Human Flower Project
Can’t Keep an Artist-Gardener Down
An inquisitive artist teams with green-renovators in Louisville, KY, to take on a tall horticultural order.
Studio artist Tracey Williams, a native of South Africa, perches by the vertical garden she’s creating for The Green Building on East Market Street.
Photo (detail): Courtesy of Mike Hayman, Courier-Journal
By Allen Bush
Tracey Williams is going places where no one else I know personally has gone. The South African native, who has lived in the United States for twenty-six years, is breaking new ground in Louisville, Kentucky, and hasn’t busted a single dirt clod. Tracey has installed a vertical garden, straight up the wall, at the Green Building on East Market Street.
The wall is possible because of the adventurous foresight of the building’s owners, Augusta and Gill Holland. The couple established a beachhead in the downtown art gallery district with the purchase of several older buildings in the area anointed as NuLu. The Green Building’s 732 Social was voted Best New Restaurant by the readers of Leo, Louisville’s alt-weekly. The Hollands have converted their Green Building following sustainable LEED guidelines. The renovation on the 110 year old former dry goods store has included a living green roof, geothermal heating and a fastidious respect for recycled construction materials.
The garden “canvass” in August, with brackets
Photo: Allen Bush
I stood in front of painted, bare block near the back of the Green Building in early June; there wasn’t a clue where Tracey Williams might take this. She is interested in growing vegetables on walls someday. Vines had been considered. But on the Green Building she had an empty canvas and a palette of shade plants and a vision of a colorful mosaic. Curiosity and an artist’s sensibility are at work non-stop. Newly arrived flats of young Euphorbias, Carexes, Heucheras and ferns waited to be planted in (on) an unlikely home.
A vertical, wall garden does require more than a supporting trellis. A structural framework, a growing medium for plants and an irrigation system are parts of the package – Tracey’s package, actually.
A garden espalier by Simple
Photo: Courtesy of Simple
Others have gone vertical on living walls before her, most notably Patrick Blanc, who pioneered stunning compositions in France and elsewhere around the world. But his construction technique is proprietary, and the tinkerer Tracy decided to figure out something on her own.
“Patrick Blanc was a really big inspiration,” she said. “I read an article in New York Times, about his work and bought his book.” With a glowing smile, she added, “I’m always intrigued with finding plants in unexpected places. When you’re going down an alley, seeing something growing out of a crack is an unexpected joy.”
Hanging pumpkin garden, Zen Garden Restaurant, Louisville, KY, September 2009
Photo: Allen Bush
Anyone who loves the outdoors has probably shared Tracey’s feeling of wonder and joy. I was astounded this September by plump pumpkins, supported by makeshift baskets, growing on a trellis outside the Zen Garden Restaurant, a few miles from the Green Building. I’d never seen anything so plentiful and simple in such an unusual space. (There was just enough room in the pumpkin’s downsized patch where Jack might have planted “magic bean” seeds for his giant beanstalk.) Pumpkins gobble up a lot of garden square footage. A small planting box held the roots of the pumpkin. The sprawling vines were tied-off on supporting wooden columns until they reached the ten-foot-high trellis.
Wall covered with English ivy, Louisville, KY
Photo: Allen Bush
Tracey’s block wall was nothing out of the ordinary. Traditional, exterior wall covering options with rambling vines or even espalier could have been planted. The native cross vine Bignonia capreolata (Anisostichus), found growing naturally in Kentucky and throughout the forest canopy southeastern United States, has glossy semi-evergreen leaves and reddish-orange flowering trumpets and wouldn’t require a vigilant hard annual pruning like a wisteria. Climbing hydrangea, Hydrangea anomala ‘Petiolaris’, or its close kin Schizophragma hydrangeoides are painstakingly slow the first three to five years before they get going full strength. And the long popular English ivy (Hedera helix) seems destined toward regional isolation, if not the horticultural ash heap. Thirty years ago it was a desirable groundcover and wall covering, more coveted perhaps because it wasn’t so thuggish, then, and barely scraped by a few cold Louisville winters when the Ohio River froze over hard. Its evergreen vitality was burned brown during back to back bitter cold winters in the late 1970s, when the temperatures plummeted to -20 degrees F (-28 C). English Ivy has gained a worrisome toehold during warmer winters since, and is becoming increasingly invasive in some states, including Kentucky.
English Ivy and other vines with clinging tendrils can cause structural damage. On a flat concrete surface these might be suitable, but these fierce plants can pull weakened mortared joints apart. And espaliered vines, trees or shrubs require someone with serious know-how to prune and train the stems judiciously into an imaginative sculpture – and keep it shapely.
Williams’s garden “modulars” planted June 29, soon to be hung on the Green Building
Photo: Allen Bush
The notion of the living wall at the Green Building presumed there might be some insulation value, at the very least. Pumps for the wall’s irrigation system would be solar powered, capable of flushing warm water through the system for extra winter plant hardiness. And the brackets that hang the planting modules are recycled. But there was something distinctly adventuresome and artistic in Tracey’s vertical garden option – a big stretch from the rambling vines or a sculpted espalier that she could have figured-out and mastered easily. The chance to create an artistic textural mosaic with different hues of green foliage and multicolored blooms on the side of a downtown wall fascinated her. Other gardening projects filled-up long days before she would drive home to Peewee Valley, tend her two children, tuck them into bed, and check-in with her husband. Then she’d head back to the Green Building. Many summer work nights ended around 2:00 A.M. A few winks could be stolen before the churning artist’s mind started-up again at sunrise. Tracey, a university art major, has had no formal horticultural education.
She did her homework. Ed Snodgrass, author, nurseryman and leading green roof authority, suggested that the planting modules be designed and constructed like suet bird feeders. Ed and Tracey thought existing commercial products would suffer from ultraviolet degradation, so she designed a metal module 20” x 20” and 2” deep. Inside these cages, she inserted a spun fiber planting media, appropriate for hydroponic irrigation called Sure To Grow®. This plastic product, currently consisting of partially recycled polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and polyethylene (PE), is also used for drink bottles and food packaging. 100% recycled product is planned soon.
Tracey has always been interested in systems. “I love mechanical things,” she said. Although she grew-up in South African towns with widely varying flora, much of it lush and tropical, she didn’t grow-up gardening. “I spent most of my time at the beach,” she admitted unapologetically. But she remembers her great-grandmother’s orchard near Sutterheim, in the Eastern Cape at the base of the Amatola Mountains. Tracey fondly recalls early impressions from the area known as Little Bavaria, “The kitchen window overlooked the peak at the end of the range. Eagles were frequently seen and I remember lying on the forest floor, looking up at towering tall tree ferns.” She had an uncle who collected iris and cycads, and has a cousin who is involved professionally in South African horticulture. Gardening is in her genes.
Tracey Williams rose to the challenge of creating a wall garden, figuring out a suitable structure, growing medium, watering system.
Photo: Mike Hayman, Courier-Journal
So is the outdoors. She recalls her favorite childhood book series, Secret Seven, about a group of kids who solve mysteries that always seem to stump the police. They celebrate each success with bread and butter sandwiches and ginger beer. (Is it any surprise she married Mark Williams, the chef at Brown Forman Distillery’s Bourbon Street Café? He’s also the driving force behind Slow Food Bluegrass, a “food education” organization “dedicated to promoting growers and producers of good, clean and fair food products throughout the Bluegrass region.”)
Jack and his giant beanstalk have got nothing on Tracey Williams. As her mosaic garden climbs into being, the sky’s the limit.