Home & Garden

Growing up with new method of vertical gardening

“It’s like painting with plants,” Kristel Gramlich of Plantasy said about vertical gardening. She is shown last month in Newcastle with some of her products.
“It’s like painting with plants,” Kristel Gramlich of Plantasy said about vertical gardening. She is shown last month in Newcastle with some of her products. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

Kristel Gramlich knew there had to be a better way.

Like many gardeners, she wanted to get some plants to grow up – at least before they got eaten.

“My inspiration was simple: I had to get my hostas out of snails’ harm,” said the Newcastle entrepreneur. “It would at least take (the snails) longer to find them if they were off the ground. I tried baskets, then I started to look at vertical gardens.”

One of the gardening world’s hottest trends, “vertical gardens” allow plants to grow on walls and other non-horizontal surfaces. They’re especially popular for small-space gardening where ground is at a premium, or as decoration for patios and outdoor rooms.

Putting plants at eye-level also gives new appreciation to groundcovers, succulents and small perennials that usually take stooping to admire up close.

But creating a vertical garden can be problematic. How do you get messy soil to stay in place when the planter is turned 90 degrees? How do you water it? How do you get plants to root and stay where they’re supposed to stay? How to you keep them growing while “up” on a wall or fence?

A longtime horticulturist, Gramlich had experimented with several vertical gardening techniques. She tinkered on her ideas as she worked at a major plant propagation farm in Watsonville.

“It was basically a plant factory,” she said. “In the propagation house, we used 10-by-20-inch tiles (or trays) for propagating annuals and perennials. We’d plant 72 to 512 plants (per tray). When the plants were growing, there would be whole planes of foliage, like a tapestry of plants.”

One growing medium in particular held the seedlings firmly in place. Even if a tray was turned sideways, the plants did not fall out.

“It was a soil-less mix we used for expensive plants such as poinsettias and geraniums,” Gramlich recalled. “It was perfect for my needs.”

And Plantasy was born.

Gramlich now has a solution to fit vertical gardening’s needs. Her Plantasy “Vertical G(art)ens” and kits have earned great reviews. The editors of Sunset magazine called it “their favorite vertical gardening product” and listed Gramlich’s original design in their November 2013 issue as “No. 1 Best in the West.”

“Now, you can create a vertical garden the way the pros do,” Sunset raved. “The (planting) tile has stellar air- and water-holding capacities, so anything – really, anything – you plant will thrive. Our garden team is obsessed.”

This Old House magazine added more kudos for the product, naming it one of the best new home and garden products of 2014.

This month, Gramlich rolls her Plantasy garden kits into a major spotlight: The 30th annual San Francisco Flower and Garden Show. Northern California’s most prestigious garden event, the show marks the debut of her new Plantasy designs at lower prices, $20 and up.

“That’s just crazy good,” Gramlich said of her invitation to be a part of the show. “I’ve done several small shows, but this is a huge step up.”

In addition to selling her planters and kits at shows, her products are available online at www.plantasy.us.

The finished planters, said Sergio Amador, Gramlich’s partner, “are like mini-landscapes that you just want to wander through. They’re intriguing and beautiful.”

A UC Davis graduate, Gramlich quit her propagation job to devote herself to Plantasy. At her Newcastle hillside home, she shares her outdoor workspace with a flock of peacocks.

“They’re so colorful and fun,” she said of the birds as they seemed to inspect her planters. “Sometimes, their feathers end up in my finished designs.”

She’s running a Kickstarter campaign (through March 14) to expand her fledgling company and to introduce her products into local nurseries.

“I’ve been working on Plantasy for almost three years,” said Gramlich, 38. “A lot of tinkering went into finding just the right combination; trying to find the right containers at the right price with the right look with the right plants.”

Vertical gardens symbolize the “green wall” movement. French botanist Patrick Blanc gets credit for introducing his vertical gardening technique in a 1988 landmark installation at Paris’ Museum of Science and Industry. Since then, Blanc and his devotees have installed green walls worldwide.

Called “living paintings” or “vegetal walls,” Blanc’s green walls use rigid plastic, metal framing and felt. The plastic waterproofs the wall design while the framing holds everything in place. Plants are rooted without soil or other medium in moist felt, which distributes water and fertilizer.

Other vertical garden methods sandwich potting soil or peat moss between layers of landscape fabric inside a metal mesh frame. Or they use plastic pockets filled with soil and hung like a closet organizer. When planted and watered, these vertical gardens can be heavy and in need of sturdy support.

Most vertical garden methods or kits require that the planter be kept horizontal for weeks or months while the plants firmly root before the garden can go sideways.

Gramlich’s planting medium solved several of those issues.

“This is the magic,” she said while squeezing a chunk. “It looks like peat moss, only spongy. It’s just amazing.”

The medium is a soil-less mix of coconut coir, forest bark, worm castings and polymer. Extremely lightweight, it locks plants in place in minutes so the garden can be immediately hung. It retains air space for healthy roots while holding just the right amount of moisture without dripping. In her designs, Gramlich adds a top coat of preserved moss to create a soft green mat background for the living plants.

Gramlich packs the medium into tiles, cake pans, muffin tins, molds, picture frames and other containers. She adds reservoirs to hold water and other touches to make the finished gardens become living art.

While most vertical garden techniques concentrate on succulents, Gramlich uses a wide variety of plants in her designs, from ferns to philodendrons. Among her favorites: multicolored heucheras or coral bells.

“It’s like painting with plants,” she said. “That’s what I like about it. You can create something so creative and so beautiful. And this way, it’s so easy.”

Call The Bee’s Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington.

30th SAN FRANCISCO FLOWER AND GARDEN SHOW

Where: San Mateo Event Center, 1346 Saratoga Drive, San Mateo

When: 10 a.m.-7 p.m. March 18-21, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. March 22

Admission: $17.50 early bird via online; $22 at door; children ages 15 and younger admitted free; parking $12.

Details: (415) 684-7278, sfgardenshow.com/

Plantasy information: www.plantasy.us, (530) 559-7342

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