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Singer Hill Cafe owner Phil Yates happy to share his craft with community

by: PHOTO: DICK TRTEK - Phil Yates checks on the plants that make up the large vertical garden inside Singer Hill Cafe. He said the garden looks good year-round.Phil Yates and his wife were visiting their daughter, Betsy, in Madrid, Spain, four years ago when they saw their first vertical garden. That five-story garden, the work of Frenchman Patrick Blanc, “took my breath away; it was a life-changing moment,” he said.

by: PHOTO: DICK TRTEK - Phil Yates shows Yuna, 4, how to feed the fish in one of his wicking wells, behind Singer Hill Cafe.In spring 2009, Yates, the owner of Singer Hill Cafe on Seventh Street in Oregon City, set about transforming the back cinder block walls of the cafe into a vertical garden, experimenting with watering systems and plant choice.

“It was all learning from scratch; he taught himself a ton,” said Betsy Yates, who has worked at the cafe in the past. “And, he has no problem sharing.”

In fact, Yates is anxious to teach others how to make their own vertical gardens, because he wants to “lower the frustration level of people who want to do this but can’t find someone to tell them” how, he said.

Yates will offer four free workshops on the last Sunday in May, June, July and August, with the first one taking place from 3 to 4 p.m., May 26, at the cafe.

So, what is a vertical garden? That question is more complicated than one might think, Yates said, because there are so many different kinds.

One method he works with is a hydroponic system. He creates a carpet-pad fabric wall and fabric pockets, into which he inserts plants. He then dribbles fertilized water over the fabric, which acts as a growing medium.

He has set aside a small closetlike room in the cafe itself, which houses a “fertigation” system, which, as the name suggests, both fertilizes and irrigates.

This system allowed him to create vertical gardens copying Blanc’s method, he said.

But now, experimenting with different ways to keep things wet, Yates has created his own system that he calls a “wicking well.”

He starts with a blue, plastic 55-gallon barrel, and then makes a concrete top and bottom for it. He covers the barrel with carpet-pad fabric, fills it with water from an attached faucet, stocks the barrel with small fish and pops plants into the pockets.

“The goal is to get it so it doesn’t look like a barrel. Once you get the moss to grow, it looks like a rock face; it looks like a work of art,” he said.

The water wicks over the top of the concrete collar, down over the plants, and, “this is major,” Yates said, “the fish poop fertilizes the plants.”

Plant choice is key

by: PHOTO: DICK TRTEK - Phil Yates created the wicking well system of vertical gardening, pictured here, behind the Singer Hill Cafe. It is a living work of art, he says.Choosing the right plants for the vertical garden is important, Yates said, noting that it is best to avoid plants that droop, since they will smother the other plants.

There are plenty of design considerations when choosing plants, with special attention given to the location of the vertical garden.

“The coolest thing on a sunny wall, you can put the shade plants under the sun-loving plants” and that works very well, Yates noted.

The two indoor gardens at the cafe are planted with tropical houseplants, and some orchids even do well, Yates said. Both gardens are also are fish ponds, which attract small children, but more importantly, the fish fertilize the plants, he said.

The vertical gardens, both inside and out, are “unlike anything that people have seen before and are a huge draw” to the cafe, Betsy Yates said.

People drive by and see them, and bring in people from out of town to look at them, she noted, adding, that the indoor gardens “create a really cool atmosphere in the cafe.”

The seminars will cater to people who are curious about building a vertical garden, and attendees do not need to be avid gardeners, Phil Yates said.

And what does he like best about vertical gardening?

On a practical note, the gardens have been good for business at Singer Hill Cafe, Yates said.

But on a personal level, he loves seeing and hearing customers’ reactions to the sight of the gardens.

Yates added, “I practiced law on and off for 20 years, and in that time I hardly ever had a person tell me what a great job I was doing. Now I get kudos 10 times a day — people love it.”

Growing tall

What: Free vertical garden seminars

When: 3 to 4 p.m. May 26, June 30, July 28 and Aug. 25

Where: The Art Garden at Singer Hill Cafe, 623 Seventh St., Oregon City

More: Seminars will cover construction, installation, maintenance, drainage, plants and a Q&A session.

For more information: Visit singerhill.com or call 503-656-5252.

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