When were you first introduced to vertical gardens and what do you like about them?
DB: I worked on the first ones in London with Patrick Blanc [botanist and creator of The Athenaeum Living Wall] about 10 years ago. For me, it’s just another way of working with plants. I love that aspect of my job – it’s my main passion, it’s what I do and I love it. I grew up in plant nurseries and started my own business when I was 18. The Living Wall is something that makes people smile, it really does get a great reaction from everyone.
How did you first get involved with The Living Wall at The Athenaeum?
A friend of mine wanted to do something special with the pub he owned in King’s Cross. He saw a TV programme starring Patrick Blanc and suggested I contact him so we could do something together. We installed a vertical garden at the pub [The Driver], then Patrick introduced me to a project he was working on at The Athenaeum. We worked on the original concept together and, over the first few years, had to make some significant changes to adapt it to London. The Athenaeum has been really supportive throughout.
What are the biggest challenges of a project like this?
You have to get the mix of plants right – it’s a learning curve and something you gradually learn as a ‘plants’ person. We’ve been adjusting things, trialling them and seeing what adapts well. But I would say the biggest challenge on a large wall like this is getting the balance of water right.
What’s the climate like in London for growing plants?
It’s a very good climate, especially when I compare it to my work in Sweden – it’s actually quite tropical. The only problem we have is pollution, which can suffocate certain plants. I trial many species – some work, some don’t. It’s an interesting experiment and it’s important to have this diversity.
What kind of plants are part of The Living Wall? Will it change much over the summer?
There are around 12,000 plants in all – the ones near the top can reach about two metres! It’s not all native species, there are no rules as such. We have some wildflowers that are airborne, such as wild sorrel, which is quite pretty. Over the summer we’ll have plants like solanum, hostas, hydrangea, lavender, redhot poker and African lily.
Do all plants adapt to growing vertically?
A lot do. During his thirty years of scientific research in most forests around the world, Patrick Blanc observed that around 25% of plant species are growing out of horizontal soil, either on tree branches, on limestone cliffs or rock boulders These species don’t need a deep soil, they just need somewhere to anchor their roots among mosses covering the rock surfaces or inside the narrow rock fissures where they get the right amount of nutrients and water. When creating his Vertical Gardens, Patrick always selects species growing naturally out of the soil. Some plants require very little water, some more, and you have to work out the different pH levels too. It’s really quite an interesting experiment.
So how exactly does it work?
You put a framework on a wall, then a plastic sheet that you affix onto the batten so there’s air between the wall and the frame. Then we put on this recycled fabric with a drip line inside it so that water can flow down it. You just cut a little pocket – like a shirt pocket – with a sharp knife, get the plant, take as much soil with it as possible, tuck it in and staple it. It’s really that simple. People laugh at how simple it is.