the ostrich ferns (too tall), maidenhair, Japanese painted ferns but nothing more. I was going to need the guidance of an expert. I knew just such an expert! And not any old expert but one who is recognized the world over. None other than Dr. John Mickel.  I consider myself truly blessed to count John and his equally brilliant wife Carol as my friends and mentors.

John came up with the types of ferns. Mostly dug up from his own garden. Some were from a wholesale fern grower that John works with. I now had plants! Planning the layout and design of these ferns on the wall was fun. Once decided, I drew out the whole ‘map’ with chalk directly on the felt. Then, we cut the slits in the felt where the ferns would be inserted. Once all were planted, the wall looked quite fetching! But I couldn’t wait for when all the gray felt would be covered in living green. Patience, I told myself.

Well, patience has become the watchword. It turns out, there is virtually no data on hydroponic growth of ferns let alone how they do in vertical gardens not to mention how they can then get through our fierce winters. We had unknowingly embarked on a very steep learning curve whilst creating that curve ourselves. In retrospect, our lack of knowledge and surplus of optimism was a good thing for we did not know any better. Otherwise, we’d never have got started!

That first spring, the wall did well for the most part. Algal growth soon appeared and more slowly mosses started growing. The ‘greening’ of this garden had begun. The tough part was learning the watering/feeding system. There was so much trial and error! De-chlorinating the water, determining the type and strength of the nutrients, setting up the recycling of the water so it was not wasted as runoff, working out the automatic pump to circulate the water, decide the duration and frequency of each cycle. We thought we’d worked it out when we went away for two weeks in summer.

Wouldn’t you know it, the pump failed in our absence and some of the plants looked like they’d been done in. So, we learned again about troubleshooting the problem. Only time would tell exactly which plants had been damaged. For the rest of the year, we were well occupied tweaking the care of the vertical garden. We kept our fingers crossed and hoped for the best through the winter.

As March 2013 made way for April, we began staring hard at the Wall. I do believe we were willing the plants awake as we desperately wanted to see which ones had made it through. Every sign of new green was celebrated. No garden bed had ever been watched and commemorated as this vertical garden! The reality is that many ferns did not make it. We cannot determine which ones died in the summer and which in the winter. A bit disheartening. Still, it is all an experiment we reminded ourselves. On the up side, a diverse range of moss had taken up residency. John Mickel counted a dozen kinds! They have really ‘greened’ up the boring gray of the wall.

As per my original idea to add a variety of Heuchera, we did just that. Carol and John gave us all the baby heuchera and replacement ferns that were needed. And just in time for our Open Day! Whew! The vertical garden looked quite alluring.

For the rest of the season, the wall did well. Th en, we went on vacation in August. And right on cue, a heat wave hit New York. Oy vay! Several ferns looked done in but, ferns are resilient so some made a quick recovery as soon as the weather improved. For the remaining year, there were similar ups and downs.

Now, in mid-winter, as we experience a rather strange, particularly harsh season where we’ve already had days of record lows as well as highs, we are impatient to see what has survived.

Slowly, slowly, we are learning. It has been interesting, frustrating and, wonder-filled all at the same time. We have no regrets for embarking on this experiment. We hope our attempt at trying something different will spark an interest in others. After all, gardeners are a curious, adventurous lot. If anybody has tried something similar, we’d love to hear about it. Sharing knowledge empowers everybody.

Stay tuned for future updates!

Slideshow follows the technical description.
Click on photo for caption.

Technical drawing and description of the vertical wall garden

vertical wall drawing

The hydraulic design is based on the book “Gardening Vertically” by Noemi Vialard which is inspired by Patrick Blanc. This hydraulic design is different from the book in that the pump forces water into the wall on a timer. Water drips into the drain gutter and flows back to the reservoir under gravity. Once a week the reservoir is cleaned to inhibit algal growth, the water in is replaced and, liquid fertilizer is added. In winter, a thermostat shuts off the system when the air temperature approaches the freeze point.

May 2012

September 2012 – After the pump failure

April 2013

May 2013

June 2013

July 2013

September 2013 – After the heat wave

(c) 2014 Shobha Vanchiswar

The Vertical Garden. Year 3

This weekend drew to an official end the Summer of 2014. From the perspective of the Vertical Garden, it has been a good summer. There were very few really hot days and hardly a blip in the irrigation system. All good.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself. The saga continues from last winter. One of the harshest we’ve experienced in the past decade. Understandably, our hopes for survivors on the wall were not high. Which was just as well because, nary a fern made it through. The same for all but four heuchera. Happily, the moss and lichens reappeared in full glory. I was actually quite taken with the wall of moss. We even joked about leaving it as such. Of course, that would’ve been too easy. Once the grand experiment had been launched, we had to persevere and give it a decent number of years. We just aren’t sure how many years that would be but I’m optimistic that we’ll have learned plenty by then.

