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Garden Installation: Tight and Vertical

Last week I commented about the trials and tribulations of installing a plant design in a tight space, and I recently had an experience of planting in a space even tighter than that! This particular one was a pair of vertical gardens on a long and narrow balcony in Mission Bay.

As is the case with many of my installations, Patrick Lannan of Flora Grubb Gardens had been called upon to design here. The client is the wife of a prominent writer for the SF Chronicle, and it was a thrill to be called upon to install this design for her and her husband. I have participated in a remarkably large number of designs in this same building (and its twin next door), down the block from the Giants’ ballpark, on Berry St. along the Mission Creek waterfront. I swear, I should just become the resident gardener for this building! :) These buildings are the same place where I do some irregular planting work for a matron of the Pacific Horticultural Society, have installed a tiny tiny tiny balcony planting, have ordered plants for the common spaces along the street, and even built a custom vertical garden for another client of Patrick’s. One of the challenges of gardening in these buildings is that the parking is a phenomenal challenge, and the meters are astronomical on weekends. On this particular day, the clients were kind enough to offer a parking space within the residential garage. What a bonus!

The design was conceptually simple: the clients have a balcony that is about 12 feet long and almost three feet wide. They can open their sliding glass doors, and step out with just enough room for them to face each other with a couple of folding chairs and a 15-inch-wide table, and this is where they enjoy their morning coffee. The balcony overlooks the water and houseboats of Mission Creek, and the developing Mission Bay neighborhood on the opposite shore of the brackish waterway. The south-eastern exposure makes for a great morning ritual.

The walls at either end of the balcony are concrete and unattractive. The building has an HOA (home owners’ association) that strictly forbids attaching anything to the building or even painting the walls, so the vertical garden had to be built to lean against the walls. Some vinyl-coated cable loops through an overhead grating to make sure they don’t blow over, but can easily be cut to relocate the panels, should they someday move. They had the wooden frames built by Dave Thompson of Trick Woodworks (who also built Patrick’s vertical garden panel I posted about in my last installation post), and I again attached Woolly Pockets to plant them up. There is no source of water on this balcony, so this garden will have to be entirely hand-watered.

The biggest difficulty, as I mentioned, was the size. And vertigo, being on a ladder on a narrow balcony, six stories over the ground. Tony and I worked on these together, and there was not enough room for both of us, a short ladder, and all the plants and tools we needed. I mounted the pockets on one panel, then worked on the other while Tony filled in the soil. Then, I started planting the first panel while Tony soiled (tee hee) the second. We had to keep most of the plants out in front of their apartment in the entry hallway, and Tony ran back and forth to bring in three of each plant at a time as I worked from pocket to pocket. He worked on the cleanup as I moved between panels. Despite the small space, it was phenomenally helpful to have assistance! I’d had to commit to being dirty once I got out there, so it would have been hugely challenging to run back and forth on my own unless I’d shrink-wrapped their living room in plastic.

The wife of the duo wanted a tropical look (with no obvious succulents) for the garden panels. Patrick chose a selection of plants fairly loosely, and since I do the nursery’s buying for designs and special orders, I had a bit of free reign to get what I saw fit within his general specifications. He wanted bromeliads, so I brought it Vriesea philippo coburgii and green and orange hybrids of Aechmea recurvata. He wanted Hoya, and that I got. He wanted grassy Lomandra ‘Breeze’, and that’s in there. And some sun-tolerant orchids (orange Epidendrum, check), and some Hypoestes for highlights of pink and white. For another broad leaf we pulled in some Ficus decora, and I sneaked in a few Christmas cactus. The overall look is gorgeous!

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Beautiful tropical vertical gardens that will only get more lush with time. And satisfied clients, to boot!

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2 responses to “Garden Installation: Tight and Vertical

  1. Today I’m heading to the nursery to buy plants for my porch containers. I might try a vertical panel this year too.

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