Paris Vertical Wall

When the Musee du Quai Branly opened in Paris in 2006, the Jean Nouvel-designed building was highly controversial, but there was almost universal acclaim for one aspect of the new museum--Patrick Blanc’s Mur Vegetal (living wall), which formed part of the street façade of the complex. Blanc, a professor of botany at the University of Paris, Jussieu, who had been designing living walls for 20 years, and was known and admired by a rather small coterie of avant-garde designers, became an instant celebrity.  His handsome living wall, which covers a building with similar proportions to its Haussmannian neighbors, seemed an inventive and creative way of greening the city.   He used a proprietary technique that he had refined over many years: he tucked the thousands of plant that make up the façade into a felt-like medium, and the plants are nourished by drip irrigation.  The one caveat voiced by admirers and skeptics alike, was whether it would age well. As soon as it went up it suffered from vandalism--much of it not malicious as people tugged and touched the hundreds of plants at eye level inevitably causing unattractive bare spots to appear.

Since then there have been an increasing number of green walls and an explosion of technology to create them.  Going back to Blanc’s green wall after 5 years, it is apparent that this is indeed a vertical garden, as opposed to a work of architecture, and it suffers from the problems--and provides the joys--of the horizontal kind.  There are some troubled spots, and some areas that have worked even better than expected. The hostas look dreadful in the winter (so do ours) but the sublime smell of a blooming mahonia at nose height makes up for it. The effect driving past it on the Quai Branly is still magical but you have to ask yourself: will the growing medium still be able to support all these plants in ten years? Time will tell, but it passed its five-year test with flying colors!

The Topiary Park

A recent visit to Columbus, Ohio to give a talk on Gardens of the Hudson Valley was stimulating and fun.  A warm welcome from the Garden Club of the Columbus Museum of Art, an excellent mini-tour of the city’s architectural highlights, and an enjoyable dinner with fellow garden lovers all contributed to a terrific 24 hours.  The special bonus was a visit to Columbus’s unique Topiary Park just a stone's throw from the museum, a topiary rendition of Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Isle of La Grande Jatte. 


The iconic painting is the great pointillist masterpiece of the Post-Impressionist era, but in the funny way that a work of art is often equally identified by its location, it is also somehow Midwestern, residing as it has for many years at the Art Institute of Chicago. And it has translated astonishingly well to Columbus and to topiary.  The “freeze frame” (static) quality of the original is brilliantly captured by sculptor James T. Mason and his wife, Elaine, who conceived and executed the project for the Columbus Recreation and Parks Department in 1989.  The 54 yew figures, perfectly proportioned though larger than life-size, are grown around steel armatures welded by Mason. A pond evokes the Seine. We saw it on a brisk but clear February afternoon, the Old Deaf School Park was deserted, the shadow cast by the slanting late afternoon sun emphasized the volumes of the figures, and it was great. Thanks to Andrew and Brad for taking us. For more information, visit


Art and Pine Rocklands in Miami

One of the more endearing events during Art Basel Miami is a casual garden breakfast at Casa Lin. Young local artists are invited to install pieces in the garden of a small bungalow located on a modest street in a transitional neighborhood of North Miami.  The draw is that it is two blocks from the fabled Rubell Collection, whose open house on the morning of the breakfast attracts the major players at the fair. The atmosphere at Casa Lin is low-key and lighthearted, the young artists get a chance to show their work to a wider and better connected audience than usual, and fairgoers sip coconut and pineapple juice, nibble on Cuban pastries and experience the often quirky or humorous installations without the hype or glitz of the main fair.

This year, Lin Lougheed, the owner of Casa Lin and sponsor of the breakfast, had his own installation, one which for this fairgoer was the highlight of the week. He has installed a Pine Rockland in a formerly derelict yard adjacent to the conventional garden at Casa Lin. The Pine Rockland is a marvel. Light, feathery and naturally sparse, it is the antidote to the tropical oppression of most manmade landscapes in South Florida.

A critically endangered eco-system native to this particular area of South Florida, Pine Rocklands used to cover most of the Miami Rock Outcropping, a ridge of limestone now buried beneath the city of Miami and its burgeoning suburbs. In a Pine Rockland, the limestone is covered by a very thin layer of soil, and pockmarked with solution sink-holes, circular depressions formed by pools of water that have dissolved the rock.  The Florida slash pine (Pinus ellioti var densa) and the Palmetto Palm (Sabal palmetto, the state tree of Florida) are the major verticals, and the understory is a combination of grasses, vines and small shrubs, relatively sparsely distributed.  Some species are unique to this particular ecosystem, and there are a surprising number of plants that flower--West Indian lilac, the pineland lantana and liars, to name a few.

A number of environmentally involved organizations in South Florida, including the Fairchild Botanical Garden (of which Lin Lougheed is a trustee), Florida International University, the USGS, the Nature Conservancy and Miami/Dade County have formed a Pine Rockland Working Group with the goal of preserving and expanding this fast-disappearing ecosystem. One strategy is to encourage homeowners to install Pine Rocklands instead of conventional gardens, which is what happened at Casa Lin.

The topsoil, which had been added years ago to the site, was scraped off, leaving the very thin layer of natural organic cover and exposing the solution sinkholes, and incidentally creating a fascinating topography to the garden.  Lougheed designed a simple beach road, flanked by “natural” vegetation.  The working group provided the plants (over 45 different species) in exchange for a commitment to maintain the planting for a number of years.  The secret of the lightness of the landscape is the natural burn cycle of 3 to 5 years.  This clears out the vegetation, leaving nutritious charcoal in its wake.  Over time, if the area isn’t burned it can turn into Rockland Hammocks, areas of thick hardwood overstory, growing on leaf litter accumulation. The hammocks would be as dense and dark as the Pine Rocklands are light and airy.

The garden at Casa Lin (55 NW 30th St.) is a permanent installation and it will be interesting to see how the landscape evolves over time. The question that hangs over the future is whether and how to effect the burn cycle—it’s too small a plot for a controlled fire department burn (not to mention that it is in the middle of the city) but possibly too big for a “firebox burn” to be practical over the entire 160‘x 50’ plot. Alternatively, will pruning be effective in keeping the open and airy nature of the ecosystem?  Will plants germinate the same way? It’s an experiment--an “art” installation that has the added fascination of changing and challenging over time.

A Tour with Nancy Berner & Susan Lowry: Wednesday, September 8

A tour is happening on September 8th! More details here:

Garden Guide: New York City on WNYC's The Brian Lehrer Show!

"Nancy Berner and Susan Lowry, co-authors of Garden Guide: New York City, discuss how the city has greened over the past 10 years - and your role in it. They also take us through some of their local favorites."

-- from WNYC's The Brian Lehrer Show: Your Community Gardens: A Guide