The world is finally, at the last minute, waking up to the impending effects and consequences of climate change. In the scramble to work out we must do (apart from the obvious cessation of burning fossil fuels), one thing, one factor is looming large: we need to put carbon back into the soil, where it can be stored indefinitely, and we need to reforest the Earth. Much of this is in the agricultural realm but there is a huge amount that can – and must – be done within the landscape and horticultural sectors.
Horticulture has a MISSION, it just doesn’t realise it yet
At the centre of this is good soil husbandry, something that we have largely forgotten about. Modern agriculture bypasses all need of soil health by chemically feeding crops; no need for microbes, nutrients, humus, mycelium or earthworms. Chemical fertilisers and herbicides bypass the lot. Most of our soils now are depleted to the point of useless by chemical farming, exacerbated by the tradition of ploughing, which causes erosion from rain and enables much of the soil carbon to move back into the atmosphere.
So whilst we need current global models of food production to transform into regenerative agriculture and agroforestry, we also need to look at our urban landscapes and gardens, and create a new design ethic, a new paradigm, even. I can’t deal here with agriculture but I have been thinking long and hard on what the landscape and horticulture trades need to do; fortunately, I believe there is a lot that we can do.
We need to envelope our existing horticulture trade within ecology, to create an “environmental horticulture” You could also call it ecological, resilience or regenerative horticulture. We (those of us in the trade) know that as a profession, the training of both horticulture (growing) and landscape (doing) are in decline. Horticultural colleges have shrinking budgets and often get the less ambitious or capable students; after all, who is inspired by the prospect of strimming verges or hedge-trimming another unloved carparking lot? Yet last year’s report by the Ornamental Horticulture Roundtable Group valued horticulture at £24.2 billion in GDP in 2017. That’s not inconsequential, yet it goes unrecognised. Fortunately, there is a way to make it much more enticing to prospective students.
Horticulture has a MISSION, it just doesn’t realise it yet. That mission is to adapt our urban landscapes and gardens to cope with climate change, to mitigate temperatures, water flows, to grow biomass and regenerate soils back to health. Healthy soil is the foundation of life, of all life, including our own. Good soil holds fertility, water and carbon. Yet who amongst us now knows much of soil science? Who designs landscapes as ecologies, as “novel ecosystems”, who chooses plants because they have these abilities, not just for pretty flowers? Who designs plantings for their biomass harvest, for creating mulches to feed the soil?
In this respect, I don’t believe it’s necessary – or right, in fact – to work with native plants only. What is native? What was native? What was here 11,700 years ago when the last glacial period ended and the glaciers retreated? Flora and fauna move around the globe all the time, they are opportunistic, not fixed permanently into some tightly integrated ecosystem. We know there is no “ecological climax”, no ultimate ecosystem for any given place. As temperatures rise, climate zones are now shifting away from the equator quicker than Nature can keep up, although it’ll get there eventually. Maybe we help nature, rather than interfere when we bring in exotic plants that naturalise. Maybe those plants are the start of new ecologies that will adapt to the rapid changes that this climate emergency is bringing us. If plants do well, we need to understand how to enhance and build new ecologies with them. This is how we adapt, how we survive and how we rectify the damage we have done as a species; not by returning to some pristine “before” (which doesn’t exist) but by assisting Nature to heal and adapt. The Earth will do this all by itself, and has done so many times. It doesn’t mind if it takes thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of years to adapt. But we do; we can’t wait that long.
So horticulture needs to stop growing pansies in peat with unrecyclable plastic trays and start sorting out which plants really matter for our future; which ones contribute to new and existing ecologies, which ones are good for biomass, which ones contribute to soil health, which ones give us ecosystem services. We should not enhance one environment at the expense of another.
That’s a very-near future profession of trained eco-warriors, soil saviours, tree patriots and landscape lovers. It needs people who understand soil, who know how to design and use sensors, data and the internet of things, people who see what’s coming and how to mitigate and reverse negative effects, people who really know how to design and install green infrastructure and future automated robotic maintenance systems. Our landscapes can grow food in amongst all the beauty, with urban food forests. We need new knowledge built on old and we need passion, commitment. A wise government would fund this for the returns will be numerous.
This is the enlightenment, that out of dire stress and trouble, we could really learn how to value, connect with and protect this crazy, beautiful world within which we live. Or we can do nothing and watch it all go to hell. I know which I’ll be doing.
