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  • Writer's pictureLucelle Pillay

Everyone wants a Vertical Garden

Living Walls at Circa

Whether referred to as Vertical gardens or Living walls, it seems they are very much in vogue and very sought after by garden fanatics and green rookies alike. Corporates and museums in Johannesburg latched on to the trend a few years back and now boast some beautiful examples, my favourite being the Circa Gallery on Jelicoe Avenue in Rosebank. The gallery has become somewhat of an architectural landmark on the Keyes Art Mile, with its strong vertical lines and dramatic curved façade. It was developed alongside the Everard Read Gallery in 2009 as a space to exhibit post modern, contemporary artworks of local and international acclaim. I often take students there, as experiencing the undulating space, the play of light and shadow is as interesting as the art works it houses.

The structure folds within itself like a 3 dimensional materialisation of the Fibonacci sequence, as you follow it’s spiral, the floor rises at a mild gradient, which excites and elevates. The vertical beams cast intermittent shadows on the walkway, like linear drawings, which change depending on the time of day. You can hear the unending drone of traffic on Jan smuts, but you feel protected within the womb-like shell that is the Circa.

A favourite area of mine is a narrow steel staircase alongside the gallery entrance, which leads to the upper deck. Over hung with foliage, it a evokes a sense of wonder and mystery. The greenery completely transforms the steel frame from a sort of fire escape into an ethereal elevation, I would love to incorporate something similar in my own space.

Think Big but Start Small

When starting any project, it’s important to research the technical aspects of what you are trying to construct, pretend to have no existing knowledge on the subject and start from scratch. This mind set allows you to be open to learn and flexible in your approach. Don’t get too precious about a picture in your mind as very often you may have to adjust this vision toward practicality. It’s fine to be inspired by glamourous large scale projects like the Circa, but be realistic as to what it achievable in your space, on your budget and with your skill set.

I ear-marked a north-west facing wall in the conservatory outside the kitchen for my vertical garden. The space receives bright midday sun and I can control the intensity of light as it situated under a metal louver awning. Here is a critical checklist of items that must be considered before starting work on a even a small vertical garden.

DIY Vertical Garden Checklist

1.What's your budget?

Decide on what you are willing to spend and don’t go over. Projects that put you out of pocket are completed begrudgingly and take away from the enjoyment and satisfaction of a job well done. Rather save toward it or attempt it in stages in order to buy quality materials which will result in the best outcome.

2.Where are you going to erect the suspended planter structure?

Plants need bright light in order to grow and remain healthy. Depending on where you decide to situate your vertical garden (inside, outside, shady, sunny), this will determine the types of plants you should use (full sun or shade tolerant). Location could also influence watering routines as well. As we live in the Southern hemisphere, north facing walls receive the most sun. Remember that you want to be able to look at and enjoy your vertical garden daily, so choose a spot for your appreciation above all else.

3.What are the dimensions of the suspended planter?

The size of the planter may be determined by the size of wall, quantity of plants, structural weight or your budget. I selected a relatively small, low wall and still encountered many problems, so I would advise you to start small. All projects are a learning curve, you can attempt more ambitiously scaled projects when you build experience and confidence.

4.What material will the planter be made from?

I opted for buying a few meters of cheap weed guard fabric, which is actually a type of bonded plastic similar to what surgical masks are made from. This material was perfect as it can be stitched using a domestic sewing machine, it’s extremely strong and weather proof. Weed guard essentially is placed under topsoil to prevent weeds from growing into planting beds or through paving and gravel. Being an outdoor , free draining fabric, I knew it would be up for the job.

If sewing or designing is not your strong points, then you may opt to buy a planter, but be prepared to spend as they are very pricy. They are available in modular (made up of interlocking units) plastic components or fabric pockets. These units come with suspension brackets, screws etc. If you choose to make your planter, consider the weight of wet soil and the plants when deciding on how to fix it to the wall.

5.How would you water your plants?

If you work well with pipes, water and conduit systems then you could rig up a self-watering system. I’ve seen very smart systems that use rain water from gutters and a series of channels that ensure the plants never dry out. As this area is not my strength I decided to hand water my plants and allow for run-off water to collect in 2 plastic troughs. The wall I chose is low enough for me to reach the top row by standing on a chair. Because I see my garden every morning when in the kitchen, I hardly forget to water.

6.What types of plants and how many?

Now we getting to the fun part, choosing a selection of plants for your planter. Your planter will dictate how many plants you can fit, but you could choose to go for a very clean minimalist look (ferns only) or a mixed bag approach (anything that grows).

7.What soil mix would you use?

I’m not an expert on soil, but I usually go for a very light weight, rich potting soil mix for vertical and hanging planters. Free draining soil is always emphasised by professionals, but how is that achieved? I use potting soil, river sand, vermiculite and perlite, I’m not even sure of ratios, but feel your way through as you mix. Water retention crystals can also be mixed in if you worried that you will forget to water

I hope you enjoyed this article.

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