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.
This article was first published in 2007 and has been updated 2018.
Future gardens will be an integral part of a living bio-system that is part house, part garden, an energy conserving and production environment. It will also be a resource for water retention and cleansing, food production area, biomass and environmental haven. Above all, it must continue to be a sanctuary for the soul and from the world at large.
Why do I say this? We cannot consider the future of gardens without accounting for climate change, which is now having a tangible impact on us all. The 2018 IPCC report says we have 12 years left before things reach the point of no return. Whilst there is less talk now about global oil reserves peaking and that energy will be in increasingly short supply, it is still true that we have a long way to go before we have a fully renewable clean energy supply chain. Whatever the outcome, big changes are on the way.
So when we look to the future of our gardens, it’s not so much a matter of what style or vogue will be popular, for such things come and go and in this context are not particularly relevant. You might imagine it is a case of asking what will our climate be like and how will gardens adapt. Yet to talk only of adapting plants to suit the changing conditions is actually to miss the main opportunity for our gardens to become part of the solution to global warming and perhaps, even a core part of our individual – and so collective – survival.
House-garden water capture, cleansing and re-use schematic.
That might sound ridiculous in the face of such monumental problems but I don’t think so. If we all decided to make sure that in our personal lives, we were “carbon neutral” (or as close as possible) then energy demands and pollution from domestic use would drop considerably. At a rough estimate, gardens in the UK occupy about 4500 km2 of land area (Davies
et al. 2009), mostly in urban and suburban areas. This makes them a precious resource and opportunity for change on a big scale.
The first thing we have to do is start looking at our environment as a living bio-system; in this case, the house and garden, with its connections to the wider world (air, earth, wind, rain, food, materials, waste, energy, communications). Think of the garden as one cell in a big organism. Almost all the elements this cell needs to survive are coming from outside, beyond its sphere of influence. Yet the way that cell is constructed, used and connected to its immediate surrounds (garden) could, if designed correctly, reduce its dependency on external manmade systems. To decrease those we must increase our connectivity with natural systems, namely the sun, wind and rain. To put it more directly, with have to reduce to a minimum the inputs and outputs of our homes.
A fedge (fence-hedge) uses biomass grown in the garden to create new boundaries. Good for wildlife and resource conservation.
Those items which we cannot produce internally need to be sourced from outside as close to us as possible. Therefore neighbourhood and regional systems need strengthening to minimise production/transport costs. This is particularly true and desirable for food products, but also building materials etc. For that reason, even if we manage to live off-grid – the ultimate, but extreme, conclusion to this line of thought – we cannot do it all alone and live in splendid isolation, nor would most of us want to. Many bio-systems will only work efficiently when connected together to give sufficient inputs to allow them to function properly (for example, reed-bed sewerage systems). Local community-generated bio-systems are essential to a sustainable future.
The main areas which the outside garden spaces could deal with are:
Passive solar gain (microclimates)
Water saving and (grey water) cleansing
Waste recycling (composting)
Increasing site biomass
You may think this all sounds very philanthropic, but where is the incentive to expend all this time and money “greening up” our homes and gardens? Some of the incentive will be economic; for example metered water users already consume about 15% less water than unmetered and government will gradually introduce a number of Carrot and Stick measures. But as cost of pollution will have to be met by industry and so, by consumers, simple economics means that inevitably everything will get more expensive. For many people, I suspect that having a lifestyle that gives independence and doesn’t add to pollution will become increasingly desirable, as we all witness first or second-hand the effects of climate change. Whilst we all see the horrors of hurricanes and droughts in distant lands, at home (for me, the UK) we see increasingly severe flooding etc. right on our own doorstep. Less dependency on outside systems will give increased sense of security in an uncertain world.
In all of this, beauty and relaxation will be paramount, so gardens will still fulfil this most traditional and personal of roles, giving us joy, relaxation and sanctuary. For example, looking at a beautiful water system of rills and planted gravel filterbeds is made all the more exciting by knowing it has a useful function and is saving resources.
A rain garden which captures roof-water and allows it to infiltrate the ground
For these principles to be taken up by the average garden-owner and made successful, we must resolve two conflicting issues: the subject needs to be driven by a sense of fun, adventure and positive aspiration to really make a difference and yet we must also avoid the “dumbing-down” or over-simplification of a complex topic, something that can occur when it appears in magazines and TV shows.