The safety of children and water is potentially a controversial issue and I want to make it clear from the start that these are genuine thoughts, with genuine intent but please don’t try and hold me liable for any disasters or accidents that may befall you or your loved ones. I cannot be responsible for your life and any decisions you make on this issue are yours alone. I naturally hope and intend that only good and positive benefit can come from this writing.
Children have an almost universal fascination with water, and parents
an equally almost universal fear of it, or of their children being near
it. We have all heard the horror stories of children drowning in a
pond, or even a shallow puddle and our hearts go out to those
unfortunate few who have suffered such a fate.
But we seem to live in a fear-driven compensation culture, which
stifles creativity or adventure because of the risk of hurt. Authorities
and companies cannot afford to take risks, or allow other to take them.
and more things get banned in the interests of public safety. The
world may be safer as a result but it is certainly blander.
As a young child I would walk the suburban mile or so to school on my own, ride my bike to visit friends, play down at the dump, swim in the sea and generally have freedoms many children are not now able to experience. But creative play is an essential part of a child’s development and must be catered for somehow. A love and respect of water should be encouraged and this requires contact and familiarity with it. I believe that those most at risk are those who do not appreciate the dangers and those who are too young to.
It is true, of course, that much of this familiarity, or lack of, will be caused by the geography of your environment. If you don’t have water in daily proximity, it is hard to become familiar with it. If you don’t see with your own eyes how a little stream can become a raging torrent after a downpour, then you will not be aware of the potential danger. Knowing the dangers brings about respect, gives us boundaries beyond which we know that things aren’t safe. In urban areas, the increasing use of WSUDs (water sensitive urban design) in the form of swales and rain gardens is a positive development.
There’s another good reason for us to have regular contact with water and that is a biophilic one. Water is a vital element, which, through modern living, we now tend to regard as no more than a right of utility. But water is the life force of the planet, and so of ourselves. Why else would we want it in our gardens? It soothes us, distracts us from our cares, puts us in touch with those deeper fundamentals of life, if we but let it. Children who experience this often can only be better off for it.
So if I’ve convinced you that it’s good for children to experience water, let’s think about how we might do so with some safety. First of all, young children should be supervised by an adult or responsible elder child, that goes without saying. I don’t advocate that you leave them alone. I don’t know if there are any statistics available as to the ages of children that have accidents with water, but parental sense will tell us all that children under five have little comprehension of danger and must be watched very carefully, as must those of all ages with special needs. Water features should perhaps be fenced off while children are in their early years.
If there’s not much you can do about water in your wider environment, then you can perhaps create a feature in your own garden.
Steep sides are the most dangerous aspect of a water feature, preventing children (and animals) from being able to stand up or climb out.
Loose paving on the edges of ponds is another risk factor; use only large slabs or stones and make sure that they have only a small percentage of overhang, and are securely cemented in place. Better yet, use a pond-edge design style which doesn’t use paving in this manner at all.
With gently sloping sides, layers of subsoil, gravel or shingle will protect the pond liner and give good grip for feet and hands – bare liner tends to be slippery and is more vulnerable to damage. Good construction helps all round, although that is not the subject of this article. If you have an overhanging deck, make sure the water is not too deep at this point and that children can’t get trapped underneath it. Metal or plastic grids can also be built into a pond, sitting just below the water level. These need careful thought as to their siting as they must take the weight of a person without breaking. The danger is these can look very industrial.
As a final thought, if you want moving water but don’t want the depth of a pond, consider a stream garden, where water just flows along a shallow water-course. There is no pond as such and the water just disappears underground into a hidden sump tank, which houses the pump and which is inaccessible..
In conclusion, there are many things that children learn from playing with water: self confidence, balance, awareness of danger, responsibility, experience of wildlife and of Nature’s rhythms. A careful and reasoned approach is what is required for allow a child safe, creative exploration.
And of course, we adults are all children at heart, too. Play safe.
The emergence of the idea of resilient planting is a response to a number of different pressures which all have one underlying cause – climate change. Whatever the cause – and I’ll get on to that later – I see it as the most exciting change to the way we design our gardens and landscapes.
Last year we had one of the hottest summers ever recorded and it serves to heighten awareness of the vulnerability of some plants and garden styles to the increasingly erratic climate we are dealing with in the UK. We seem to swing from one extreme to the other, and this is only likely to get worse. I’ve witnessed a number of stressed plants in my own garden but feel relieved that most have thrived throughout the heat, without any watering on my part. this is down to soil, drainage, micro-climate and above all, plant choice.
Ballota pseudodictamnus, a Mediterranean sub-shrub with grey, felted leaves, loved by bees.
