29 March, 2011

How to Build Your Own Living Wall or Vertical Garden

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Liz, myself and the newly planted vertical garden.

A few years ago now, on a trip to Paris, quite by chance I came a cross a vertical garden or living wall created and installed by the French gardener and designer ‘Patrick Blanc‘. The plants are rooted into a thick hydroponics membrane through which a nutrient enriched solution trickles, pumped up from a reservoir at the base of the wall which keeps the plants fed and watered.

The vertical garden on the wall of the Musée des Arts Premiers Quai Branly in Paris.

I had often spoke with a friend of mine ‘Will Giles’ about how we could create a DIY version, looking at all the possible ways of supporting it, what to use as the membrane, how to hold it up, what to use as the reservoir and how to feed the plants among many other things. After a while we came up with a much simpler solution, as the best ideas always are. Do away with the expensive and intricate hydroponics and build a structure that is essentially a series of hammocks, a bit like a multi story window box. It may take a little bit of daily care to keep the plants watered and looking good but is much easier and cheaper to build.

It was while I was working at Urban Jungle hardy and exotic plants nursery that I had the opportunity to put the idea to the test. I had a rough idea of how the structure might work but no set figures to work from. I could see ‘Liz’ my boss and one of the owners of Urban Jungle looked a little apprehensive as I was attaching 12ft high pieces of timber to the edge of one of the pergolas in the middle of the nursery. Once the wall had taken shape and looked as if the monstrosity was going to work, apprehension quickly turned to plants. Once the wall was up and the pockets filled with compost we set about rounding up plants from the nursery and setting the out on the floor in front of the wall for planting, and then planted well into the night. The wall turned out to look not too bad and after a week or so, when the leaves had turned themselves up to the light, it looked pretty damn good. Many visitors to the nursery asked how it was built so here, at last, are the designs for the vertical garden. Sorry about the wait.

Planting the wall by headlight.

The wall is now coming up to its second season and has endured one of the coldest winters for years, where I’m shore the entire thing would have been frozen solid for several days if not weeks at a time. I’m no longer at Urban Jungle but have heard from Liz that some of the plants are now on the move and in a short time she will be able to see what had pulled through and what needs tweaking. Some plants were not hardy so there will inevitably be some gaps to plug. Liz is going to put up a post on Jungle Drums, the Urban Jungle blog,  in the coming weeks on the progress of the wall, what has worked, what hasn’t and the new plants that will fill the gaps. As soon as it’s up I’ll post a link.


1) CHOOSE A LOCATION- Once the wall is planted and watered it will be very heavy so a suitable structure is needed to support the wall. If the base of the wall is resting on the ground and this is not a solid surface, place slabs under each of the uprights to spread the weight and prevent it from sinking into the ground. If the wall is not resting on the ground make shore the brackets used to hold the living wall to the supporting structure are strong to take the weight of the wall when saturated. If the supporting is a house or shed wall the structure should be mounted away from the supporting wall to leave a cavity and avoid causing damp problems.

2) ORIENTATION- The place we chose for the wall at Urban Jungle by chance faces east. This in my opinion is the best direction for it to face as it gets direct light up until noon in the coolest half of the day. If the wall was south or west facing more particular attention would have to be paid to watering and plants would have to be selected to tolerate direct light. Regarding watering, it is important to be diligent as anyone who has let a hanging basket dry out knows it takes a while to re-wet, and you cant dunk the wall in a bucket. North facing walls would require less attention but the constant shade will limit the choice of plants.

3) CONSTRUCTION- The wall at Urban Jungle was 12ft high, 7ft wide and build against a large pergola for support. I used three uprights made from 12ft lengths of 2x4 tantalised timber. The two uprights on the edge of the wall were attached to the uprights of the pergola with brackets and the middle upright stabilised by a post in the ground and two cross members. Each of the uprights was rested on a paving slabs to help spread the weight. The horizontal spars that support the planting hammocks were made from tile baton. Each spar was screwed in place with a little wood glue for extra support. The spars were placed 10cm apart. This made the pockets closemouthed together so that when planted not too much gaps are left but there is enough room to squeeze the root balls in.