An example might be solar panels: it would be wonderful to run your garden pond pump, shed, or garden office from solar panels – no cables to the house to bury, a good eco-friendly solution. But you have to balance that ideal with the cost of initial installation (probably greater than laying electric cables from the house), the limitations of supply and the increased maintenance that may be involved. Having got your solar supply, you might be frustrated to find that you can’t charge your battery mower if you didn’t purchase a high enough generative capability. This is typical of a fragmented approach to sustainability – it’s a start but not really useful just thinking of the power to your pond and ignoring that used within the house, or your car.
So where are we? Standing on the threshold of an exciting new future, I would say. Technology and information is available as never before, and hooking up to the IoT (internet of things) is great fun and useful too. The brightness, however, is troubled by the looming stormclouds on the horizon and the knowledge that the societal cost of failure is high – and will be witnessed by ourselves but paid for by our children.
I do firmly believe that we can all make effective choices in what we do and in what we demand of the world, of business and our societies. We have to make rational choices and sometimes temper our own personal indulgence. Gas or electric patio heaters may be a nice luxury but the environmental damage is not justifiable. Maybe a log burning fire basket is, provided we do other things to counter the carbon emissions, such as growing more bio-mass. Extra woolly jumpers may simply be the best bet along with passive solar designed spaces! Most issues simply come down to us making informed decisions and balancing personal ease with environmental sanity.
Remember, what sounds “eco” or fringe today, is going to be tomorrow’s norm. Get out there, explore ideas and enjoy being the change!
A problem, or an opportunity for a new landscape paradigm?
I was recently working on a tree project in Abu Dhabi when I came across a derelict site which intrigued me with it’s range of exotic self-seeded, non-native plants. The site was next to the Corniche and sandwiched between the Formal Park, my hotel and Capital Gardens. It struck me initially as the perfect basis of a xeriscape, as all the plants (mostly trees) were thriving without irrigation. On closer inspection and identification of the species involved, things got more complex and raised a lot of potentially conflicting thoughts and issues.
A natural Xeriscape
The site was clearly awaiting redevelopment and the plant invasion was opportunistic. Nothing that I could identify was native, yet all seemed happy there. When you see the list, you might understand why. Amongst the plastic and litter I identified:
Of those plants, the P. juliflora was the most robust and when you look at its reputation, that is of no surprise. It was of landscape scale, lush and greener than anything in the adjacent parks. It’s form, leaf, flowers and seeds are attractive from a landscape perspective. Yet this is undoubtedly the most controversial plant on this list – some would say alarming. A Native of arid zones in central and South America, this was, like so many others, introduced into the UAE in the 70’s as a forestry plant. Lauded as something of a super-crop tree, it is tenacious, vigorous, provides fuelwood and stock-feed in the form of abundant seeds. The latter, it turned out, were a problem in that they are spread by cattle and are extremely aggressive. Plants also regenerate rapidly from the roots when cut back and they reputedly produce biochemical inhibitors to suppress competition (allelopathy). With no natural competitors in the UAE and roots that can descend 50m in search of water, they out-compete native flora, even their cousin, Prosopis cineraria (ghaf tree).
Prosopis juliflora flowers
P. juliflora has a low, mounding habit, attractive from a landscape point of view.
Also on the site were a number of Banyan trees, Ficus benghalensis, which seemed to be growing happily. Another tough survivor, it should be borne in mind that the water table here is likely only a metre or so below ground, although it will have a high saline content.
Then there was Eucalyptus camaldulensis , another forestry/amenity introduction of the 70’s, also known and now generally avoided for its aggressive roots, yet here looking beautiful with its grey, lanceolate foliage. This was the tallest tree on site.
Eucalyptus camaldulensis , showing adult foliage
Of course, there was the ubiquitous Conocarpus lancifolius, widely planted still yet also recognised and a danger to any nearby drains, and on it’s way out in popular use. Except it does make such a good tall hedge, and it has a much nearer native origin, coming from Somalia, Djibouti and Yemen. I’m not sure that the UAE landscape industry is ready to ditch it just yet.
There was even a palm, Washingtonia robusta, self-seeded around the place. Much of it was to be found growing underneath the canopy of the P. juliflora, so that at least is not put off by any allelopathic biochemicals from the Prosopis.
I believe this legume is Sesbania sesban, more commonly seen with yellow flowers. Rose-ringed Parakeet
Inhabiting, or at least visiting the site, was a Rose-winged Parakeet. Another exotic invasive with beautiful form but aggressive tendencies; it seemed appropriate to the moment, somehow.
What does this mean for future landscapes and ecology?
From a conventional ecology point of view, these plants are all threats, and the threats probably outweigh their usefulness. So why am I even talking about this? Clearly, the move towards more naturalistic landscapes draws heavily on native species and would shun all of these species.
Except we have climate change.