We garden on an alluvial coastal plain, and are fortunate to have a very free-draining soil overlying a clay substrate. It gives us fertile soil, great drainage and a moist sub-strata within the reach of most plants (many areas around us are of much heavier clay). A large section of our front area used to be a paddock with a rubble driveway and this now forms the basis of much of my dry garden. Some rubble was removed and topsoil added, but a lot of areas are still rubble-strewn, not unlike some rocky soils. The down side of all this is super-fertility and a soil filled with weed seeds, bindweed and couch. To be honest, I’d have preferred a poorer soil.
When thinking of resilient planting, we have to match our plant type to the environment; we also have to think, long-term, of how our environment might change in the coming years. This is not so important when dealing with short-lived plants such as herbs, sub-shrubs and perennials, but is super important when dealing with long-term structures, especially trees. This is doubly true when we look at the potentially disastrous effects of imported pests and diseases that we are having to content with. Climate change, especially milder winters, mean that exotic pests are happily making a home here and wreaking an unintentional devastation to trees such as our native ash and even oak.
Phlomis russeliana, after flowering. The stem leaves have since dropped, leaving a brown, architectural structure.
No-one can say exactly which way our climate will go as the world hots up; we know we (in the UK) will always be maritime, because that can’t change, but as the Jet stream (wind currents) varies and the Gulf stream (water currents) weakens, we don’t really know what kind of climate we’ll end up with. We can only plan for extremes, and select our planting choices with that in mind. In this respect, the “new perennial” or “naturalistic” planting isn’t necessarily going to be the toughest choice as they come from a continental climate which generally have hot summers and very cold winters. Prairie plants tend to get out-competed here with our mild winters and grasses and forbs that can grow all year round, given mild conditions. The aforementioned fertility (at least in my garden’s case) also doesn’t help as wildflower meadows/prairies tend to have poor soil which helps keep the grasses from assuming dominance. During the heat-stressed weeks, I noticed that where I have perennials like Echinacea and Veronicastrum (in moister areas than the dry garden), they suffered from the lack of water. which resulted in the Veronacastrum flower spikes looking stunted. for more moisture-demanding planting, sub-surface irrigation using harvested rainwater might become a necessity.
To my mind though, if you need irrigation you’re working with the wrong plant-types, trying to grow plants that can’t naturally cope with the conditions that predominate. Save your water for the newly planted and the vegetable plot and for this, consider rainwater harvesting, rather than mains. When selecting plants, see what grows well, both of native and non-native origins and build adaptive micro-ecologies. Our climate is changing faster than the current ecosystems and ecologies can cope with and we need to do whatever we can to build new planting that is of maximum benefit to local wildlife, as well as ourselves.
It’s an exciting time to be a gardener, for there is no place now for the self-indulgence and nature-control-freakishness of the past. What there is a the possibility of co-creating new ecologies that adapt to changes, halt decline and make our local wildlife vibrant and healthy.
Along the way, we can create the most stunning of gardens!
NOTE: This article was first written in 2006, so some aspects have been updated to reflect current realities.
Biomembranes is a term I’m borrowing from biology (the structure bounding a cell) to describe the outer skin of future self-sustaining buildings. I have stated elsewhere that I believe that for the built environment – and therefore our societies – to become sustainable, every building and community must deal with its own wastes, generate its own energy and provide nourishment – both physical and emotional – for the occupiers. Only by the creation of truly independant, carbon neutral buildings can we achieve this.
This would be a subtle and far reaching art, not easy to achieve but I believe that the rewards would be many, not to mention necessary. In this respect, the science of biomimicry will play an important part, for example, in developing paint-on polymers that photosynthesize energy, or tensioned fabric five times stronger than steel or kelvar, made with no heat or pollution, just like a spider’s thread. Whilst we haven’t perfected those products yet, let me list some of the benefits we can look to achieve in the near future:
horizontal and vertical skins of living plants that insulate, filter the air of dust and pollution, dampen noise and attract wildlife. Current living walls are used sparingly as art pieces.
composting and filtration systems that clean the building’s waste and return nutrients and water to the biomembrane and surrounding landscape.
Algal biofuel production using building wastes.
interior landscapes that provide internal cleansing and beauty.
blurring of internal/external space.
energy generation as integral with the building fabric as passive solar/pv/wind.
pedestrianised streets as wooded valleys or urban forest gardens.
SUDS drainage to filter excess water straight back to the local water table.
pedestrian/bike/electric vehicle shared surfaces removing car domination.
increase of social space by good design.