How to build the timber structure that supports the wall.

4) POCKETS- Because the wall had three uprights there had to be two series of pockets as they cant cross the uprights. The pockets were made from heavy duty landscape fabric which needs to be about two and a half times longer than the height of the wall and about 20cm wider than the width between the uprights. Start by folding about 10cm in each side so the fold is facing the front and attach to the back of the top spar with staples or by screwing a second spar over it. Push the fabric in between the top and second down spar so it forms a pocket about 15-20cm deep. Place a few staples in the second down spar so the fabric doesn’t slip. This will not need to be as secure as on the top spar as the weight of the compost will hold each pocket in place. Repeat the process down to the bottom of the wall and securely attach the end of the fabric to the bottom spar.

How to attach the landscape fabric to create the pockets.

5) FILLING- We decided not to add any ingredients to the compost like pumice or perlite to reduce the weight as we were happy that the structure would support the weight. We mixed plenty of slow release fertiliser granules into the mix as there will be a large amount of plants in a relatively small volume of compost. We also added a quantity of swell gel to aid water retention. Fill the wall from the bottom pocket up so that each filled pocket rests on the one previous. Fold up the excess landscape fabric that was folded in on either side to prevent the compost from spilling out the end of the pockets. Each pocket should only be filled three quarters as the root balls from the plants will take up a proportion of the space and the soil level in the pocket  must be just below the spar so water can soak in and not poor off the wall.

The newly planted wall before the leaves have turned up to the light.

6) PLANTING- We set the plants out on the floor in front of the wall to create a design before we started to plant. Spacing will depend on the plants you use and the size of the plant used. Start planting from the top down. If you plant from the bottom up the lower plants will be covered with compost. Lay a sheet down bellow the wall as a lot of compost will be spilt. Make shore the plants are well watered before planting as many of the root balls will have to be teased apart and squeezed into pockets. Despite our planning we changed the design considerably while planting as it looked so different when vertical. Liz more so than other gardeners is a very impatient gardener so we planted a little closer than was probably necessary and plugged the gaps with Tradescantia cuttings, Spider plants and Begonia sutherlandii. These quickly grew and filled the gaps. We debated weather to use only evergreens but decided this would be too limiting on the design possibilities and would make the wall predominantly green. The down side to using deciduous or herbaceous plants was that the wall will look a little sparse over winter. We put a few dwarf Daffodils in the wall to see how they would fair. These wouldn’t hide the landscape fabric, but would add a splash of colour before the new shoots emerge.

7) WATERING- The wall will have to be completely manually watered. Rain will have little if any benefit to the wall other than slowing the rate at which the wall dries out, plus the leaves will arrange themselves like roof tiles shedding all the rain water. We didn’t get around to installing a trickle irrigation system and hand water the wall daily, sometimes twice if it is really hot and or windy. From autumn to early spring watering will be much less but still important. To install a trickle system there would need to be one trickle pipe along each pocket with dripper every 30cm or so. The dripper pipe would need to be the sort that delivers a specific flow of water rather than a simple leaky pipe as the bottom of the wall would receive more water than the top. The watering regime would have to be little and often to prevent the nutrients from being leached from the compost.

8) FEEDING- The slow release fertiliser we put in the wall was more than enough to see the plants through the first season with no signs of stress. The second and subsequent years are where attention is needed. Each perennial plant should have a hanging basket pellet pushed into the compost near the root ball. Any annual or replanted patches should have the old compost removed and replaced with fresh compost and slow release fertiliser. The old compost will be matted with the roots of perennial plants which should be carefully cut without cutting the landscape fabric. If a trickle system is installed a liquid drip feeder could be attached or if hand watered use an occasional folia feed.

