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Try going vertical

Folks like Forest Grove resident Maureen Zoebelein are opting to create 'living walls' as garden options at home

Vertical gardens, which date back to the hanging gardens of Babylon in 600 B.C., are all the rage these days.

From the federal General Services Administration building in downtown Portland - with 200-foot-high 'vegetated fins' growing on its western facade - to home-grown living walls in western Washington County, these modern garden designs are very 21st Century.

Stanley Hart White was awarded the first known patent for a vertical garden in the 1930s at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, calling it an energy-saving solution for urban environments.

Green walls planted outside city buildings provide shade in the spring and summer when they flourish and allow light in during the fall and winter when they go dormant.

At home, biowalls offer a lovely and prolific alternative to traditional raised or ground-level flower beds.

In Forest Grove, News-Times production manager Maureen Zoebelein is taking the trend a step farther by sowing a vertical garden in her back yard.

Zoebelein's design grows right up the trunk of a tree stump she and her husband, Tim, might otherwise have had removed.

'Most people are making vertical walls on flat surfaces,' she said. 'But I had this tree and I thought I could take the same construction concepts and use them there.'

We asked her several questions about how she got started and where she hopes to take her vertical garden from here.

Q: It sounds like the idea for vertical gardens is centuries old. How did it appear on your radar?

A: A few years ago one of my friends posted an image of a vertical garden on the Quai Branly Museum in Paris, France. This vertical wall became part of a growing trend throughout Europe on large public and private buildings. It quickly became a trend as an interior and exterior installation in homes. I really liked what I was seeing and that people were adapting the design to a do-it-yourself project. Some people started posting 'before' and 'after' images of their projects and offered construction tips.

Q: From what inspiration did you draw the plans for your vertical garden?

A: Originally it was Patrick Blanc's vertical walls (at Caixa Forum in Madrid, Spain). But recently I saw an application on some containers in downtown Astoria. They used trash receptacles with an outer wire wall which was filled with succulents and perennials. The other location was the public space at the Hotel Modera living wall in Portland.

Q: Can you describe the first steps for your project?

A: Well, it started with a very large tree stump. Most people were making a vertical wall on flat surface, but I thought I could take the same construction concepts and use them for the tree. I started with 8-inch screws, green plastic-coated wire mesh, garden cloth, and green plastic-coated wire. I placed the screws around the tree about 12 inches apart and continued four more rows up the tree. I laid the garden cloth on the ground and placed the wire mesh on top of it.

Using the green wire, I secured the two together. I roughly measured the circumference of the tree from the outer edge of the screw heads. I went back and trimmed the mesh/garden cloth to that measurement. Place the mesh/garden cloth on the screw heads and secure with plastic coated wire.

I would recommend metal flashing at the bottom edge of the final mesh cylinder wall, as this will prevent the soil from being pushed out through the bottom. Start adding good planting soil since it will be impossible to work in new soil later.

Add the soil slowly and compact it as you add it up and around the tree. Use a metal wire cutter to cut a small section of the wire mesh. Try to keep the cuts as small as possible, but big enough to push the plant plug into the soil - about an inch and a half to two inches. Make a slit in the garden cloth and take a tool and push a hole into the soil for the plants. Gently place the plant into the soil. If you can find plant starts in the compost plant holder, they would be ideal for planting in a vertical wall. At this point, water thoroughly. Many people use a drip system at the top of the wall.

Q: What kinds of plants or flowers are you growing in your vertical garden?

A: I have cherry tomatoes and Hood strawberry plants and will be adding lemon cucumbers. Coral Bells, ferns, short grasses and sedges (aqua-plants) make great companions for a vertical garden and I will be adding some of them to the remaining spaces.

Q: What time of year does a vertical garden need to be planted in Oregon?

A: I would follow the normal planting cycle recommended for flowers and vegetables. Follow the watering and sunlight needs as you would any vergetable or flower. Succulents make excellent vertical gardens.

Q: How much upkeep does a vertical garden take?

A: Water will be the main concern since it has to reach all the plants, some of which are at the bottom of the wall. Spraying water on the outside will also help. Adding nutrients to the soil will add to the general long-term health of the plants.

Q: What are the advantages of a vertical garden as compared to a horizontal (raised beds or yard) garden?

A: Vertical gardens are a space saver for people who want a vegetable or flower garden. They are starting to appear at farmers markets as floral picture frames. If you have a fence that has southern exposure and adequate support, you can turn it into a vertical garden. People in urban settings are enjoying these types of gardens in their homes and smaller yards. In my case, I wanted to hide the tree stump and take advantage of the space for gardening.