Some of these ideas are becoming well established, such as green (or living) roofs and walls, others are being played with by a few, but as yet, no one is trying to pull all these things together into a cohesive whole system. I am thinking of concepts such as combining vertical greening with greywater filtration, active cooling systems, air purification and algal biofuel from building wastes. I have recently been inspired by the work of the world-renowned architect Ken Yeang (Llewelyn Davies Yeang) based in London and Malaysia. Ken has worked extensively on the concepts of bio-climatic buildings and so his ideas are very close to my heart. Furthermore, one of his main concerns is the organisation of internal space by social structure, rather than by economic return on investment. This very much reminds me of the work of Christopher Alexander (see Pattern Language); despite apparent differences of style, the underlying philosophy is similar, Ken’s work placing it into a modern urban context.
There is a lot to do but the future will need autonomous
bio-buildings that take care of themselves without external input, other
than sunlight and human organisation. The main challenge is then to
retrofit these systems to existing buildings, which will always be the
large majority of available building stock.
Meanwhile, take inspiration from the work of Hundertwasser (top right) and Ken Yeang (bottom right). The application of green technology, biological water filtration and the use of every surface to create living, breathing buildings shows that humanity can and will grow up and see beyond the profit line, which so dominates and limits current thinking.
On my most recent trip to Dubai, I enjoyed walking through some of the new landscapes that emerge as projects are completed. The UAE, along with most regions of the Middle-east has a rather limited palette of plants to work with (although that is growing as new plants are tried). What struck me, however, was how poor the quality of nursery stock was in some cases and what problems are being created for later, especially with regards trees.
This is not new, nor confined to this part of the world but it bothers me that new areas of urban green are sometimes given a poor start with sub-standard nursery stock, often flown in from other parts of the world.
Simple pruning at an early stage would have improved this tree’s framework, removing crossing and rubbing branches.
Wandering around a residential area in Jumeirah, I came across some newly planted Delonix regia, one of my favourite exotic trees. At first glance it looked nice, a simple planting of trees and groundcover but on closer inspection I was somewhat dismayed at the condition of the them. The problems of poor framework were caused by their time in the nursery, not due to planting, although some of them could have been rectified by a vigilant planting crew.
This tree tie – complete with post – must have been like this from the nursery. The post did not reach the ground.
Many of the dozen or so trees had ties left on which the tree had grown around completely, making them impossible to remove. As the planting is only around two years old (by my estimation), these may have been on the trees from their time in the nursery. Possibly the planting was older and pre-dated the building they were attached to and the trees then grew around the ties after planting. Either way, it’s a strong indication of neglect or lack of care. In the picture below, all the bark ridge above the tie may indicate “included bark” – bark sandwiched against bark, preventing live tissue growth and a strong branch collar formation.
The tree tie is trapped with “included bark” at the branch collar, which indicates a potentially weak branch join.
Several problems are arising here: pre-planting care in the form of correct formative pruning (five minutes with a pair of secateurs) and Post-planting care in terms of releasing planting ties – if they were not simply left over from the nursery days. If there is no way to go back and release the ties, a bio-degradable tie should have been used.
This Ficus nigra was most likely damaged long before it was planted in this location.
Damage to the main trunk or structural framework of a tree might go unnoticed when the trees are small but cause major problems as the tree gets older and puts on size and weight. This can range from the cosmetic to the potentially dangerous in a large tree and at this stage the remedy is costly and the expertise hard to find.
As fast-growing cities like Dubai mature, the needs of landscape shift from creation (in a hurry) to maintenance (at a constant pace). Skills, awareness of the need for – and absence – of skills, will become more and more urgent. If Dubai wants to keep it’s beautiful, green mantle, then there is a whole new phase of arboricultural care awaiting to be discovered and initiated. I have carried out trees assesments and given basic training of correct pruning methods in the UAE, but that has hardly scratched the surface; there is a lot more to be done.
Trees are the urban, biophilic, blanket that clothe and surround the concrete mountains we build. Trees make hot places not just bearable, but unbelievably beautiful. Trees absorb dust, cool the air, add moisture and oxygen and enrich our Souls. We need to honour and look after them, so that they can look after us.
The way in which we design, create, maintain and use urban landscapes is likely to change radically in the next 15 years (in fact, modern society is in for overwhelming change). Urbanisation, climate change and the rapid rise of technology and artificial intelligence (AI) will see to that. Don’t think that the rate of change will be the same as has occurred in the previous 15 years, for technological growth is on an exponential growth curve, not a linear one. Cities and systems are becoming smart, connected to the Internet of Things and that is just for starters. So how will this change the way we design and use our urban landscapes?
