Jen Shovlin is a Wave Hill gardener.
A palette, on the other hand, is a range of colors. It is also the board that artists use to hold and mix paint. Picture Picasso in his blue period: He is holding a palette on which you see a limited palette of blue tones.
I’ve always had a fascination with living walls and living architecture, from how they soften and shape the terrain, to how they represent a visual landscape, like a painting. I wanted to try to create my own “living walls” on Wave Hill’s Pergola as a way to complement the existing architecture, which provides a focal point that frames the view of the Hudson River as you enter the gardens. Over the winter, I made an “Ideas Board” and researched living walls through Google images, and printed out the ones that most appealed to me. (Check out my Ideas Board at the end of this post.} An intern from a previous season, Sarah Follet, came by for a visit and showed me a picture of a pallet that she had planted. A hypothetical “lightbulb” flashed in my head and the idea was born as to how to make my living walls—with pallets, but making them into my own plant palettes. The pallets are used vertically as a planting container so the slatted top becomes the front and the more open bottom is the back. I continued to research “living pallets” on Google to figure out how to plant one. Several links came up, mostly on Pinterest. I came up with a plan as to how to build and plant my pallets. With the help of Nally intern Ian Baxendale, here is a step-by-step guide as to how we built the pallets for the Pergola.On the right are a progression of snaps of the pallets, beginning in the first week of June, into mid-July and, finally, this week.
- Clean the pallets off with a wire brush. Then stain them with a color stain of your choice. (I used Benjamin Moore Arborcoat Waterborne Exterior Stain for Deck& Siding, color “Spanish Moss”.)
- Purchase a roll of coconut fiber (used in hanging baskets) from Kinsmen Garden Company online.
- Recess pieces of wood into the bottom end of the pallets to close them off so the soil will not wash through the bottom.
- Roll the coconut fiber along the inside of the pallet wall, and then use a heavy-duty stapler gun to keep the coconut fiber in place.
- Secure black landscape fabric to the backside (bottom) of the pallet with a staple gun.
- Reinforce the backside with strips of wood (2’ x 4’) and nails, because once the pallets are filled with soil, the landscape fabric will start to bulge out and the staples might not be strong enough to hold it in place.
- Paint the entire back with stain.
- Put the pallets upright and with the top open, and fill them with bags of soil. (I used MetroMix, which is a combination of bark mulch, soil, and peat. It’s a pretty heavy soil so it retains moisture and doesn’t dry out as fast.) Use a bamboo stick to push the soil down to make sure it reaches all the way to the bottom. Please note: place your pallets where you want them before filling with soil, because once it is filled with soil it is extremely heavy. (I moved my pallets into place later, using a hand truck (rootball carrier) once I thought they were ready for public display.)
- Once the pallets are filled with soil, water them down and wait a couple days in order to let the soil settle, adding more soil if necessary.
- Planting time: This is when your pallets transform into plant palettes. Pull the coconut fiber apart to make small holes and just plant in the pockets, then move the coconut fiber back over the hole, around the plant, kind of tucking it in.
The Kinds of Plants I Used
Since I also care for the Tropical House in the Marco Polo Stufano Conservatory at Wave Hill, I decided to use tropical plants for the palletes. I knew the pallets would be in the shade under the Pergola, so I choose plants that would thrive in shade. I also chose plants that are groundcovers or creeping plants, as I knew they would easily fill the spaces in the pallets and they were easy to propagate as cuttings. I used plug trays for my cuttings, because anything larger would be difficult to plant in between the pallet boards. I also used plants such as ferns to create dimension and layers. Here is a general list of the plants I used:
- – Adiantum (various species of Maidenhair ferns)
- – Pilea glauca
- – Dichondra ‘Silver Falls’
- – Lysimachia ‘Outback Sunset’
- – Pilea grandiflora ‘Coral’
- – Alternanthera (various cultivars)
- – Peperomia (various cultivars)
- – Pilea depressa
- – Plectranthus zuluensis
- – Syngonium (various cultivars)
- – Tradescantia (various cultivars)
- – Impatiens repens
- – Muehlenbeckia axillaris
Pallet gardening does not have to be limited to just tropical plants. As with any garden, it depends on its placement to determine what kinds of plants you may use. Things to consider: how much sun the area gets, whether it is hot and dry or shady and moist, how often you will be able to water, and so on. The pallets on the Pergola get a regular watering every day, starting at the top of the pallete and working down, just as if you were watering a wall. Every few weeks, I fertilize the pallets with Foilage-Pro, a Dyna-Grow brand of fertilizer you can purchase on Amazon.
The Placement of the Palettes at the Pergola
I decided to place one pallet under each “window” of the Pergola, making sure these pallets were smaller in size, so they didn’t take away from the view of the Palisades, but would enhance it. I also wanted to make sure there was still foot-room for people to come up to the window and look out. The two larger pallets I placed across from one another in front of the steps leading down to the Lower Lawn. I wanted to create a sort of waterfall effect with these pallets, so I planted lots of creeping silver and green plants. My idea is that when these pallets grow in, people experience the water-flow like movements of these plants, and that the pallets also highlight the Hudson River views.
My hope with doing these planting pallets is not only to gain experience and have fun recreating a “living wall”, but also show the public that even if you have a small garden space like just a patio, you can make a vertical garden using recycled objects like a pallet.