Seen at The Festival of the Tree

...if you would be happy all your life, plant a garden ~ Chinese proverb

Friday, 22 July 2016

The Great Green Wall Hunt: The story so far

Part of the green wall at Edgware Road station (Bakerloo Line)
My favourite find so far - part of Edgware Road station (Bakerloo line) on Marylebone Road.
The wall was installed to help reduce PM10 air pollution and is being monitored by Imperial College.  

It's a while since I announced I was embarking on a Great Green Wall Hunt. It's been great fun and is still a work in progress.

When I started I thought I'd just look at living walls, i.e. the stop-you-in-your-tracks installations like the one I saw at the Athenaeum Hotel last year. However, I soon realised that would ignore numerous other examples of green walls that are of value - look out for a post on the types of green wall coming soon.

I've uncovered a whole host of benefits attributed to green walls along the way, worthy of a post to itself too. Meanwhile, here's a brief summary of my findings thus far...

Green walls inside and out in London
Main picture: Inside Anthropologie on Regent Street.
Top to Bottom: Double Tree by Hilton Hotel; Mermaid Theatre, Blackfriars; and St Mary's Hospital, Paddington. 

There's a lot more of them than I thought

A quick Google of Green Walls returns a lot of websites, which include the two main providers of living walls in the UK. They show dozens of examples in their online portfolios, and they're not just confined to London. Oswestry, Birmingham, Surbiton, Leicester, Leeds, Slough and Bristol are just a few of the other locations where they can be found.

I've confined my hunt to London so far, as I can combine it with other reasons for visiting the big smoke. Therefore, all my examples are from there, though I hope to see the one in Bristol soon. Their increased presence in London is partly due to the City of London actively encouraging their installation, plus there is some funding available via the Mayor's £20 million Air Quality Fund.

I've also found indoor examples aren't confined to Canada, and living walls aren't the preserve of public spaces. However, the latter tend to be in private houses, so I haven't had the opportunity to view any of these yet. The link takes you to an example installed in a dental practice in Exeter.

Some of the green wall surprises I found in London
Some of the green wall surprises. Main picture: At the back of the public loos at St. Luke's Gardens, Chelsea.
From top to bottom right: Royal Vauxhall Tavern, on the site of the former Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens;
artificial green wall at the Wellness Centre, St James Court Hotel; a green wall photo at a Crossrail construction site.
Bottom left and centre: temporary green walls at Crossrail construction at Finsbury Circus; and outside Vauxhall station. 

There are plenty of other surprises (to me anyway)

It's good to have my pre-conceptions overturned by the reality. Living walls aren't just the preserve of high-end properties, such as hotels, boutique shops, or showrooms for upmarket cars. Some are in quite humble places, such as at the back of a public loo in a park, and on a pub in Vauxhall.

I've found examples of temporary green walls, such as those at the Crossrail construction site at Finsbury Circus and some portable ones in Vauxhall. Both Vauxhall examples were totally unexpected as I hadn't seen anything about them online before I saw them.

Sadly some of the temporary green walls escaped my hunt. I would have loved to have seen the representation of Van Gogh's 'A Wheatfield, with Cypresses' at the National Gallery, and those installed for Wimbledon fortnight. However I did manage to catch the showstopper one at Sloane Square a couple of years ago, those set up for the 2012 Olympics, plus a host of those used in various show gardens (particularly this thought provoking one).

There are plenty of artificial green walls to be found, either using plastic plants (see my Separated at Birth? post from Piccadilly), or hoardings using huge photographs of green wall installations. Most of these are a wasted opportunity in my view, but understandable when I found out some of the costs involved (e.g. Edgware Road is reported to have cost £120,000 for 200m2). However, I really liked the one I found in the Wellness Centre at St James Court Hotel. The use of floral aromatherapy oils there meant nothing was missing in terms of scent!

Another selection of London's green walls
Main picture: 20 Fenchurch Street; Top left: student accommodation at The Minories, both in late April
Top right: Rubens by the Palace Hotel; Bottom left, then right: St James Court Hotel and Puddle Dock - all in early July

It's early days yet

Not all living walls have survived in the UK and the first official one - installed in Islington in 2006 and reported dead in 2009 - was controversial because public money was used to fund it. Since then, construction techniques have improved, and most of the the walls I've seen are in a better condition.

I was quite worried about the health of quite a few of them when I first visited at the end of April. A return to view some of them earlier this month (Rubens at the Palace Hotel, Edgware Road, St James Court Hotel, and Puddle Dock) showed they were in much better heart.

I still need to return to the one at The Minories, which I was most concerned about. I anticipate it will have improved like the others, but quite a lot of the horizontal planting below the windows looked like it'll require replanting. I've also heard that the wall at 20 Fenchurch Street is facing issues caused by the strong downdraughts found in the area.