Firstly, we know that there is huge movement of populations from rural to urban life, especially in the developing worlds and most markedly in Asia. This creates huge pressure for new urban infrastructure and this is not always well planned growth, especially in terms of forward thinking to account for future changes. Nonetheless, it is happening and happening fast. The UN expects 66% of the world’s population to be urban by 2050, by which time there will be 9bn of us – so 6bn in cities. Mega-cities have to grow in a way that sustains huge numbers of people.
Secondly, climate change is also occurring at exponential rates, raising the difficulties of living in any environment but with especial problems for mega cities, most of which are in coastal regions and subject to rising sea levels and worsening weather patterns. Cities are hotter than the surrounding land due to the nature of materials used, whilst heavy rainfall brings flash-flooding. In arid countries, built environments are in danger of becoming too hot for humans to inhabit. Cities will have to take on these challenges, generating micro-climate.
Thirdly, technological change is happening exponentially and this will impact what we do, how we live, how – if – we work and how we tackle the above problems. Some view the challenges and changes with fear, thinking they will only exacerbate problems. They could do, anything can be mismanaged (such as a planet) for example. I foresee that technology is actually the only way we are going to get ourselves out of the mess we have created, the only thing that can act on the vast scale needed to re-balance an out-of-kilter Gaia.
When we take these three factors into account, we can see that the future of urban landscapes has to be so much more than the addition of the odd pocket-park here and there. Landscapes have to mitigate the environmental factors, make huge mega-cities liveable for a population increasingly disconnected from nature and provide meaningful lives in an era when many of us may not work in the way we are used to.
Weedy and neglected landscape plantings are all too common. No-one wants to pay for maintenance
How will cities become smart and use this to better the environment? If we are looking to increase the amount of urban landscaping significantly, then the first issue to tackle is cost of maintenance. No one wants to pay for maintenance and often, no one does. How many planted landscapes do you see smothered in weeds, wrecking or negating the designed purpose? Or municipal plantings and car-parks where plants inevitably die and are never replaced, leaving huge gaps. Shrubs hedge trimmed into amorphous shapes because that’s the quickest way to “maintain” them. It’s a poor standard and it’s all we’re going to get – no-one is going to pay for trained horticulturalists to do something better.
Landscape lobotomy: maintenance is the quickest, cheapest possible
Yet there is an interesting possibility – automation is likely to remove nearly 50% of jobs in the next decade, especially low-skilled or repetitive ones. In the landscape trade, there are already semi-autonomous strimmers and grass-cutters on the market, how long before we have horticultural robots maintaining our landscapes? All the technology is already here, prices are falling and an uplink to an AI would identify every weed known, give the correct procedures, know how and when to prune every plant in common cultivation. Robots would work long hours without tea breaks! If basic maintenance getters a lot cheaper, we can have more landscape and such robots would be cheaper, eventually. Living walls would be a prime candidate, with a simple maintenance cradle (much like a 3D printer head) that crosses the wall with a maintenance bot on it. I’ve seen so many potential living wall projects fall at the maintenance-cost hurdle. In such a scenario, displaced maintenance crew can retrain as bot-supervisors or true horticulturalist for private clients.
Horticultural robots will make maintenance cheaper and more effective.
We’re going to have to do more than just make maintenance affordable; rather, that is the factor that releases the possibility to do more urban landscaping. Many of the elements we need to put in place are already in existence and being used, but we need to join the dots and think holistically. For example, green roofs are seen as a separate trade from green (I prefer living) walls. Instead, we need to be talking of biological membranes (biomembranes) for buildings, a whole-system concept, where the living skin regulates the internal environment, filters pollution in both directions, dealing with generation of energy, cooling, clean air and water. Living walls that currently use potable water for irrigation when they could be cleaning up the used greywater that all buildings generate is another example.
Building Biomembranes regulate building ecology and create vertical landscapes
Systems that provide services that are of consequence to the functioning of a building, street, or neighbourhood need careful management and control, much of which will become automated. In just the last year, for example, new irrigation controllers have come on the market which not only are connected to you via internet, they also connect to the nearest weather station and adjust their regime according to the conditions. I use these for living walls; I do not advocate any irrigation for horizontal landscapes in temperate climates. But things will move beyond this, with AI monitoring ground moisture levels and moving harvested rainwater from one holding system out to another part of the city where it is needed. And urban farming – especially vertical – will be a large part of mega-city greening, although it might not be on display. Sophisticated hydroponic systems are springing up in warehouses and roof-top polytunnels all over. Such food can and should be organic, local, healthy, nutritious.