23 March, 2011

The Lost Garden of Belli Park

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The Lost Garden of Belli Park is not so much ‘lost’ but well tucked away, nestled in the rain forest on the wetter eastern side of the dividing ranges an hour north of Brisbane. The verdant green backdrop of the rain forest sets the tone of the plantings throughout the property. This is with out a doubt a tropical garden. The house is surrounded by mature palms planted over the last 18 years, the most prominent of which is a mature Raphia Palm (Raphia vinifera) in full flower. These palms with several mature ornamental trees provide the shelter and shade for the colourful and bold tropical under story. The trunks of some of the larger trees were cloaked with Philodendrons and Devil's ivy (Epipremnum aureum), Brugmansia and Tibouchina trees were in full bloom, Cordyline cultivars add splashes of colour, mature clumps of Heliconias and Gingers fill the damp air with scent and the ground beneath all these plants were swathed with Bromeliads and Tradescantias. In the deepest shade the bizarre flowers of the Bat plant Tacca hovered over glossy rain soaked leaves.

The meandering paths lead from the bright busy boarders around the house into the surrounding rainforest that makes up the most of the 55 acre property. Entering the forest the canopy closes in around you and riotous colours are replaced with green. Stags horn and birds nest ferns grow from the crux of bows and Alocasias hold their leaves up to the light. The atmosphere enhanced by the sound of the heavy rain dripping from leaf to leaf and the mist drifting through the trees further adding to the sense of envelopment. Despite the rainfall the previous week had been dry and one of the most prominent features of the garden, a 12 meter high waterfall, was sporting only a coating of moss and algae and no cascading water. Perhaps the day after I visited the rainfall would have made its way into the creaks and the falls would be in their full splendour. From the rainforest paths you emerge onto a grand sweeping lawn sweeping down away from the house to a large lily pond and out to views out over distant hills.

The one thing that struck me most about the garden is how similar it is to the Exotic Garden I worked in back in England, both in terms of plants and style. The one difference being the distinctly different climate. The frost free climate enables a whole wealth of plants to be grown that simply couldn’t be protected back in England. As for those plants that both gardens have in common, in The Lost Garden they do seem to have the edge. The Brugmansia trees aren’t limited to the size of your biggest plant pot and the height of the greenhouse roof. The Cannas and Gingers form massive evergreen clumps only needing the old flowering stems removing every now and then. Bromeliada are free to pup and form thick carpets, even working their way up tree trunks pup by pup rather than being restricted to pots. Here in tropical Queensland the plants have the conditions to reach their prime and the garden looks luxuriant year round. In contrast, back in chilly England, time after time visitors arrive in the garden and their jaws drop in amazement at the unexpected. Defiant of the winter the draw back is the massive extra work load of the spring plant out and the autumn dig-up, not to mention the heating bill. This work load does however afford the opportunity to change the planting plans year on year and enjoy the seasonal variations however dreary the winters may be while the boarders are bare. There seems to be benefits to creating tropical gardens in both locations and at the end of the day I guess it all depends on where you are.

It was great at last to go and explore an Australian garden at last. The garden was open for the Australian Open Gardens Scheme. Here are some more pictures for your delectation.

11 March, 2011

A Solitary Xanthorrhoea

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A crooked solitary Xanthorrhoea species standing in open grazing land.
Thatch from the old leaves below the crown, the texture of the trunk cleared of thatch by past bush fires

Xanthorrhoea or ‘Blackboys’ are one of the most distinctive plants of Australia’s outback. The common name is said to have originated from the similarity in appearance to the trunked species bearing a flower spike to an Aboriginal boy holding an upright spear. This may be so particular after bush fires when the crown of leaves would be lost to the flames. The common name ‘blackboy’ is now seen as an offensive term by some and they are now more often than not referred to as ‘Grass Trees’. Allthough the plants leaves are distinctively grass like, it is however not a member of the grass family being a nectar producing flowering plant classified in its own family XANTHORRHOEACEAE. Some species can attain respectable tree proportions with a height of around ten metres.

Aboriginals in areas where grass trees are common value the plant for several reasons. Fishing spears are made from the long, strait dried flower spikes. The flowering spike can also be soaked in water, the nectar from the flowers making a sweet drink. The flower spike can also aid navigation in the bush as the flowers often open on the sunny, warmer, northern side of the spike first  The trunk of mature specimens can also yield a resin used in spear making, fixing leaky coolamons (water carriers) and as a useful glue.

