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The California Native Vertical Garden

Last weekend I went to see the Drew School vertical garden by Patrick Blanc, the French botanist who started the current green wall craze. He designed a wall in San Francisco that was installed this past February . I was a little skeptical of the whole green wall thing, but then looking up at his wall — four stories high of California natives with over 100 species — my doubts evaporated. The whole thing absolutely overflows with enthusiasm for plants. Two big walls covered in natives, what’s not to love.

A pair of gardeners were doing maintenance while I was there. At first I was a little bummed to see this big orange cherry picker in front of the wall, but then I realized that it was a great opportunity to find out about the wall. I mean, I see this thing and I wonder how much does it cost, how will it age, how much maintenance does it need, and who will give me one for Christmas? Watching them work, I was impressed at how easy the maintenance actually seemed. Like any other gardeners, they cut the plants back with Felcos; they just let the green waste fall to the sidewalk and they barely even had to bend over to work. Progress was steady. It looked quite pleasant.

The plants are essentially growing hydroponically. The black flannel acts as the planting medium for the roots, and water mixed with nutrients drips down the wall, collects at the bottom and then recirculates. This is the first time anyone has ever tried something like this with California natives (he usually uses tropical plants), so the project was considered something of an experiment. Some species like Oxalis oregana or Mimulus cardinalis seem like reasonable candidates for a hydroponic wall, but some of the others like Artemisia tridentata and the Fremontodendron were a shock to me. It’s hard to tell from the photos, but up at the top there’s a Ribes sanguineum, a couple of bushy Mallows, and at least one Ceanothus.

The gardeners said they had done some replanting in September, but this was the first full maintenance pruning. They were cutting things back to do a one-year assessment of the planting and see how everything was growing. After a year of growth, some plants were starting to cover others. The Beach Strawberry was running all over the place, the Dudleyas were getting covered by other plants the same as they did in the Academy of Sciences green roof, the Lupines were short-lived, Penstemon heterophyllus looked like it was also going to be short-lived, but overall the plants were doing really well. The shrubs up top were growing exuberantly, maybe a little too exuberantly; the shade groundcovers down towards the bottom had the best year-round appearance. I found that in the places where the fabric showed between the plants, it didn’t bother me or diminish the effect.

Pretty healthy for a bunch of plants on the side of a building.

I definitely want to make it back in the spring when a lot of the plants have grown back in and are blooming. It really does have tremendous impact when you see it on the street.

10 Responses to “The California Native Vertical Garden”

  1. December 11th, 2011 at 8:12 am

    Megan says:

    Great pics! I didn’t realize they used all California natives. For some strange reason I didn’t think it was visible to the public…. we definitely need to swing by and check it out soon.

  2. December 11th, 2011 at 7:12 pm

    Town Mouse says:

    Wow, that’s pretty amazing. I’m actually thinking of trying a small green wall piece myself, but I’ll go for succulents. For the first one. Now, however, I’m thinking maybe a second piece with natives would be fun as well…

  3. December 11th, 2011 at 9:36 pm

    ryan says:

    Thanks, Megan. I didn’t really catch on that it was all natives either until someone told me to get over there and see it. The natives are what really got me motivated.

    Townmouse, I could see a green wall fitting perfectly into your garden. Maybe native succulents…

  4. December 13th, 2011 at 4:13 am

    James Golden says:

    Some of these are stunning, but I can’t imagine they will ever be more than a one-off kind of thing, considering the cost of installation, complexity of construction, and cost of maintenance. What does rental of those cherry pickers cost?

  5. December 13th, 2011 at 6:23 am

    Katie says:

    That’s amazing! I’ll be curious to see how the CA natives fare as time goes on. I want one, too!

  6. December 14th, 2011 at 12:45 am

    ryan says:

    James, I agree they are always going to be kind of a luxury/boutique type thing. Though looking at this one made me realize they’re not quite as much work or money as I thought. This one reportedly cost $125,000 which is a lot, but only a fraction of the $14.5 million budget for the building. A cherry picker is a couple hundred dollars a day, not free but not really that much money if they only have to use one a few times per year. The city uses them to prune the street trees on the same block.

    Katie, I want to see how much turnover there is with the plants and what will happen with the big stuff up at the top.

  7. January 1st, 2012 at 10:37 pm

    Country Mouse says:

    Wow! This I gotta see!

  8. January 7th, 2012 at 11:10 am

    chuck b. says:

    The Wall Street Journal ran a feature on this guy a couple months back and I put it on my to-do list, but I have not to-done it yet. Neat that you were there when the gardeners were working on it!

  9. February 18th, 2012 at 6:33 am

    Katie (Nature ID) says:

    Hi Ryan. I’m slow on the news in SF. Did you know about the “failure” of CalAcademy’s native roof? http://milliontrees.wordpress.com/2011/03/14/the-living-roof-a-failed-experiment-in-native-plant-gardening/

  10. February 18th, 2012 at 8:07 pm

    ryan says:

    Katie, I hadn’t seen that post, thanks for the link. I’d read somewhere else that the roof was a lot of work to maintain. I think that post you linked makes some interesting points but overstates the case against the roof’s planting of natives.

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