A smartly connected landscape means we can maximize the benefit it gives to the people who live, work or pass through it. With the majority of people living in urban mega cities, we have to create an environment that is fit for ultra-dense urban living. As these metropolis’ grow, people will have less and less daily contact with Nature, which is not good for our deeper wellbeing. Biophilia is our innate need for contact with the natural world: plants, trees, flowers, insects, sunlight, water, earth. A concrete jungle is not a substitute for the real thing but we mostly won’t have time to “get out there” and experience wild Nature.
I think inner city pollution will blow over – excuse the pun- in the next 5-10 years as we start a massive switch over to electric transport, most of it driverless. In fact, drone taxis are already under development and as buildings and living habitats reach skyward we can expect the landscape to move with them. It will become commonplace to have high-level dronepads – even private ones. Some people might not even go down to the ground much! So landscapes and biophilia must come to them. Fortunately, there is a rash of building-integrated vegetation going on and I see this trend increasing. Incidentally, if you wanted more good reasons for using bots to maintain planting, imagine working on living walls or trees that are 50 stories up!
As for the wider environment and the looming crisis of climate change, I can only hope that emerging nanotechnologies give us the tools to clean up our act and neutralise the positive feedback loops we are creating. Scientists are already working on nanotechnologies which capture and convert carbon into useful materials and one day such microscopic machines may roam our land and seas, removing plastics and other dangerous waste. If this is done at a molecular level, we turn problems into resources. We’ll be printing our houses (already being tested) compounds made from waste materials but without the current worries of using say, bricks made from recycled plastic which off-gas VOCs. We can only hope these technologies emerge before it’s too late to save the climate in a state that we can survive in.
So the next 10-15 years are going to see change at an unprecedented rate and it may not all be a smooth ride. I am excited by it however and think that there is much to be done to ensure that we create new urban environments worthy of habitation and that we take care of all environments and indeed the whole planet. Smart cities are coming and at their best they could loosen our imaginations and liberate us from a monotonous life of work and stress. Let’s make that the scenario that happens…
Almost all urban landscapes are contrived and designed, due to their artificial nature and short timescales of development and use. We see increasing use of mature rootballed trees and extensive hard landscape and this is normal for intense inner urban areas; I do get concerned that the increasing complexity of urban planting systems divorce trees particularly from their natural functions and prevent the occurrence of the biological interactions/communities that go to make up an ecosystem. For example, I have seen trees planted whose surface levels are around a metre below the surrounding paving level. No matter how well designed, this seems fundamentally wrong to me.
So I’m thinking that there must be a way of dealing with the majority of less intense landscape zones (especially where there isn’t the financial budget that a high-end development attracts) to provide urban regeneration, ecological restoration and biophilic connection, all on a modest budget. This would create a new method to allow for wide-spread adoption in urban and suburban zones. I think the solution comes from Nature’s own process of natural regeneration and a developed philosophy of minimal (but specific) preparation.
silver birch are pioneering species for natural regeneration
Starting from the observation that Nature is very efficient at regenerating itself, what can we do? Too often, I have seen unnecessary interference in this process. I still recall that a few years after the great storm of 1987, I walked through some nearby National Trust woodland of pines and birch. A great deal of damage had been done with many trees blown over. Birch had however, regrown abundantly from dormant seed and was already three or four foot tall. The NT then sent in the bulldozers to clear out the fallen wood so the area could be – replanted. I watched them tracking over all the natural regeneration. Why didn’t they just leave well alone? The restoration of the woodland was only slowed down by such clumsy interference and this was not even a productive forest.
If we simply broke up paving in our urban centres and loosened up the sub-base, what would happen? Nature would soon find a footing and things would start to grow; however, that process would be too slow and unpredictable for human sensibilities. So what if we did a little more, adding a small amount of topsoil to the rubble, planting small (1+1 year transplants) bare root trees and shrubs, with plugs of understory forbs, ferns and grasses. Starting so young, we’d generate a successful community in no time. These could be designed as narrow ribbons – two to four metres wide, inserted into suitable wider areas of paving.
An urban area suitable for natural regeneration
The above area was one I thought would be suitable for such an approach; there are many such areas throughout all urban spaces. They cry out for regeneration, yet seldom can this be done for lack of adequate finance. Below is a quick sketch showing how it might look.
