Patrick Blanc’s wall garden

What could a tropical plant specialist possibly come up with that would accommodate a wall 200m long and 4 stories high, which faces North and is only a stone’s throw from the River Seine- lovely in the summer but with roaring winds in the winter?  Well, I would imagine that many people asked that question of Patrick Blanc in 2005 when he began work on the vast Vertical Garden, Mur Végétal, part of the Musée du Quai Branly.  I have watched Vertical Gardens on the telly, Gardener’s World Live did one in Birmingham one year, I think, and I have been less than impressed.  Plants hanging from pockets in a jumble accompanied by over-enthusiastic voice-overs.  Ouch.

But Patrick Blanc is the real deal. Take a look at the richness and density of the planting below.

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Fatsia, heuchera and the rest performing at the Musée du Quai Branly, designed by Patrick Blanc, Paris, February 2016

Now, this is February, on a cold and grey day, so just like our own gardens, it would be churlish to expect a vertical wall to look totally fabulous, so there are some bare patches, see below.

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Ok, some bare patches, but I love the travelling iris (?) which recurs in other photos, Paris, February 2016

and here, a plant that you would not expect,

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And a euphorbia doing just fine, with a good lean, Paris, February 2016
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Bergenia hanging on in there, waiting for Spring, Paris, February 2016

There are many more brilliant photos on his own site which give much more detail than I could achieve.  But I can tell you that we stood outside, walking up and down on the little traffic island in the centre of 4 lanes of traffic, looking at it, talking about it, photographing it, identifying plants or trying to, for about 20 minutes.  He is very clear about his technique for planting, and, in case you want to give it a go, I have quoted it here

“…On a load-bearing wall or structure is placed a metal frame that supports a PVC plate 10 millimetres (0.39 in) thick, on which are stapled two layers of polyamide felt each 3 millimetres (0.12 in) thick. These layers mimic cliff-growing mosses and support the roots of many plants. A network of pipes controlled by valves provides a nutrient solution containing dissolved minerals needed for plant growth. The felt is soaked by capillary action with this nutrient solution, which flows down the wall by gravity. The roots of the plants take up the nutrients they need, and excess water is collected at the bottom of the wall by a gutter, before being re-injected into the network of pipes: the system works in a closed circuit. Plants are chosen for their ability to grow on this type of environment and depending on available light…”

It is top-notch technical as you can see, and nothing is left to chance except for the effects of the elements in the case of an outside wall.

But, here in Tostat, and I really wasn’t sure about this, Andy took 4 baby agaves and posted them into the wall of our New Garden.  No closed system technology for us, just some compost and the experience of someone who said that they had tried it.  After the driest summer we have had in 11 years, they are still there, battered but unbowed.  Here they are as they were in late Spring last year.  The theory is that they are facing South for warmth, tick, and they will absorb humidity through the leaves without needing water at the roots, though we did water occasionally last year.  So, when they make it through this soaking wet weather we are having, I will be eating hats.

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Baby Agave Americana posted into our wall, Tostat, May 2015
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And another one….Tostat, May 2015

Going out with a bang…the century plant that doesn’t live up to it’s name

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Agave americana, Fuente de Cantos, Extremadura, Spain, October 2015

One of the most astonishing natural sights on the Via de la Plata. Arriving, hot and tired from the walk that day, we sat on a bar terrace with a couple of nice, cold glasses, and there it was. So tall that I almost missed the top of it with the camera.  Agave americana, sometimes called the century plant, reaches an impressive height when flowering. The link to the Eden Project page above gives 9m as the likely maximum flowering height, and I would say that the one we saw was in that ballpark.  As you can see, it had been clipped and trimmed to maximise the impression of height and protect customers from the very sharp leaf spikes.  That night there was a massive storm, but it was still standing in the morning.

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Flowerheads, Agave americana, October 2015

The flowerheads, when they are at their best, are bright yellow and striking- in my photograph, you can see that they have almost gone over.  The whole plant dies after flowering, having consumed vast amounts of energy to produce the inflorescence. It was once thought that the Agave americana flowered only once a century, hence the name, but we now know that a more likely lifespan is around 30 years.  It grows slowly and is mainly propagated by rhizomatous offsets that congregate around the parent plant as it grows.

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Agave americana, El Real de la Jara, Andalucia, Spain, September 2015

The agave’s favourite landscape. Hilly, rough, stony and poor, the agave will rapidly colonise an area if allowed to.  The sap of the plant can be harvested to form agave syrup, the heart of the plant can also be eaten and baked- it is a member of the asparagus family. There are numerous medical uses for the plant, stored as dried material in Central America. The link above takes you to the ‘Plants for a Future’ website, one of my favourites, covering ecology, sustainability and plant use knowledge.

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Agave americana, rhizomatous offsets clustering by the dead parent plant, September 2015

And now for something completely different.

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Campsis radicans, Merida, October 2015

On a rest day in the incredible, and unknown to us, city of Merida, we visited the outstanding Roman amphitheatre site- one of many superb and surprising Roman ruins in the city. There, twined around a Roman pillar, was the eye-catching Campsis radicans or Trumpet Vine. It is a thing of beauty. And growing in the hot dust of Merida, perhaps it is unlikely to indulge it’s thuggish tendencies to muscle in and go for world domination. The Merida plant had wonderful flame striations of orange cutting through the red, which really took my eye.

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Campsis radicans, Merida, October 2015.

In Tostat, I have planted a close relative, Campsis x tagliabuana ‘Madame Galen’, and for a while, I thought I should give up gardening as it seemed to grow like a weed for anyone else in Tostat except me. But now, some years later, it is doing fine, though obstinately flowering on the road-side of the wall rather than our side.  Stubbornness seems to be a feature of Trumpet Vine!

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Campsis x tagliabuana ‘Madame Galen’, Tostat, June 2015