Article - the Age - Fytogreen Australia - Fytowall - 2009

Gardens go to the wall to defy blue skies and tight corners

Fytowall - Photo Simon O'DwyerPhoto: Simon O'Dwyer
August 30, 2009
Using less water is just one of the benefits of planting a vertical garden.

CHRISTINE Berry and Mike Morris were building a beautiful home in Richmond with a focus of getting as much sunlight into the house as possible. Just one problem. ''The site was blighted by a three-storey block of flats,'' says Ms Berry.

How she and her architect husband solved the problem gives a visionary clue as to how the city of Melbourne will cope with climate change, the death of its trees and higher-density living. They turned the rear wall of their courtyard into an eight-metre garden of native grasses and ferns.

''If we'd just stuck up blank walls to obscure the flats, it would have been like living at the bottom of an elevator shaft,'' says Ms Berry.

Because of the scale of the project, the foundations had to be designed to cope with the added stress and water tanks discreetly installed on the roof to make the garden independent of mains water. ''It certainly wasn't a cheap option.''

While the vertical garden is watered and fed by an automated drip system, and embedded in a lightweight biodegradable foam - which serves as the growing medium rather than soil - the greenery still needs regular maintenance by Fytogreen, the company that designed and installed the system.

''They come once a month, like the window cleaner. There's no way we could get up there,'' Ms Berry says.

While a simple vertical garden can be set upon tiered racks with pot plants, the true wall garden - emerging as a mainstay in corporate horticulture - is a work in progress.

Pioneered by Frenchman Patrick Blanc in 1988, the first green walls used layers of felt to support the roots, but the system used a lot of water, wasn't sustainable (plants die and need to be replaced) and was better suited to temperate climates.

Two years ago, Fytogreen - based on a 10-hectare site at Somerville, with a large research and development component - came up with foam modules that efficiently hold and channel water and air. ''Our vertical gardens use about half the water of a regular soil-based garden,'' says Stuart Tyler, Fytogreen's head of sales and marketing. ''They also provide a great insulating effect. On days of 35 degrees or higher, the cavity behind the panels is 9 to 10 degrees cooler.''

But the technology isn't cheap. For residential-scale vertical walls, the modules and drip system are priced at $1800 per metre. Mr Tyler predicts that in five to 10 years, roof gardens and vertical walls will be an integral, even mandatory part of city planning - as found already in European cities.

''In Dusseldorf there is a requirement that 10 per cent of a roof area has a garden … It's a response to climate stress. Roof gardens reduce reflective heat and light, which means they reduce the hours you need to run air-conditioning.''

More than half of Fytogreen's clients come from the corporate sector with companies including Connex, General Pants and Sydney's Marriott hotel ''greening'' their walls, lobbies and roofs.

Governments, however, are dragging their heels.

The University of Melbourne recently bid for a grant of about $3 million from the State Government to establish a knowledge centre for green walls and roofs at its Burnley campus.

The head of the university's department of resource management and geography, Nigel Stork, says: ''I don't want to sound pessimistic about it, because I believe we will eventually get there.''

Burnley is already receiving private funding for the trial of an experimental green roof, which won the silver medal at this year's Melbourne International Garden Show. And next month, Burnley is hosting a three-day green roof conference.

Says Professor Stork: ''There needs to be more research to understand the cooling effects of green roofs and walls. There's a lot of work been done in Northern Europe, but they have a different climate to Australia. So the potential is understood to be there, but the work hasn't been done yet.''