By Julia Flynn Siler
Since Biblical times, gardens have been horizontal, with flowers and plants sprouting out of the ground. Patrick Blanc has turned that whole notion on its side, literally. Mr. Blanc is the inventor of the vertical garden, also known as the living (or green) wall.
Mr. Blanc, 58, is a botanist with France’s National Center for Scientific Research, the country’s giant science and technology agency. He also has a private practice designing gardens. Among the more than 250 he has installed around the world, his most famous are at the Musee du Quai Branly in Paris, the Caixa Forum Museum in Madrid and the French embassy in New Delhi. A celebrity among horticulturalists, he’s even got a new kind of begonia named after him, Begonia blancii, after discovering it two years ago while trekking through a rainforest in the Philippines. These days, a Blanc-designed garden commands well into the six figures.
When he is not on a plane to the Middle East or exploring a remote rainforest in Hawaii to study native plants, Mr. Blanc works at the home he shares with singer Pascal Heni just outside Paris’s city limits. There, he has a desk placed on top of a large aquarium, about 20 by 23 feet. “I see the fish swimming beneath my legs,” he said. “It is a dream.” His office includes a lush living wall, covered with plants.
He begins his day at about 7 a.m., often with a glass of white wine or champagne, which he said is relaxing. He then looks at all his plants, the 2,000 small fish that live in his aquarium, the birds and the lizards to make sure they’re all well. He keeps 10 different kinds of birds in his home, which he explains provide a biological form of insect control. He does most of his experimentation with plants and different vertical systems at his home, parts of which resemble a jungle.
Mr. Blanc will then turn to his current project, drawing his sketches in pencil. He marks the area where each kind of plant should go and scribbles their names down in tiny print in each of their intended locations. He relies on his memory for the plant names and may use thousands of individual plants, from hundreds of species, in a single installation. In all projects, he chooses an “atmosphere” — perhaps jungle-like with many tropical plants, or showy, using plants with abundant blooms.
“Of course, I visualize what it will look like but, hopefully, there are always some surprises,” he said.
His desk is next to the 29-year-old vertical garden that he maintains in his home. Because he finds it difficult to sit for long stretches of time, he generally gets up from his desk every 30 to 45 minutes or so, taking a break to stretch his legs, feed his fish and tend his plants. “When you move, you think differently,” he said.
On long airplane rides, such as the 14-hour one he took from Paris to San Francisco in early October, he’ll tuck pencils, sketch paper and a steel pencil sharpener into his green Tumi shoulder bag. He’s currently working on the plan for an outdoor garden in Bahrain, which he calls the Muharraq Green Gate and will sit at the entrance of Bahrain’s historic part of the town. He considers it an unusual challenge because daytime temperatures for several months a year might average 122 degrees Fahrenheit.
Once he reached San Francisco, he bounded toward his creation at the Drew School, a private high school in the lower Pacific Heights area. The garden, which he planted nine months earlier, is his largest in the U.S., using more than 4,500 plants, and it is already starting to bloom. Small orange-red blossoms peep through the foliage. “Ah, flowers,” he said. “Good for the hummingbirds!”
He chose a different kind of challenge by deciding to use only California native plants in the Drew garden. Before designing it, he spent several days visiting local botanical gardens, nurseries and preserves. On his recent trip, he spent two days up in Humboldt County, home of the giant Sequoia sempervirens trees, to study what was growing on the forest floor beneath them. In his bag, he carried a guide to California state parks. “My inspiration is nature,” he said.
Mr. Blanc himself resembles a tropical wood sprite. Nicknamed “The Green Man,” he favors green shirts with bold botanical prints, green shoes and for the past 25 years has dyed his hair green because he likes the color. Since he was an adolescent, he has grown his fingernails long, which he said his parents initially objected to. He wears a ring woven from green and brown threads on his left hand.
As a child, Mr. Blanc was fascinated by aquariums and began experimenting with using plants to purify their waters, eventually tying the plants to a plank jutting out of the aquarium. By providing the vertically positioned plants with water and nutrients, he created a kind of plant waterfall coming out of his tank.
At age 19, he took his first trip to the tropics, visiting the Khao Yai National Park in Thailand, lush with plants that grew up steep vertical cliffs. “From then on, I understood that plants could sprout at any height, not merely from the ground, in order to then climb,” he wrote in “The Vertical Garden.”
In 1986, he created his first public vertical garden. His big breakthrough came eight years later, with his installation at France’s prestigious Chaumont-Sur-Loire garden festival — he had trekked to Chile to find plants there that might adapt to the Chaumont’s climate.
He said he travels about 50% of the time and that new places fuel his creativity. Mr. Blanc explained that he has been inspired by everything from a strangler fig growing out of the Ta Prohm temple in Angkor, Cambodia, to lichen hanging from the forests near the Ngorongoro crater in Tanzania. For each living wall that he creates, it is the place itself that inspires him.