So I sent an SOS to John and Carol Mickle. They responded with typical kindness and ordered up my request for the necessary number of assorted ferns and heuchera. Established plants cannot be used in the wall. To fit into the ‘pockets’ in the felt, very young plugs of the plants are best. Each plant is then rinsed of all soil and placed into the wall. A task best done on a mild day in early spring. At the end of this effort, the wall already looked charming. Just like that.

Meanwhile, much research and fine tuning went on behind the wall. The watering system was constantly being improved. Murali did extensive puttering iredesigning the system. As the spring progressed, the plants thrived. In rate of growth, the heuchera out paced the ferns but visually this did not matter. When the former bloomed, the wall positively shone. The moss spread further and covered all of the exposed felt. Just as we’d desired. Its tactility is hugely appealing.

Bill Smiles, who started the Westchester County Orchid Society is a friend and he came by on our garden’s Open Day. After surveying the wall, he declared it a good place to try out orchids! The very next day, we got six young Dracula orchids from him. They were duly planted at various places in the wall. They haven’t bloomed as yet but continue to grow nicely. Then, it occurred to us to plant the few Phalaenopsis/Dendrobiums we had indoors. They had finished blooming and were sitting around doing nothing much. Clearly, this was a good move. At the moment, two of the three plants are blooming. As the cold weather approaches, all the orchids will be potted up and taken into the greenhouse.

We monitored the vertical garden closely and thus ensured that when there was a problem of any kind, it was noticed and corrected promptly. The wall responded by continuing to look beautiful. We went away in August and of course, the system failed. Briefly. Only a couple of plants were lost. I can’t tell you how relieved we were. It would have been disappointing to lose too many after all the time and attention we’d devoted.

Well into September, the Vertical Garden is growing well. I’m not sure if we will take any new precautions to protect the plants in winter. Its tricky to determine how much coddling one ought to give. We’ll see. I’ll get back on that.
The slideshow below is April 2014 to September 2014. [No August].Click on photo for caption.

October, November and December 2014

The wall has looked lush through October. The weather was mild enough to permit the plants to thrive. We did however remove the orchids, pot them up and take into the greenhouse. Bill Smiles came and gave me a masterclass in orchid potting. They will be replanted in the wall next spring. This wall has some horticultural heavy-hitters for Godfathers!

As an experiment and to not lose all the plants like we did last winter, we have removed half the ferns and potted them up so they too can pass the winter in the greenhouse. This was because, John Mickel said ferns should not go into the ground past early-Sept. As soon as the ground thaws next year, these ferns will go into the shade garden as they’ll be too big to go back into the wall pockets. If the ferns left on the wall do not survive, we’d have at least saved some but of course, an entire batch of new ferns will be needed for next season. However, if those left on the wall do get through the cold months, we’ll be fortunate to require fewer replacements.

Likewise, we took out half the heuchera and planted them in the garden. Lets see how their wall cousins do in winter.

It is mid-November right now. Wall plants are in good shape but moss is going into dormant state.

By December, the temperatures have taken a steep dive. Put paid to the plants – the foliage is done in but we’re hoping the roots are simply dormant. From now till the spring thaw we will not know.
Lets keep our fingers crossed!

October 2014

October 2014

October 2014

October 2014

(c)2014 Shobha Vanchiswar

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5 thoughts on “The Vertical Garden

  1. I had the great pleasure to enjoy a lovely meal and fine company in this incredible garden the other evening. This is truly the most spectacular home garden I have ever seen. It’s whimsical, serious, lush, formal, wild, tranquil..all of these things and more. Thank you Shohba and Murali for letting me into your unique garden world.

  2. Hi Shohba, I met you at Rocky Hills 2? years ago on their open day. I hope to get to your open day this weekend. Your vertical garden looks stunning in the photos. I also know Murali from my years at Philips. I have been at Stonecrop Gardens for 11 years in June! No more cleanroom. Murali will know what I mean! Joanne Murphy

    • Hi Joanne,

      Looking forward to seeing you tomorrow.You must tell me what you think of the vertical garden up close!
      – Shobha

  3. love the poste !!!
    Thank you for your intelligent post and for helping others become more aware. You made more sense than others who speak within this same area of expertise and I am really glad I found your blog-website. I’ve joined your social networks and will keep an eye out for future great posts as well. Additionally, I have shared your site in my social networks as well. Thank you again!

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