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


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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.

“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