Sketch showing regenerative planting
The benefits of such an approach would be huge. It would cost far less than using a traditional approach to landscaping such an area, maybe half (I haven’t costed it!). The care would move from maintenance to management, using a rotational coppice methodology, rather than trim and tidy (which always ruins a plants natural habit. Biodiversity would be hugely enhanced, air pollution mitigation would increase, wind buffering, urban heat island reduction, stormwater runoff (they would act as rain gardens) and of course, our biophilic needs, our connection to nature.
We are now a decade into the explosion of living or green walls. There have been many successes and some notable failures along the way, some of of which may be system-induced and some caused by inadequate or inappropriate maintenance regimes. Assuming we now have systems that work at least reasonably well, what is required by way of maintenance to keep walls looking good?
First of all, we have to acknowledge it is the large, commercial projects which get the attention and sit within the public eye. If anything goes wrong with these, it is noticed, big time. Commercial walls, I have found, are governed by financial pressures and that can sometimes mean that over time, budgets are cut and maintenance regimes compromised. When maintenance goes out to commercial tender, it is usually the cheapest price that wins.
Secondly, we have to understand that there is a profound difference in the way we perceive vertical landscapes from horizontal ones. With ordinary planting beds, we would plant probably between five and nine groundcover plants per m². Living walls are planted at between 30 and 100 plants per m², a highly artificial and crowded environment. Yes, we are treating these as groundcover which knits together, but unlike horizontal beds, gaps between plants are not deemed acceptable. It is also harder for plants to spread or fill in laterally, depending upon the system they are planted into. Visually, when you look at a living wall, you look straight on at eye-level, then upwards. So the lower sections of walls can come under intense scrutiny. Any failures have to be replaced and the rate is higher than that of horizontal planting, for the aesthetic reasons just stated.
Thirdly, living walls depend upon the right plants being chosen; they have to have the right characteristics of habit, growth and longevity. Some common garden plants are notoriously temperamental, short-lived or subject to pests such as the notorious Vine Weevil (which seems to attack an ever-increasing variety of plants). As a designer, I have previously used many plants that I don’t use now, and I find the list is shrinking, as you learn about a plant’s ruggedness over time. We are still pioneering a new methodology and now I’d rather use a smaller palette and feel more confident about it’s long-term success.
Fourthly, finally and perhaps of greatest importance, is the maintenance given to a living wall. I prefer the term living wall to green wall, because it reminds us that they are just that, living. They are also put into an extremely hostile and unnatural location and aspect. Sometimes those who look after them don’t do a good enough job. Many commercial landscapers are not horticulturalists and don’t really know that much about plants. That may sound shocking (and I’m pointing fingers at no-one, for this is just they way things are) but a Kew or RHS trained gardener is unlikely to be employed in a commercial company. Even knowing what to do for the best health of a plant on the ground could be inappropriate if done to the same plant on the vertical.
The pics above show living walls in three different systems, all in poor condition (including one using my older system); I’m not saying where or who because blaming is not appropriate nor my intention; rather, awareness raising is. The fact is that each and every system out there has good and bad examples to show. It is interesting to note that training efforts have been begun in at least one university, but this type of knowledge is a hands-on, college affair. Right now, it is only learnt on the job and this is art of the problem; many operatives simply don’t know their plants. If you don’t know the name, you’re not going to know anything about how it grows or when and how you should prune it.
My answer (and this goes much against my designer instincts) is to restrict the planting palette to those most able to survive. I always want to use more varieties, but it is sobering when you see them dying because they can’t cope with the conditions, or falling off the wall because the roots have been eaten by Vine weevil or millipedes. Beautiful grasses that have high levels of old, straw-like debris among the new healthy leaves are a no-no and geraniums may or may not look good in the winter months; such plants must be used with care. Patterned designs seem to fall by the wayside too; bold swathes are fine until one species fails and dies back, then you are left with a gaping wound.
So you may be thinking, should we do this at all? My answer is an emphatic yes, we should and must. We need to green the vertical in cities, for it is often the only space left available. We have all the needs of biodiversity, pollution mitigation and biophilia to account for and living walls provide those where no other greening method can – not even trees. We still have much to learn however, and the skill of maintenance has to be appreciated more by all involved. In fact it needs to be venerated and it’s practitioners respected and paid more.
Systems, at best second or third generation, need to evolve and be better understood. Or rather, plants need to be understood more, and their optimal needs met. We have, as I keep saying, hardly scratched the surface of what is possible and of what needs yet to be done. We need to learn more, try more and expect more.