Dozens of different plant species are used for green and living walls and to my inexpert eye some fare much better than others. Heucheras, Sarcococca and Vinca were doing well in April, and I could see ferns unfurling after their winter sleep. The grasses I saw also looked to be good doers, and we all know how well ivy thrives in all kinds of conditions.

I'm sure some plants will need more maintenance than others, such as the lavender and geraniums I saw at Edgware Road. This need for maintenance needs to be balanced against other benefits these plants may bring to the walls in which they're used. And if plants die... well, I saw evidence of these not being replaced earlier this month (too difficult or costly perhaps?), despite online assurances that regular maintenance is in place.

Since the first living wall's demise, their design and irrigation has improved, and the knowledge of which plants are suitable has increased. Planting techniques and growing media have also changed. Despite these changes, I sense there is room for improvement for growing walls consistently and well, which in turn should bring down their costs.

Whether these walls can deliver on their promise (year-round or otherwise) and supposed benefits, is still to be assessed. Research is in hand at various institutions, and that's a topic I'll return to another day. There are some DIY options to explore too, should you fancy having a green wall to call your own.

Green walls at the Olympic Park during the Paralympics in 2012
Two of the green walls I found at the Olympic Park during the Paralympics in 2012

If you know of any green walls I've not mentioned, please leave details in the comments below, or feel free to tell me about them in a blog post of your own.

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Monday, 18 July 2016

Herbs, deluges, and the need for sharp tools

Jekka McVicar takes us through the many herbs that make up the Herbetum

I spent a fascinating study morning at Jekka McVicar's Herb Farm last week, where at last I had the chance to see what's changed since she converted her nursery to a Herbetum in 2013. The presence of herbs with their stories and uses was as strong as ever, with some unexpected additions.

It was a showery day, which turned Jekka's attention to our changeable weather. "We no longer have showers, we have deluges", she said as a particularly sharp one forced us to shelter for a little longer (and eat more delicious cake) before going outside. Jekka's husband, Mac cheerfully fetched a bundle of large umbrellas, so we could continue on our way.

Once outside, "How many of you sharpen your secateurs every week?", was our first and most unexpected question. We shuffled our feet guiltily, and most of us admitted we didn't. "How many of you sharpen your kitchen knives every week?" Now on a surer footing, most of us admitted that we did.

"Hmm, so you sharpen your tools to cut dead things, but you don't to cut living plants. Using blunt tools creates cracks in the plants when you cut, and our deluge-weather means there's an increased chance they'll rot, or succumb to disease". Thus, suitably chastised and chastened, we continued on our tour.

A colourful part of the nursery
The Herbetum is focused around the Lamiaceae family, an aromatic part of the plant kingdom which contains many of the herbs we use for cooking and other purposes.

This family contains nearly 300 genera and thousands of species, and the Herbetum has around 300 culinary herbs in its raised beds.

It's here we find various basil ("isn't it a dreadful year for growing basil?"), mint ("keep the roots of your mints separate, else they'll all taste the same"), rosemary ("it really is for remembrance"), fennel, savory ("cook it with beans and you won't get any wind"),  oregano, marjoram (a particular species within oregano - Origanum majorana), thyme, lemon verbena, lemon balm ("a great stress reliever"), lavender ("the changing weather means we've had to alter our pruning routine - cut back an eighth in August, plus a further cut the next spring"), and many more.

The anecdotes and top tips came thick and fast as we frantically scribbled them down in our notebooks.

As many of you know, the nursery is organic (though no longer registered with the Soil Association), which means the bees Jekka keeps are very happy. They were particularly enjoying the thymes and lavender as soon as the warm sunshine returned.

Perky thymes in the sunshine

The thymes were looking particularly perky in the sunshine as many of them were in peak flower. Jekka has around 60 of these (including her own, Thymus 'Jekka') and told us a little about her continued breeding work with this genera. She's focusing on the more mat forming and lower flowering ones, as these are particularly vulnerable to the deluges we discussed earlier. Large amounts of heavy rain means these can easily suffer from crown rot, and her work involves breeding cultivars with more upright flowers so they can set seed.

Of course they can also be propagated and saved via cuttings, but then we hit on the huge subject of the lack of people going into horticulture. Many of the smaller nurseries - like Jekka's - are having problems with staff recruitment, or else they move on quickly once they've acquired the propagating skills that make them attractive to larger employers.

It was a sobering note to end our visit, which was cheered up by the purchase of herbs and lunch in a nearby pub. Now I'm back home, I'm sure Jekka will be delighted I've sought out my garden file and oil, and I now have a set of fully sharpened secateurs*.

* = though in view of the risks to plants Jekka outlined, I'm considering keeping a blunt pair especially for cutting back bramble ;)

The nursery's sales area - note that there's no longer mail order at the nursery

Note that Jekka's Herb Farm no longer operates mail order, and only offers direct sales on open days, organised visits, or workshops. Full details of open days and courses are found on the nursery's website.

You may also like: My VP's VIPs interview with Jekka in 2011.
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