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An Epiphyte Vertical Garden

by Mary Jasch

The brick wall at Atlock Farm is like something out of a childhood fairy tale book – a breathing, Medusa-like wall with hair of living creatures. This writer wants one. More than that, she wants to make one.

Perhaps the wall is guarded by the two stone maidens with hair of Spanish moss across the greenhouse isle. They seem to rally the bulbous bromeliads scaling the chain link behind them.

But enough of owner/plantsman Ken Selody’s living fantasies! The wall is real and full of orchids and bromeliads, specifically Tillandsia, with many in bloom and every one a stunner.

Selody built the wall 20 years ago to place potted plants on its bluestone cap. But four years later, after buying his first Tillandsia at the Philadelphia Flower Show, he began dressing the wall itself in bromeliads. He was hooked and collected every variety he could find to add. Later, he began adding orchids. Tillandsia, a genus of epiphytic bromeliads, loved the environment and took off, but some orchids failed.

“Some orchids don’t put up with my particular kind of environment,” he says. “It’s a little too dry for a lot of them. I try to hose down this wall whenever I think about it. It can sometimes go for at least a week before I think about it. The Tillandsias really don’t mind that at all and there’s some orchids that don’t mind it, but there are some orchids that would otherwise live on the wall if I were there every other day with the water, as I’m not. We’re learning the hard way as to which orchids will do and which won’t.”

The wall is simply brick with no added substrate. He set his first wall-bound Tillandsia directly on the bluestone cap – bare root, no bark, no moss, no nothing. They loved it and spread.

“They’re amazing plants,” Selody says. “I remember being in Ecuador and seeing them latch on to the telephone lines. The seed would just blow through the air. They’re very tiny and they stick to the telephone lines where they germinate. The telephone lines are all fuzzy. They look like fuzzy bedroom slippers.”

To add subsequent plants to the wall, Selody drilled a hole and inserted an anchor, like a nail. Holding the orchid against the wall, he wired a wad of sphagnum moss over it, then wired the orchid and moss together to the anchoring nail. In time, the orchid roots clung onto the wall and the plants held themselves up.

“In the last few years, the plants have grown so humungous that they’re breaking apart under their own weight. A clump of Tillandsia will fall off into the fountain below and I either put it someplace else on the wall or I sell it. The plants themselves are just so big that pieces are falling off,” says Selody.

The plants on Selody’s wall are all true epiphytes, although many plants on other living walls are terrestrial. It begs the question: Isn’t there a difference between epiphytes and terrestrials for a reason?

Acclaimed botanist and vertical wall designer, Patrick Blanc, says on his website: “The soil is merely nothing more than a mechanic support. Only water and the many minerals dissolved in it are essential to plants, together with light and carbon dioxide to conduct photosynthesis.” That begs the question: Then why do we care about organic matter in soil?

Blanc’s statement reflects the sciences of physics and chemistry. That begs more questions: But is a plant’s life nothing more than that – just physics and chemistry? Are human beings nothing more than physics and chemistry? What about biology? Habitat? Does any of it matter?

Who am I to question? It’s just that somehow, the idea that’s it just chemistry and physics is a hard pill to swallow for this writer, whose background is in ecology – which includes everything about a species’ environment and how it survives. (Watch for future interviews with plant scientists/ecologists for their reflections.)

As Ruth Kassinger, science author and indoor living wall maker, said in a recent interview about hydroponic living walls, “It’s just a way of holding chemical elements and water in place in the same way that you could provide nutrition to a human being through an IV indefinitely. You just have to get all the right ingredients in the person to provide the chemical reactions in the person that the body needs. But I don’t think that anyone would suggest that ‘Gee, that’s a great way to live.’ But it could be done.”

Are we not more than just chemistry and physics? Do those two sciences alone make a “happy” plant? Isn’t a happy plant one that generally lives bug free and disease free? Questions… All these questions are based on an assumption that someone who creates a living wall wants and expects it to live happily for a long time in good health with the lowest maintenance possible. Perhaps outdoor walls contain insects and birds that have co-evolved with its plants?

But the plants on Selody’s wall are true epiphytes. “These plants have developed to take very small amounts of moisture out of the air in their environment without roots. They absorb them directly through the leaves – all the water and nutrients go through the foliage, so were they to come into contact with the ground, where they were constantly wet, it would just be too much water. Like a cactus, they are designed to live with very small amounts of moisture and they use it so efficiently that large amounts of water is detrimental,” he says.

“The growth on the south side of the wall is three times thicker than on the north side because it’s just getting that much more sun. It’s a lot more than water or nutrients. These plants are insistent on the sun.”

In the past ferns once decorated the wall, when its two fountain basins splashed water up onto them to keep them wet. But after replacing pumps all too frequently, Selody gave up. So did the ferns. “As soon as I didn’t replace the pump right away, the ferns dried and they died,” he says. Now he waters by hand.

Selody recalls one interesting fern that began as a tiny piece of the fern that grows on the tomb of Henry Middleton of Middleton Place, South Carolina. “I had that established here and it was such a great romantic story but as soon as the water stopped splashing on it, the conditions which otherwise were good for the bromeliads, became just too dry for ferns.”

Soon Billbergia, another bromeliad, will adorn Ken Selody’s living wall.

Atlock Farm’s Brick Wall Maintenance:
• No biocide needed.
• Safer Insecticidal Soap is sprayed for the occasional aphid.
• Any orchid fertilizer is perfect.

Atlock Farm: www.atlockfarm.com/index.html

** All photos by Mary Jasch

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published February 02, 2011

Photos to enlarge

The South side of the epiphyte wall in its habitat at Atlock Farm

Stone maiden, guardians of the wall, with climbing bromeliads

Tillandsia xerographica

Red Tillandsia

A protective bromeliad cover

North side of epiphyte wall in its habitat at Atlock Farm

Orange orchid and fountainhead

Red orchid

Orchid and Tillandsia foliage - a combo hard to beat. The spiky, purple Tillandsia has a fragrance like grape candy.

Parting Shot of Vertical Wall Garden

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