This grass tree (top) stood alone on open grassland cleared for grazing land. It was not the most perfect specimen but certainly had character with its multiple heads, crooked trunk and missing limb. Standing around eight feet high it is possibly well over a hundred years old. Young plants are slow to develop but once establishes some species attain height relatively fast. A five metre tall grass tree of a fast growing species could be as young as 200 years or in the case of slower growing species it could be as old as 600.

Looking into the crown of the grass tree, a valuable refuge.

The grassy heads of the plants are an valuable refuge for insects during fast moving bush fires. Insects crawl as far down into the crown as possible. Although the majority of the head of the plant will be lost to the flames the tightly packed growing point offers insulation from the heat. The large amount of thatch around this grass tree sujests that it has been quite a few years since it was last exposed to a bush fire, perhaps as long ago as when the bush may have been cleared away from around it.

Specimens of wild harvested Xanthorrhoea are often sold in nurseries throughout Europe and America for significant prices due to the age and availability of mature plants. The success rate or transplanting is low and customers who have parted with large amounts of cash are left disappointed as their healthy purchase dies slowly over several years.  The species is however easily grown from seed and can produce a respectable plant with a head of leaves of more than a metre within ten years (below). You may have to wait thirty or more years for a seed raised plant to produce an appreciable trunk.

A young grass tree, yet to form a trunk growing in the Blue Mountains near Katoomba in New South Wales.

Emerging flower spike.

The grass tree stands just off a single track outback gravel road we were following to find Nudubbermere Falls at the northern tip of Sundown National Park. The road snakes through the bush out across rolling grazing land then into Eucalyptus forest (below) as the road gets ever narrower, rougher and steeper. Eventually, we to park my car up in the bush, being more of a city run-around car and not a 4x4, and walk the rest of the way. It was not too far until the roar of the falls could be heard over the cicadas. This was back on Australia day when my house mates, Alex, Ale, Mark and Aymeric and I spent the day at a swimming hole beneath the falls, jumping off the rocks, laying in a hot waterfalls heated as small stream flowed over exposed slabs of rock heated by the sun and drank a few beers. Perfect!

Celebrating Australia day at Nundubbermere Falls.

I recently went back to the falls to hike up the valley and explore a little further into the park. From the end of the road the well used path drops steeply down to the falls then you make your own way. Climbing up and over the rocks alongside the water falls through the gorge created by the river Severn the going is rough but fun. Further up streem the valley opens out into open woodland and bush mostly comprised of Callistemon. Like everywhere in the region the flood that roared through in the new year have left their mark, laying the trees and scrub flat in a tangled mass and erasing any path that may have existed before. Being an uninspiring weather day, chilly and grey, I gave up trying to scramble through the scrub, got fed up being covered with spider webs and turned back. The drive in and out was by far more enjoyable. 


The aptly named Falls road winding its way through the bush to Nundubbermere Falls.

The bush on the valley floor laid flat by the recent floods.

Callistemon species in the river valley and a lone red flower among the rocks of the path down to the falls.

Crossing sheep country there are many grids and opening and closing of gates. I found this old rusted beer cap resting in the deep grain of a silver, weathered gate post.

07 March, 2011

The Botanical Gardens of the Western Woodlands

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There was no apple picking to be done the other day due to the rain so I took a 400km round road trip (not far in Aussie terms) to the inland boarder town of Goondiwindi (pronounced gunned-a-windy) to take a look at the Botanic Garden of the Western Woodlands. On first appearance they were sparse, dry and not particularly colourful. Unlike the majority of Australia’s botanic gardens located on the coastal fringes and displaying a wide variety of species and cultivated plants from around the world, Goondiwindi Botanic Garden features only native plants from the local regions of southern outback Queensland and northern outback New South Wales. The plantings in the garden represent 27 defined botanical habitats from ranging from the western slopes of the Great Dividing Range across the dry planes to deserts of the interior. All of the plants from these regions have adapted to endure prolonged periods of drought and on rare occasions may be submerged of weeks or months at a time when deluges from the tropics slowly make their way down the dry inland creek systems flooding their way slowly south to Lake Eyre and some years all the way to the Southern Ocean, as has happened this year. The town of Goondiwindi received very little rain from the skies though the Macintyre river rose to 10.63 meters above normal levels coming within a few inches of the top of the towns levies.

