Mur vegetal, Madrid. I think I love you.

Mur vegetal, Patrick Blanc, Caixa Forum, Madrid, December 2016

In February this year, on a visit to Paris and the Musée du Quai Branly, I first saw a Patrick Blanc creation and wrote about it.   It sounds almost like a couture dress, fresh from the atelier, with the world’s fashionistas in waiting, doesn’t it- but no, we are talking wall gardens with great presence and surprise.

So, coming out of the gorgeous Philippe Halsman ‘Surprise Me!’ exhibition when it was almost dark, I almost missed my second Patrick Blanc, despite the fact that it was looming above me.  It is an immense wall garden, towering above the plaza below, the scale of which you can see by the size of the passing lady in my photograph, taken later.

Right up against the Herzog and de Meuron Caixa building in the CaixaForum, there the wall garden was, absolutely holding its own with the monumental scale of the modern architecture around it.  Rivulets of colour and big splodges of contrasting leaves and forms blend together, a bit like a Kaffe Fassett sweater on a colossal scale.  Wherever you looked, plants were cavorting and spreading, scrambling together and fighting each other off.  The whole thing was a stunning exposition of nature in action.  I loved it.

Profile of the Mur Vegetal, Patrick Blanc, CaixaForum, Madrid, December 2016

It was too dark to take photographs so I had to wait until we passed by again, on our way to Atocha station, on a sunny day two days later.  The colours were sensational- especially when you think that Madrid is seriously hot until October and now winter is here.  And it is only now that the wall will have experienced rainfall as opposed its own self-irrigation system as devised by Blanc.

Decaying pinks and vibrant reds, Mur Vegetal, Patrick Blanc, Madrid, December 2016
Yellows, greens, creams and reds, Mur Vegetal, Patrick Blanc, CaixaForum, Madrid, December 2016

This wall garden was the first  of its kind in Spain when planting began in 2008.  The planting area exceeds 450m² and there are reputed to be more than 15,000 plants, and over 250 species, growing there. Reaching up to 78 ft above ground, the planting does actually move and bend in the wind, which adds a real vibrancy and life to the wall.  For a time-lapse series of photographs and drawings showing the growth and extension of a Blanc wall planting over time,  there is a very useful FunCage blog article here.

From an engineering point of view, the plants do the work, growing into polyamide felt, creating their own structures of roots and shoots, and watering, combined with fertilisation,  is provided from the roof into the felt, allowing the plants to circulate and share the water themselves.  This trickle effect creates a great micro-climate just above the surface of the wall.  The plants themselves also contribute to pollution removal from the city atmsophere.  No earth is used, and there are no silly planting pockets either.

The blogger, Twisted Sifter, has a compendium of some of Blanc’s work around the world. Check out some incredible installations that he has made to beautify and refresh our cities.  What an inspiration.

And here is my favourite photograph of Musée du Quai Branly…

Euphorbias and carex, bright in the February gloom, Musée du Quai Branly, Paris, February 2016


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

Gilles Clément and the Musée du Quai Branly

Gilles Clément photo credit:

Last weekend, I saw the gardens of the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris. The Musuem was opened in 2006 and is Paris’ newest museum, dedicated to the indigenous art and culture of Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas.  Jacques Chirac’s parting project from his Presidency, it is a bold and dynamic modern building designed by Jean Nouvel, the great French architect. Wrapped around the building is a large and wandering garden space, protected by glass walls on the river Seine side of the site.  The garden space was designed by Gilles Clément, with an extra feature designed by Patrick Blanc, of which more later.

This garden space is open, inclusive and very, very clever.  Paths set off with no particular place to go, meandering between curving plantings of magnolia and other human-sized trees, inviting you to weave in amongst the planting without any requirement to obey.  The cleverness is created by the sweeping, swerving repeat planting of grasses, euphorbias and other not particularly special plants.  Nothing here for the plant snob, which, to my mind,  simply evokes movement and freedom from rules.  It makes no-one feel small because they don’t know the Latin name of the plant.  In fact, I saw no plant tags at all.

I’m not saying that identifying something is intrinsically a problem- just that sometimes in some gardens, identification can verge on the encouragement of snobbery.  And in a very public space, where the object is to encourage wandering in the open air and the noticing of natural beauty,  such simplicity supports rather than detracts.  Sadly, the grasses had just been pruned!  But you can imagine….

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Lovely grass underplanting of Magnolia stellata, Musée du Quai Branly, Paris, February 2016
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Quirky pergola and cut grasses, Musee du Quai Branly, Paris, February 2016
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Cut grasses and euphorbia planting, lifted by Perspex columns, Musée du Quai Branly, Paris, February 2016
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Detail of above

I didn’t know much about Gilles Clément.  I had heard of the Parc André-Citroën in Paris, which he designed in conjunction with Alain Provost, and I am seriously planning on going there later in the year, especially after this last visit.  So I read up a little about him.  He has been described as one of the most important public space garden designers.  His essential view is that nature is not to be messed with, but to be assisted by the gardener as a guide.  He speaks for a simpler style, one which engages with human beings, he says,

“…“My gardens are meant to be brushed against…”

And you can feel this in the Museum garden space.  It stands out as simple and compelling.   Strolling in the garden,  these beautiful Magnolia stellata, some white and some the less often-grown pink, were flowering sublimely as the light in the afternoon faded.  They were planted close to the path, one even had an obliging manhole cover right next to it that I hopped onto, to get closer.  So he meant it about brushing against the garden.

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Pink Magnolia stellata flower, Musée du Quai Branly, Paris, February 2016
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White Magnolia stellata flowers, Musée du Quai Branly, Paris, February 2016

And meantime, back in Tostat, a week later, my Magnolia is just venturing out, looking rather Japanese, I thought.

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