The only way is up: Patrick Blanc, the master of vertical gardening, reveals his tips for keeping a 'living wall' alive

With his emerald-green hair and under-the-sea-pattern silk shirt, Patrick Blanc lives up to every idea you could ever have about the kind of Frenchman who would set himself to planting not gardens, nor even roof terraces, but the actual sides of buildings.

Blanc's "vertical gardening" began while he was growing up in Paris. "I started with aquariums," he explains, in rather sexy broken English, "and the plants took over. They got higher and higher – and eventually, the planting was totally vertical, and really tall," he explains.

From those childhood projects to building catwalk backdrops for Stella McCartney, Blanc pioneered the idea of creating lush exotic gardens that explode from the vertical planes of the building, sending tendrils and arced flower stems alike into the empty air.

Blanc originally trained as a botanist, and still works for France's biggest scientific institution as an expert on tropical plants; this technical know-how has always informed his artistic work. "To know what to grow up there," he looks upwards, "you shouldn't think about what part of the world the plant is from: you must think about its ecology."

Choosing mainly plants that grow wild on cliff faces and tree tops, Blanc weaves together a green mix that now graces Japanese museums, Manhattan boutiques and Berlin department stores. All get the extraordinary forested feel he's famous for. But it was his fairy-tale façade for Paris's Musée du Quai Branly, which opened in 2006, that really caught the imagination of the world's media. France's best tribal masks on display in shadowy, darkened rooms, inside a building apparently covered in trailing vegetation – the end result was utterly dramatic.

Today, Blanc has many imitators, but he remains the best at what he does. "Quite a few people can make these green walls, but Patrick Blanc is the only person I know of who can actually keep them alive," says Tim Richardson, the author of 2008's Avant Gardeners.

The "keeping them alive" bit is, of course, the key part of the trick, and I went to London's Athenaeum Hotel last week to see exactly how it's done. Blanc is putting together a wall for the hotel that runs from street level to the 10th-floor penthouse, and on scaffolding high above Piccadilly, with a million-dollar view of Green Park's spring treeline, I hold on tight and try hard not to look down while Blanc takes me through the process.

The most important thing is the stuff the plants actually grow in: as a kid, Blanc first experimented with growing the plants on washing-up cloths, but there have been a few refinements since then. "First we build a metal framework, to hold the wall away from the stone. Then, a layer of PVC, and then we use this cloth – it's an artificial felt – for the plants to grow in." These are then watered with a nutrient mix dripping continuously through the fabric.

The success of the system has now been tested all over the world (his current project is a huge interior wall for a Kuwait shopping centre) but his approach is resolutely local, with plants chosen specifically for the climate of the country in which they will live. "I am really excited to be creating a garden for London, because you have the best climate, much better than Paris, for certain plants – much greater humidity and milder winters."

He points among the crates of plants stacked up here waiting for planting, to filmy ferns, to Boehmeria – rare relatives of the stinging nettle he collected himself in Japan – and to bromeliads. And looking up, he indicates a huge vertical zigzag of Dierama, the bright-pink "Angel's Fishing Rod", which will dangle its delicate flowers right over Piccadilly's passing buses.

And if you do happen to be passing, there will now be no missing the Athenaeum. There could hardly be a more glamorous way to announce the hotel's luxurious refit. Put me down for cocktails.

Discover more property articles at Homes and Property
Suggested Topics
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm today
News
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
Sport
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
News
Billie Whitelaw was best known for her close collaboration with playwright Samuel Beckett, here performing in a Beckett Trilogy at The Riverside Studios, Hammersmith
people'Omen' star was best known for stage work with Samuel Beckett
PROMOTED VIDEO
Property search
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executives - Outbound & Inbound

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Recruitment Genius: National Account Manager / Key Account Sales

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'