Goondiwindi Botanic Garden of the Western Woodlands

The grass in the garden was golden, crisp and fissured with cracks as the soil dries and contracts. The plantings are more like that of an arboretum, as the spacing of the plants is critical for the survival of the collection. This is how they would occur in habitat as there wouldn’t be enough moisture in the ground in dry times to maintain a continuous canopy. The garden was conceived in 1986 and it was envisaged right from the very start that it would be a showcase for native floras. The first plants went in the ground in 1988 and several thousand trees and shrubs have been planted since that time. A large percentage of plants have been lost to drought and replaced. Drought cycles may be ten years or more and young plants don’t make it through these times. Young plants are mulched and are helped with trickle irrigation but the loss of some plants, it seems, is the reality of gardening in this region. The original time scale for the evolution of the garden was planned in decades as apposed to years as many under story shrubs and delicate ephemeral plants will only be able to survive once a mature over story has been established.

The drought in Goondiwindi persists in any regions beyond the towns flood levies.

The main canopy colour is silver to glaucus green although some trees like the Queensland Lacebark Brachychiton discolor with its swollen bottle shaped trunk to act as a reservoir looked distinctly glossy, lush and green among it’s counterparts. Being high summer now there were no trees or shrubs putting on grand floral displays as blousy water hungry petals would get burned to a crisp in no time. On closer inspection there were plenty of species in flower, filling a niche, the majority of which are comprised of  only the bare essentials.

Callostemma purpureum (Garland Lilly) and (Bauhinia) Latin name unknown

Eremorphila neglecta 'Olive' and Callistemon 'Injume Pink'

Acacia salicina (Doolan) and Acacia species

Eremorphila polyclada and Eucalyptus species

The main foliage type is schlerophyll (tough leaved) like those of Eucalyptus species and often their colour is glaucus or silver. Eremorphila glabra 'Compacta' has small hairy leaves held close to the stems. Others like Cassia artemesioides (Silver Cassia) have reduced their leaves to needles and Hakea purpurea has done away with leaves all together photosynthesising through the green stems.

Cassia artemesioides (Silver Cassia) and Eremorphila glabra 'Compacta'

Hakea purpurea and silver foliage, plant unknown

Many of the more showy early flowering trees are now shedding their seeds. The flowering of Brachychiton species are supposed to be spectacular and it is often used as an ornamental in parks and gardens. I’ve yet to see one in full bloom.

Brachychiton discolor (Queensland Lacebark) and Senna circinnata (Spring Pod Cassia)

Pittosporum phylliraeoides (Native Apricot) and black seeds, unknown plant

Another adaptation to cope with the harsh environment is to develop symbiotic relationships like the ants living inside the galls on the Acacia pendula which help defend the tree against browsing and aid pollination. Unfortunately not all the ants live in the trees and I seem to have developed the knack stopping to take photos right on top of their nests.

Acacia pendula (Myall) with ant gall and Brachychiton discolor (Queensland Lacebark) leaf and Shield Bug

Brachychiton rupestris (Bottle Tree) leaves made into spider nests and a row of eggs on a leaf

Here is a bit about Lake Eyre. 

There is still a few months of apple picking to be done, then my plan was to travel inland to the Simpson Desert for a week or so then double back and head north to the tropics of northern Queensland. These plans may change and I may now turn south and follow the inland creeks down to Lake Eyre to see the transformation of the floods, the greening of the desert and the accompanying boom in wildlife. Not having a four wheel drive I'm not yet shore how feasible this plan would be, but there is still plenty of time to research and make a decision.