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The Dry Garden: A skeptic's view of vertical gardens


They say you catch more flies with honey than vinegar, but I’ve never wanted to catch flies. Moreover, as borrowed phrases go, I far prefer, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, sit by me.” And so, I issued an invitation: If you are skeptical about the vogue for vertical gardens, sit by me.

A few smart people from the worlds of gardening and landscape architecture took the chair. Here’s what they had to say.

“I’m intrigued, fascinated and hesitant,” said Richard Turner, editor of Pacific Horticulture. “I’ve seen some of Patrick Blanc’s walls, and they’re amazing, but I’m concerned this might be a passing phase, and I’m worried about people jumping on the bandwagon without understanding the long-term significance.”

Blanc is the French botanist who, since the 1990s, has been steadily vegetating the sides of urban buildings in Europe. Turner describes having lost an afternoon to enchantment after encountering Blanc’s vegetated wall at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris.

The underlying secret to Blanc’s system is hydroponics. “Do plants really need soil?” he asked on his website. “No, they don’t. The soil is merely nothing more than a mechanic support. Only water and the many minerals dissolved in it are essential to plants, together with light and carbon dioxide to conduct photosynthesis.”

Yet as a French novelty takes hold in California, many of the green wall systems do involve some soil, suspended in bags or brackets. Some are contained, some drain out against the wall. The more elaborate have drip irrigation. The emerging systems are so new that Bay Area landscape architect April Philips is painstakingly testing different types and writing about them for the sustainable design and development blog of the American Society of Landscape Architects.

“To me, it’s all about the care,” she said. “More information is needed.”

Harvard University design critic Michael Blier designed his own system for a vertical garden that his Boston firm, Landworks Studio, is doing in Taiwan, where he says green walls work well, particularly in high-density urban settings. However, adaptations would have to be made for an arid setting, he said.

Vertical-Garden-Woolly-Pockets“There’s lots of evaporation,” he said. “It’s a trade-off. You have to be smart about species selection.”

Such reasonable experts. My own feeling about vertical gardens in Southern California is that they are a plant fetishist’s tool for hastening climate change. Take a look at the Culver City party venue called SmogShoppe, owned by the folks selling a vertical garden system called Woolly Pockets. Succulents such as sedum and senecio that are so hardy in the ground need constant irrigation to cope with heat and wind after being suspended in felt pockets against SmogShoppe’s hot walls. The concrete wall behind the bagged-and-hung garden is wet with runoff from an automated drip system. The sacks are calcified with irrigation scale. Even in an open-air setting, get close and there is a whiff of mold. It’s hard to imagine a less savory or more whimsically destructive system for a region in a water crisis.

Recently, L.A. has been gripped by a challenge from the Woolly Pocket manufacturer to put its planting bags on fences in hundreds of schools. I dread seeing abandoned, tattered pocket remnants fluttering from chain link.

School gardens should connect kids with Earth. As for other settings, the idea of using plants to animate walls -- be they in civic arenas, offices or homes -- is intriguing. But if we truly want to accomplish this in a way that speaks to the dry majesty of our region, then the right approach is to leave out the irrigation and work solely with appropriate building materials to create suitable planting habitat -- then seed it. Bring back the lovely old dry stone walls of yore. If you really want to marvel at the majesty of plant life, witness a wild buckwheat flowering from an abandoned stone wall in the foothills.

Proponents praise vertical gardens for beauty. This charm is irrefutable. Just as Turner became mesmerized in Paris, pedestrians stop short before the SmogShoppe. Yet enthusiasts lapse into nonsense when extolling ecological virtues to do with heat insulation and repositories for gray water. If you want relief from the sun, hang an awning, build a porch or plant a shade tree. Gray water is still water, and wasting it is still a socially disastrous idea in the dry West. Far better to put gray water in the ground, where it will be protected from evaporation and remain available to plants.

Finally, there is the energy profile. Roughly a quarter of the state’s energy goes to transporting water; of that, the majority is spent getting it from the Bay Area and the Colorado River to Southern California. Once that water gets here, the region needs a better way to green and cool buildings that doesn’t involve dinky pockets of captive flora.

-- Emily Green

Green's column appears here every Friday.

First photo: As blogged previously here, the restaurant Raphael in Studio City installed a vertical garden using a system called Plants on Walls. Credit: Christina House / For The Times

Second photo: Also previously blogged, the vertical garden displays at the San Francisco Flower and Garden Show earlier this year. Credit: Craig Nakano / Los Angeles Times

Third and fourth photos: The popular Woolly Pockets -- subjects of much coverage in Dwell, Sunset, Apartment Therapy and, yes, the Los Angeles Times -- are pictured at Marvimon, the L.A. party venue founded by the inventors of Woolly Pockets (Credit: Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times), and at Frida Kahlo High School in Los Angeles (Credit: Woolly School Garden)


A vertical garden in West Hollywood

A vertical garden for indoors

A Venice house with planted walls and roof

Comments () | Archives (24)

The comments to this entry are closed.