There is something incredibly exciting about living walls. Stacking green plants on the vertical plane on buildings, where you’d think they just should not be, goes against the odds. Yet nowadays they are almost commonplace, and most people have encountered one somewhere. They cling to life with extraordinary tenacity, usually in a growing medium only a few centimeters thick, with water fed via irrigation pipes. Cynics may criticize and some walls are without doubt better designed and maintained, or use a better system than others, but we should applaud this urban green trend, and encourage it. We need it. Modern systems are reliable and use very little water or energy to run.
As a global society we are going through unprecedented changes; now more than 50% of the world’s population is urbanised and this will grow to 75-80% by 2050. Most of those people are essentially disconnected from Nature. It is now recognised that we have an innate need, called biophilia, to maintain our relationship with Nature. Not surprising really, when you think how we have evolved, yet the psychological and physical cut-off, over the last 100 years, has been astonishing. This can only become more pronounced as cities continue to swell, and highly-stressed people produce dysfunctional societies. If we can green our urban streets then perhaps we can counter this negative effect. Green walls take up almost no footprint in the urban landscape, not even a pavement width. All that is needed is a supporting wall and we have plenty of those. Trees are beautiful and add huge amounts of biophilic interaction into a citiscape, but we find them increasingly difficult to site, due to underground services and growing space needed. Those of you who read my blog will know that I also consult on trees, so I love them dearly, but I see living walls as having a different role to play and as being more versatile.
Living Wall in a small courtyard garden by Vertology
Living walls have physical benefits on the environment too. They provide a haven and food source for insects, especially bees. Birds find seeds, berries and of course, insects on the wall and smaller birds are known to nest amongst the foliage. Living walls are also helpful in mitigation of air pollution; I was involved with designing and plant selection for a wall put up by Transport for London (top picture) to test the ability of plants to capture pm10 – airborne particulates, primarily from diesel engines. Whilst we need to remove the source of these pollutants, capturing them is a good secondary strategy. It turns out that walls in a street canyon (where the building height is greater than the street width) cause the air to move in a cyclical manner, so air passes through the foliage of a living wall several times. Trees can do this, but dense canopies can actually trap particulates down at street level, concentrating them where people are. Most trees also are deciduous, so have no such benefits in the winter months.
Interior Living wall in Norway, installed by a Vertology partner
We can bring living walls into the interior, and in fact in hostile climates, that’s where you’ll find most of them. Whilst I have designed outdoor walls in climates as diverse as Dubai, Norway (Trondheim, 62° latitude) and Chicago, in such places it is often easier to put your dose of biophilia indoors! We spend 80-90% of our time inside, so this makes sense. Such walls also clean the air. Much quoted studies by NASA have shown that a range of common houseplants (which are basically plants of a sub-tropical origin) are efficient at removing Volatile Organic Compounds VOCs, such as formaldehyde) from the air. These can be found in concentrations far higher than outdoors, due to the nature of air recirculation and energy conservation. So we bring the jungle indoors, where we live and work.
Walls have the most drama when they are large, but they don’t have to be. Small walls in intimate spaces still have a large impact. This can be a home, courtyard, rooftop or office reception. Small is beautiful.
A small indoor living wall by Vertology
Having worked extensively with living walls over the last decade, I now consult, design and install them worldwide via my company Vertology Living Walls, and its approved partners. Grab yourself some biophilia – install a living wall!
The Walkie-Talkie building, infamous for melting cars, has one of the UK’s largest green walls, to the South side of the building, facing North. I designed this wall as my last commission for Biotecture, the living wall company I conceived and co-founded. They were in turn commissioned by Willerby Landscapes.
Early Sketch of layout
The final layout and planting plan
The design went through many permutations but in principal I wanted to use the wall size to create a banded horizontal wave pattern, each band consisting of a matrix of similar plant types. Some smaller areas of single-species plants were also included as these would be better defined by the contrast.
A detail of the wall living wall design to 20 Fenchurch Street, by MLD
Plants were chosen with a wide mix of Natives – at least 12 species – 9 groups of the aforementioned matrix planting and a number of single species groups and clumps, such as Luzula sylvatica (native woodrush) or Polystichum aculaetum (hard shield fern).
The lower bands were much smaller than the upper bands, to give the best visual aspect to those at street level and to bring things to a human scale. The layout design was simple, the plant groupings and textural contrasts more complex. Time will tell if they work out as planned!
Installation seems to be happening in stages, as the building works complete. the photo below was taken in July.
Fenchurch Street Living Wall being installed July 2014