Planet Earth

Art That Breathes and Grows—Because It's Made Out of Plants

Botanical wizards use rice paddies, empty churches, and city buildings to grow a new kind of art.


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Photo Credits: All text by Josephine Hearn; image: Stephanie Boegeman

Plants have been bent to human purpose for millennia--for crops, clothing, shelter, and now, to enliven the developed landscape in ways the backyard gardener never imagined. Here we present a collection of botanical wonders that are grown over buildings, grown into buildings, and woven into astounding, colossal patterns.

In 1993 farmers in the tiny village of Inakadate in northern Japan realized they could use four varieties of rice to etch images in the fields. After years of reproducing a simple design of nearby Mount Iwaki, in 2006 they began using computers to devise larger, more intricate murals that recreate figures from Japanese art and myth. Computer design has also allowed a sophisticated use of perspective so that the work appears well-proportioned when viewed from an observation tower.

Photo Credits: Image: Stephanie Boegeman

Farmers and volunteers spend three days each year planting the rice paddy art pieces, some of which can stretch over nearly four acres. The designs draw more than 100,000 tourists annually to Inakadate, a town of 9,000 where rice production is the dominant industry.

"I feel happy to see many people come to see our rice paddies because, here in Inakadate Village, rice and people's lives are very closely connected," the head of the rice art project, Akio Nakayama, told the Japan Times in 2007.

Photo Credits: Image: Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey

The British artistic team of Ackroyd & Harvey brought a deconsecrated South London church to life with common lawn grass. Along with more than a dozen helpers, the married couple applied 5,000 pounds of clay and germinating seed to the church's walls over a period of five days, creating a layer only millimeters thick.

With the artists misting the interior three or four times a day--a process shown in the ethereal, chiaroscuro image seen here--the shoots emerge into a blanket of greenery.

Photo Credits: Image: Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey

Even the intricate details of a church balcony receive a lush carpeting of grass. Finding the right mixture of clay and seeds to smear on the walls is tricky: too wet and it slips off, too dry and it cracks and peels off.

Ackroyd & Harvey's frondescent installations are gorgeous but fleeting. After several weeks, mold can set in.

Photo Credits: Image: Patrick Blanc

The fingers of foliage on this bridge in the south of France are layers of mosses, vines, ferns, and other vegetation devised by Patrick Blanc, a globe-trotting tropical botanist based at the French National Center for Scientific Research.

Blanc has explored remote terrain from Thailand to the Andes to gain deeper knowledge of tropical flora, both to serve a career as a research scientist and, since the mid-eighties, to inform the techniques of his vertical gardens.

Photo Credits: Image: Patrick Blanc

Another of Blanc's verdant inventions adorns the Musee du quai Branly in Paris. Like all of his work, this installation uses no soil. Instead Blanc attaches water-retaining felt to PVC panels held up by a stainless steel frame. Piping at the top periodically releases water mixed with fertilizer, dampening the felt and nourishing the plants.

Aside from their aesthetic advantages, a vertical garden acts like a green roof to regulate temperatures inside the building, keeping it warm in winter and cool in summer. Interested in your own vertical garden? Prices start at about $800 per square meter.

Photo Credits: Image: Oliver Storz

Three German architects created this bird-watching station in Bavaria using fast-growing willow trees as the sole supports. They call the technique "arbo architecture."

Ferdinand Ludwig, Oliver Storz, and Hannes Schwertfeger begin with a metal scaffolding onto which they bind the young trees. As time passes, they slowly remove the support structure and allow the trees to bear the load. After a few years, the structure is ready for a "botanical certificate of fitness" in which a structural engineer inspects their handiwork for safety. The trio is now at work on a larger arbo architecture building in Stuttgart.

Photo Credits: Image: Ferdinand Ludwig

Here a willow tree has been trained to grow around a stainless steel handrail.

This new branch of architecture presents unique challenges, the architects told the German magazine Der Spiegel. There is a "risk of strangulation" if metal fasteners impede the flow of sap. To address this problem, the arborist/architects can graft new branches around the blockage, creating "sap bypasses."

Photo Credits: Image: YardGreen of Raleigh

For those without the horticultural skills to blanket churches in fescue, wrap bridges in foliage, or etch mythic figures in rice paddies, there is grass painting. Here we see a professional grass painter at work. Technically, it's not paint but dye, explains Patrick Besanson of the turf-tinting firm YardGreen of Raleigh. "Paint" is just a handy marketing term.

The dye is a mixture of common yellow and blue food coloring and ammonia, which allows the dyes to penetrate the blade. Commonly used on golf courses, playing fields, and for-sale homes, the dye usually lasts for about three months, says Besanson, and can withstand the assaults of UV rays, rain and freezing snow. "We've had three snow occurrences this year and we never saw the snow turning green."

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