I am fed up with sites that want me to log in to Facebook or whatever in order to post a comment. Not everybody is into "social" sites!

That said, I thought the article was thoughtful and useful, esp. for So. Cal climate.

Quote: "Bring back the lovely old dry stone walls of yore. If you really want to marvel at the majesty of plant life, witness a wild buckwheat flowering from an abandoned stone wall in the foothills." That says it all. Thank you, Emily.

Really excellent points. I too, have found Patrick Blanc's work amazing, but in taking off as a fad, there are a lot of problems with the idea in terms of structural integrity and plant selection. This is probably simply one idea that should not be imported from greener and wetter climes.

1. My woolly pocket plants need less water than my traditional terracotta pot plants!

2.All gardens need maintenance - do you suggest we remove all planting beds for fear of neglect?

3. Plants grow on raised planting beds along roadsides in Australia. The woolly pocket system creates a similar growing enviornment. Yes it can be harsh but it works - you just need to choose the right plants.

4. What is this nostalga for the past? Your solution of dry stone walls is totally unhelpful. How is that going to work in a suburban street or an urban centre established 5 years ago

5. Why do children have to connect with earth at ground level? This limited way of thinking does not help anyone.

Oh and by the way does that mean if you are in a wheel chair you are not really connecting with the earth?

6. Surely Woolly Pocket should be given credit for at least providing a 'greening' solution that can be inserted easily into existing cities.

Why do you want to completely disregard the system? I need to ask - have you used them?

... I was thinking about a Woolly Pocket system on my garage wall. Thanks for reminding me how destructive constant water can be on a building, wood, mortar and stucco. I was considering a wall of shade loving color on the wall... I think now, I will instead build an arbor/lattice away from the wall to hang them on. The water usage should not be a big deal because it's the shady part of the yard.
Thanks for this

I, too, think they're beautiful...but would never do it because it's so impractical. Bring back the big, glorious trees that used to shade the schoolyard!

Love the concept. But, I have a creeping fig that needs no attention whatsoever and could cover a chain link fence in about 2 years. Not to mention honeysuckle vine, which survived years of abuse and no water whatsoever for 6 months at a time.

For wiser techniques to cover those vertical walls with greenery (part of a similar skeptical review of vertical wall systems), see http://www.homegrownevolution.com/search?q=vertical+garden

I enjoy the beauty of Patrick Blancs gardens. They are incredible. But I find it ironic that vertical gardens are used on GREEN projects. The only thing green about these garden walls is the plants themselves. These gardens are dependent upon an enormous amount of human intervention. Nutrients, water, etc. What would happen to one of these gardens of there was no irrigation available for a week or even a few days? That is not sustainable, it is a hobby and a fad. Great article.

Vertical gardens are a relatively new thing here, so we're learning, trying new things, and hopefully coming up with good solutions for the future that can be applied much more widely.

Many of these "vertical" gardens are simply terraced fencing--pots of plants arranged in tiers. The actual vertical gardens are difficult to water and maintain. It is entirely possible to have a vertical garden that is low maintenance; all you have to do is look at the sort of plants that grow naturally on cliffsides, but those grow slowly and probably aren't sufficiently ornamental for the vertical garden crowd. Plant your roof instead, use tough natural plants and save water.

Thank you for this. It's an excellent reminder that ideas don't work in all places. I too have been skeptical about the water needed to sustain these in warm, arid areas. The same with green roofs - east coast? Probably a great idea. So Cal? Probably not. When your rainwater is concentrated in a couple of months of the year, supplemented irrigation is a must. And then what are you saving? Certainly not energy or water...

Why not grow vines on walls? We have grapes, ivy etc. growing on ours. The roots are in soil yet the walls benefit from the shade and you don't need as much space as a tree would take, which is ideal when space is at a premium. Why not have the best of both worlds?

Beware there are all manner of irrigation and landscape snake oil in the market. This is but one. As an irrigation consultant I see widespread damage caused by excessive water application. Paint deteriorates, wood rots, stucco turns to soup and asphalt disintegrates with moisture.

Art for Art's sake, so if you don't like the idea of going vertical with your garden then don't! While Ms Green is writing this for a paycheck and to express her persaonal opinion, which I don't agree with, she has provided me with food for thought and some useful links. I live in a condo that has a small patio that is surrounded by high walls a very little horizontal space, she has given me ideas to grow with.

Here is the tale of a skeptic converted: I installed a Wooly Pocket system against a shady wall on the terrace of my condominium in West Hollywood a couple of months ago. The lackluster vine it replaced was sent to the compost bin and the wall now is literally ALIVE with happy, healthy plants. The recycled pockets are lined, so no water spills to the ground, they actually wick the water to the plant roots and I find that monitoring when to irrigate is actually easier than with a container -- the soil is at eye level and easy to touch. It's the ideal answer to gardening in small spaces that might not have optimal growing conditions. With the right plant in the right place, most any type of planting system is possible. And this one works perfectly for me.

