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The (Not Entirely) Native Green Wall Revisited Again

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I stopped by the Drew School green wall again recently. Planted with California natives by the world’s foremost green waller Patrick Blanc, it’s the most interesting green wall in the Bay Area and I’ve been checking in on it periodically. Helpfully, it’s a few blocks from one of my ongoing projects.

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I was impressed the first time I saw it in 2011 and again when I visited in May 2015. This time not as much; there’s a lot of bare felt and dead foliage. November is not its month to shine, so maybe I’m being a little unfair, but photos of green walls seem to always show them either looking brand new and gorgeous or or completely dead and failure-soaked, and this one is somewhere in between those two extremes. I didn’t see anything wrong with the overall system, just that it could use some maintenance and replanting; I’m sure it will be better looking in the spring. At this point, I still think it compares reasonably with a conventional garden — more ambitious, more expensive, requiring more maintenance, and more thrilling when it hits its peak. Even with the bare patches and dead foliage, it’s still an exciting thing to see on the side of a building.

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One disappointment, though, is the use of non-natives where many of the California plants failed to establish themselves long term. The wall now sports some New Zealand Tree Ferns and a lot of European Geranium. Penstemon heteropyllus and Mimulus bloomed prettily at first but were short-lived. Heuchera, a plant which often grows on cliffs, thrived in the first few years but is now almost gone. Oxalis and Asarum have faded away, and the long runners of Beach Strawberry, which draped over several sections of the wall when I first saw it, must not have managed to attach roots to the felt and have now withered away. None of that is entirely atypical for a native planting in such an urban area. This was Patrick Blanc’s first time using California natives, and he always acknowledged that it was somewhat experimental. I wonder what he would say about it. It’s no longer the tapestry he first planted but it has begun to approximate a recognizable native habitat, the type of fern-covered slope I showed in a post about the Bouverie Preserve. With deciduous ferns lower down and scruffy shrubs higher up, that particular habitat is gorgeous and green in spring, less delightful in its off-season, and then gorgeous and green again.

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