Climate change is the elephant in the room, when it comes to ecology, in fact when it comes to sustainability generally and a livable planet overall. That we have already moved beyond vital tipping points is highly likely; that climate zones are moving away from the equator at a rate too fast for nature to adapt is a fact. Flora and even some fauna just can’t move regions that quickly. They will adapt, eventually; but those that are rare, specialist and struggle with change, will die. The tougher generalists will adapt and survive. Nature will build a new ecology to reflect the new reality, and it doesn’t mind if it takes a few thousand years to do so. Only we humans mind and so, if we are to survive, we must adapt our environments to fit the new reality. It is a sad fact that many cherished plants will eventually die out or move zones. In the UK, I dread losing our native oaks (I view these as our ghaf tree equivalent), yet we may get Mediterranean species to replace them, such as holm and cork oak.
If you are already positioned in the arid equatorial zones then you have precious few plants that will form your new ecologies and landscapes. Perhaps the plants I have described above will be UAE naturalized-natives in 100 years’ time and the ghaf and sidr may be gone, or diminished, or moved north. I hope not, but before we spend vast fortunes on eradication and control of non-natives, we should look to the future. These aggressive invaders may just form the landscape of our children; I know I’d rather live with a landscape, than none at all. If there is no landscape, there is no life. They may, in fact, be here to save us.
Once we grasp this fact, we can look at building new landscapes to suit our changing environments. I’ve written about this before and you can read the articles listed below. We must be vastly more holistic in our thinking in order to do this and broaden our horizons to understand the new future. Technology will help us to monitor, collect data and produce working strategies. Robotics and drones will help manage and control plant communities. Alongside that, we need a vastly better understanding of soils, microflora and fauna, for the bit of nature that we see is just, literally, the tip of the iceberg. The selection of tree and shrub species for adaptation is easy, we get this wrong when we don’t deal in whole context thinking eg. only thinking of forestry or ornamental benefits.
The challenge ahead is huge but in a weird way, exciting; it will challenge the human race to grow. There’s a whole new science to develop and we’d best get on with it.
According to Google, the site has been cleared some time in 2019:
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…
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.
I launched my newsletter this week on vertical greening, sending it out to clients and those who’d signed up here or on the website. From the number of views and feedback, (considerably higher than industry standards) I’d say it was a success! The aim is to inform interested parties of news and developments in the field of vertical greening.
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Reporters always have to grab a headline, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when the new green wall near Victoria station started grabbing headlines such as “London’s largest living wall prevents flooding”. It’s a misleading headline to say the least: A, it’s not the largest wall, that “accolade” (if size is all that counts) belongs to Patrick Blanc for his wall at Leamouth Peninsular, constructed by Biotecture in 2009 and B, it doesn’t prevent flooding. How could it? Striding about, with a big umbrella? No, it has rainwater harvesting – as can any building, regardless of whether or not they have green walls (although they then have to have some use for it, such as flushing toilets), and that helps absorb water and delay rainfall from contributing to stormwater runoff. It may directly capture a small amount on the surface of the wall, but not much.
Rubens Hotel greenwall by Gary Grant and Treebox
Now don’t get me wrong; this is a lovely green wall and most welcome. I know all the guys involved and they’re all genuine people. The wall will have many environmental benefits. No, what bothers me is the way the press grab shallow headlines that reduce the very real benefits to glib catchphrases, often completely divorced from meaningful context . Of course rainwater harvesting reduces the risk of flooding, but one small scheme in a large area will have negligible benefit (just as the Edgware Road wall I designed for TfL will, on it’s own, have a negligible effect on air pollution); unless many buildings in that area follow suit and harvest rainwater, the impact will not be felt.
What walls such as this do, is pioneer and display the possibilities of what we may do and the potential outcome if we do enough of it. But the current attitude is, right, we’ve put up a green wall/green roof/planted trees, so job done, environment’s sorted… it’s just so NOT.
Right now i’m frustrated by this attitude. For example, it seems that government, having done their bit (on air pollution, mentioned above), now have no monies in the “clean air fund” to take things to the next level; where we so urgently need to be going. The simple reality is that a lot more testing is needed, more system trials; ways need to be found to effect a large-scale roll out of affordable greening (a major criticism is that the technology is too expensive). If the government won’t make funds available to do this, even in the face of massive EU fines for breaching air quality standards, then who will? So the Edgware Road green wall becomes just another political chess piece, used then forgotten once it’s done it’s short-term bit of marketing.
It’s time that as a society, we grew up, stopped living off of vacuous soundbites and got to grips with our environmental issues. One headline I got from a talk I gave last year, was “designer calls for environmental efforts to be put on a war footing”. Another bit of melodrama, but I did use the phrase, and meant it. Only with that level of serious intent and commitment can we get to make meaningful progress on adapting our societies to the incoming effects of now unstoppable climate change.