25% of the state's energy is used transporting water? That's a shocking statistic I hadn't heard before.

You neglect to mention that many schools and individuals use vertical containers to grow FOOD in tight spaces, with less water than conventional agriculture. My daughter's urban school is nearly 100% paved. Raised beds and vertical gardens along the fenceline give her at least SOME opportunity to connect with the natural world. Basically you are saying that urban folk should learn to love the concrete - leave the green where it belongs, even if you have no access to it. Well, news flash: a world of stone walls with nothing growing on them is not exactly good for human life OR the environment... the reflective radiant heat alone is a travesty to L.A.'s quality of life.

FYI - a head of lettuce grown conventionally in soil uses 100 times the water of a head of lettuce grown hydroponically with a recirculating system.

My greywater, utilized to grow FOOD in containers, is put to much better use than giving it back to the earth to be absorbed by the invasive weed and semi-invasive street trees that live in the small patches of earth outside my door.

This article to me smacks of being totally knee-jerk - being snarky for snarky's sake. Every environment, every school, every wall -- comes with its own set of unique conditions and challenges. It's a great idea to be aware of those conditions, but to make a blanket assertion that vertical gardens work in NO condition? Totally without merit.

Emily, if you really want to make a difference in the state's water use battle, why not go after big ag?

Liz, thank you for your comments, which echo those of Woolly Pocket retailer who has been corresponding with me separately, and who, to judge from your comments, you may know. Please allow me to respond:

1. There is no reliable evidence that vertical gardens in paved schools use less water than conventional agriculture. It would depend on the crop, the irrigation systems and ET index of the locale.

2. It is a sad state of affairs that most schools are paved, but nowhere did I say or imply "that urban folk should learn to love the concrete." I have never said that and do not believe it. I do, however, strongly believe that school gardens should be installed in ways that are more permanent than recycled plastic bags hung on fencing. Raised beds are preferable; removing concrete or asphalt is the best solution. The school district will do this; so will many non-profits.

3. The reference to stone walls is being misconstrued here. It obviously concerned ornamental settings and was obviously an option, not a cure. Stone walls will collect heat, but it is asphalt and hot roofing materials that are the primary culprits. Relief from the greater bakestone that is LA will come chiefly from street trees, if we don't succumb to dysfunction and run out of water first. Vegetating the sides of buildings with inefficient, unproven systems is not the answer to urban heat island effect in a drought-stressed region.

4. I'm not sure what the container gardening with grey water reference has to do with the article, however there are sanitary hurdles to be cleared before recommending this be done in schools for food crops.

It's all about the almighty dollar Hypatia. Websites need income from advertising. Plus the social networks can retain the logon info, and LAT can wash their hands of it. But it IS a pain. I created a twitter account simply so I can post comments on this site - and I never use twitter - doubt I ever will.

Also, linking to social networks is another way for law enforcement to keep tabs on people in question - so the picture may be a bit bigger than we comprehend.

What I don't get it, why does some portions of this website require logging in, and others don't?

Great article. "Vertical gardens" are intriguing when well done, but I too am skeptical that they are sustainable, in either a practical or environmental sense.

A correction: the statistics in the last paragraph are incorrect, and overstate the amount of energy used for pumping water in California. It does indeed take massive amounts of energy to pump water over the pair of mountain ranges that separate Southern California from its water sources in the North. However, it is far less than "a quarter of the state's energy." (This statistic is rarely quoted correctly.)

A 2005 study by the California Energy Commission [1] found that, in 2001, an estimated 19% of the state’s electricity use, 33% of its non-power plant natural gas consumption, and 88 million gallons of diesel consumption is water-related.

However, and this is important, a full 80% of the energy use described above is by the "end user", to heat water inside of homes and businesses.

Even the staggering amount of electric use should be put in perspective. Saying 19% of our electricity is NOT the same as 19% of our energy use. The largest user of energy in the state is transportation, which accounts for 38% of our consumption, and comes almost entirely from liquid fuels [2].

Matt Heberger
Oakland, CA


[1] Klein, G. et al. (2005). California's Water - Energy Relationship, California Energy Commission.

[2] Energy Information Administration, California Quick Facts. http://www.eia.doe.gov/state/state_energy_profiles.cfm?sid=CA

very sobering and well researched article, Emily - you have made several good points.

Thank you to all who commented and to Matt Heberger for the correction on energy. So people know who he is, Heberger is a research associate for the Pacific Institute's Water Program. To read more about him, here is the link: http://www.pacinst.org/about_us/staff_board/heberger/index.htm

We should always be skeptical of new products or we'll end up with more upside down tomato planters. We manufacture a product that is in the vertical garden planting family. However, it is not intended to be planted and forgotten. Ours is a durable metal planting trough, that is made to be seasonally replanted. We have tested ours in the hellish Texas summer sun and had great results. Vertical gardens are not ment to be on every wall in town, just the ones close to us. Natural stone walls can be beautiful. A cold wall in a relaxing area of our homes can benefit from some softing. cavidagarden.con


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