It started out as a niche idea but vertical gardens have taken root, with their popularity now flourishing! French botanist Patrick Blanc was only a child when he started liking plants, but his enthusiasm has never waned. Now, he works at the French National Centre for Scientific Research and travels the world setting up vertical gardens in different cities. Not only does he have a ‘green thumb’ but he has taken to coloring his hair green too.
Find out more about vertical gardens and the pioneer behind their growing popularity, Patrick Blanc.
Taming the Wild
“A garden is a grand teacher. It teaches patience and careful watchfulness; it teaches industry and thrift; above all it teaches entire trust.” — Gertrude Jekyll
Humans have cultivated gardens for thousands of years; as an expression of beauty and nature, a place to retreat, or simply to marvel at a patch of wild we’ve managed to tame. While we increasingly become more urban-centric with our apartments and high rises there are fewer opportunities for gardens. The trend for planters and greenery shows that we still seek the pleasures that gardens can bring us, and as more buildings go up, so do our gardens.
The first time I met Patrick Blanc was at a workshop held at Hong Kong’s Knowledge of Design Week, where he presented a talk about vertical gardens and spoke with enthusiasm and passion on the topic. He is a remarkable character, not only in his appearance — Blanc has been dying his hair green since 1986 — but by pioneering his methodology for creating vertical gardens.
The Parisian botanist began inventing vertical gardens as a teenager, seeking a way to provide a water filtering system for his aquariums. He noticed that the plants didn’t really need soil, they just need the minerals and water along with sunlight and carbon dioxide. He went on to get a PhD in Natural Sciences in 1979, and began taking care of tropical plants at the French National Centre for Scientific Research.
Blanc began to develop his vertical gardens, switching out soil and using fibers and filtration systems to give plants the nutrients they need to grow. His projects became more about hanging plants, but artworks in themselves.
In 2001, French architect Andrée Putman brought Blanc in to design a vertical garden for the Pershing Hall Hotel, which is still happy and healthy. In the last 18 years, Blanc has worked on projects around the world to create his green walls — bringing calm and beauty to the side of buildings, interiors of shopping malls and even experimenting with chandelier formats such as his 103m-long rainforest chandelier in Bangkok.
The patience and trust required for building a garden bears its fruit when you see the plants thriving in their environment. Visiting and checking up on his creations is also brings him a sense of joy, as Blanc loves to visit the hundreds of gardens he has worked on, and see how they’re doing. When he visits Hong Kong for example, he likes to stay at Hotel Icon where his garden installation spans over many floors, and featuring 70 different plant species. During his stay he will often advise on which bits need to be trimmed.
The walls have proved useful in reducing noise level, acting as an acoustic installation system for sound absorption. They reduce air pollution and have even been shown to help bring down the air temperature. Let’s hope to see more vertical gardens in our cities dealing with rising temperatures!
Knowledge and Skill
Since Blanc first began sewing the seeds of his vertical garden trend, more architects have begun to incorporate green into their design. Green is after all trendy, and green is sustainable. Except when it’s not.
Unfortunately, not all projects have an expert botanist designing the vertical gardens. While environmentally friendly buildings have become a buzzword, they’re often accused of “greenwashing” marketing tactics to sell. Building a vertical garden requires an intimate knowledge of the plants, and as many owners of vertical gardens don’t know how to look after them properly the gardens don’t always live as long as Blanc’s.
Blanc explains “you’ve got to know plants and their habits, which ones you can prune and when to prune.” Knowledge of tropical plants is after all, something Blanc has invested a lot of time into. After his many years studying tropical plants, in 2009 he identified a new species of Begonia in the Philippines, which was subsequently named after him.
So Are Green Walls a Sustainable Reality?
Yes! When vertical gardens are included in an urban setting they can really help to change the face of a building and provide a breath of air that helps a city. However that’s not at the expense of cutting down natural flora and fauna. Trees and shrubs planted in our urban environments are also an important balance to the city. What is brilliant about the vertical gardens is their ability to bring art and structure to an otherwise concrete facade, turning gray to green.
I hope to see more of these sustainability projects incorporated into buildings, whether that’s through vertical gardens or changing up the materials we consider for our habitat. If you’re considering building up your plant collection at home, check out our article on hydroponic planters and see if you’ve got the green thumb!