Façades overgrown with plants have a long history, although how long cannot be said for sure. However, it can be assumed that they most likely appeared when people started to settle in permanent dwellings. Many plants are natural climbers, and grasp onto anything within their reach. Hence, climbers such as the ivy, lianas or indeed any other climbing plants would not have carefully avoided our ancestors' dwellings, but would have grown freely onto and over them, too. Possibly, these plants were considered a pest and people may have even tried to get rid of them.
Noah's discovery of the grapevine – upon leaving the Ark following the Flood - marked a new era: the cultivation of the grapevine. Drawings thousands of years old, depicting pergolas and arbours overgrown with vine leaves, are proof of earliest practices of façade greening. Climbing plants were cultivated in various cultures, such as the Wisteria in Asia, which was especially splendid when grown over bridge railings.
In Central Europe, two climbing plants have dominated the realm of façade planting: the ivy and the grapevine. But while the ivy climbs freely on any walls, greening façades with grapevines was a deliberate practice with a very specific purpose: ever since the grapevine was introduced from the Romans to Central Europe during the first millennium after Christ, the ripening of the grapes to their full and sweet maturity had been an ongoing problem.
One has to remember that wine was an essential part of culture and daily life, above all as consecrated wine during worship, but just as much as a comforter in times of hardship and trouble, as well as for medicinal purposes in a distilled form as narcotics and antiseptic. However, the liquid from the barrels more often than not tasted like vinegar, and not like a delicious sweet wine. Obviously, the grapevines lacked the warmth and sunshine from the South, and monks were trying hard to develop grapes which would ripen earlier in the season.
Neverheless, with time it was discovered that, when grown along stonewalls in the vineyard or along house walls, the grapes would ripen more easily and develop an increasingly sweeter flavour. Obviously, such sweet fruit (if not pilfered by children and other sweet-toothed folk beforehand) produced an excellent wine with a high alcohol content.
In many regions in Germany, most farmers would have cultivated their own espaliers of vines until 1850, when phylloxera and fungal diseases caused a rapid decline in viticulture, and the practice was continued only in a few climatically suitable regions.
The Romantic Era with its reverence for castles saw a great boom in façade greening. Indeed, ancient looking walls overgrown with ivy became the ultimate fashion, which was accompanied by an ever-increasing creative palette thanks to the introduction of exotic climbers from America. In particular, the wild vine with its stunning red autumn leaves became a real favourite.
During the Garden City Movement at the beginning of the 20thCentury, façade greening was revived again. However, the trend did not last long, because people soon realised that green façades required regular care and trimming of the plants, if one wanted to prevent damages to their buildings! Likewise, the then fashionable fruit espaliers – for pears, grapes and other fruit – had to be maintained constantly if they were to bear fruit. Hence, many promising projects were abandoned. Either the heirs to a house didn't have an idea about how to cut back the plants or were simply not willing to take on the time-consuming work for just a handful of fruit.
Nowadays, of course, any fruit is readily available all year round, making the growing of fruit espaliers obsolete, leaving the practice as a hobby to a few enthusiasts.
In the meantime, however, ornamental trellises have established a firm place in façade greening, and it is impossible to imagine green façades without the ever more popular climbing rose or Clematis... New and more robust plant varieties are preferred today, so as not to bring the current boom to yet another sudden halt, as happened during World War I.
Even the ecologically motivated green façades suffered their setbacks in the hope that the cheap greening of walls would have significant impacts on the microclimate of large cities. “Plant wild vine on an inexpensive trellis along your house, and all will be well” was the slogan... But what happens, when that cute little plant develops into a huge green octopus, reaching into every nook and cranny under the eaves and any other crevices with its light-shunning tendrils, causing extensive damage to the building? What's more: which landlord is keen to employ (and pay!) a specialist company to trim the plants every year, up on the fourth level of his house?
Modern façade greening is concerned mainly with sensual aspects: how can I make my house more attractive - with greenery, with flowers and fruit, but without it getting overgrown and damaged? On the following pages you will find examples of green walls - mainly from the east of Germany - and how you can achieve your very own beautiful and safe green façades...
Sven Taraba from FassadenGrün / FaçadeGreening wishes you a lot of pleasure surfing...