I came across some interesting vertical greening at Borough Market recently, in a glazed atrium/entrance space called the Market Hall which served as a place for people to relax, sit and eat.
Hop Plants in containers
The plants were obviously chosen for their connections with food, so the climbers were hops (used mostly for beer making) and there were an array of edibles in pots which spiraled up around metal columns; mind you, I wouldn’t like the job of watering, as there did not appear to be any automatic irrigation fitted. Olive trees were fitted into various seating units.
It made for a lively space and was an created in conjunction with Natural England and Bankside Urban Forest. I will be interested to see how the hops will do over time, not being in a fully outdoor environment, and I imagine they will still lose their leaves during winter, as it is (I presume) an unheated space. It always has to be accepted that plants used in close urban environments might be shorter-lived and require more care than in more natural circumstance, but I think that just goes with urban living.
A great initiative, let’s see more such spaces where people get close contact and interaction with plants.
This article was written in 2013 and updated in April 2019.
I’ve written before on the subject of adaptive landscapes and trans-migrational landscapes but I’ve been reading recently of a real-life ecology that was created by man in the last 150 years, and is thriving. This is on Ascension Island in the South Atlantic Ocean, a once barren volcanic rock, which now has a thriving cloud forest on green Mountain, created by Sir Joseph Hooker the famous botanist. He was inspired by Darwin’s comments that someone should try engineering a new environment on the island. As a result, where there were once just 25 species, there are now over 200, as this article and this article tells. There is also a BBC Costing the Earth program worth listening to.
Conservationists dislike what has happened here and say the novel ecology is incomplete and uncomplex, but it’s kick-tarted a transformation and now work is being done to refine and develop the work. Hooker planted trees near the summit to trap moisture and create a source of water for the navel personnel stationed there. Many species failed but those that adapted went on to form a fully fledged cloud forest which produces huge amounts of water. One thing of note is that some of the 15 or so endemic ferns are now growing as epiphytes on the moss-laden branches.
Non-native bamboo and moss create homes for native ferns. photo Fred Pearce.
Whilst this example may be a one-off, it is nonetheless a hopeful sign. If new and thriving ecologies can be created with little scientific thought, it gives hope for what we can do if we put our minds to it. I always maintain that nature is an opportunist and will try anything anywhere. that would seem to be the case here.
In my previous articles mentioned above, I outlined the reasons why this is necessary. To recap, it is due to the planetary changes that are now occurring, whose effects we have yet to fully experience, which is going to change this planet for millennia to come, even if we get a grip on carbon emissions, which we must do. If we don’t, runaway climate change could make this planet largely uninhabitable (at least to higher life forms). Ecologists and particularly conservationists have to radically re-think what they consider to be “natural” ecology, for Nature cannot adapt the landscape at the rate of our man-induced changes. That means that species cannot adapt and move with the shifting region of climate zone they are used to. These zones are moving North and South, away from the equator at a rate which may change 20% of the world’s climate zones by the end of the century.
Of course, Nature will correct things given time, but mankind cannot afford to wait, if it wants a planet worth living on – and the ability to live on it. That’s why the Ascension Island story is such good news. I would dare bet that we could extensively re-vegetate (or terraform, to use a word found in science fiction stories) areas within a 50 year period if we turned our minds to it, and our political will. I understand the island is being studied with an eye on how to terraform Mars, although adapting our existing planet might be more relevant.
Ironically, I can see some of the stiffest opposition to this coming from conservationists. Much is made of the negative effects of the global migration of plants and insects, but we have to balance that with the positive gains, which are seldom mentioned, yet so taken for granted. And the planet is going to change now, whether we want it to or not. I’d rather the UK (for example) had a more Mediterranean flora and fauna (although adapted to cope with heavy periods of rain and flood) than none at all. We may one day grieve the loss of our native oaks, finally unable to cope with the higher temperatures, but we would surely welcome the holm oak (already naturalising in the South coast area), cork oak and olive here. Having an ecology of beauty and abundance is what counts, not preserving what we used to have, which is merely a snapshot in time. Get used to that; it’s already too late to prevent change.
But new adaptive ecologies, created by transferring plants, insects and microbes from other similar zones in the world, would give us a new practice, that of trans-migrating landscapes, and a new science, a new understanding. In this we must learn not to manipulate, but to understand Nature, to assist in what she would herself do, but over millennia. And we must do it within a lifetime.
To cope with this, we need a New Horticulture profession, one balanced with science and ecology, not just focused on the ornamental.