A living wall comes to Portsmouth, N.H.

Vertical gardens, or living walls, are becoming more and more popular. Here's one on a Portsmouth, N.H., restaurant.

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    In Portsmouth, N.H., Cava Restaurant has installed a living wall, or vertical garden, on its facade.
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Next to gardens and gardening, I love trying new restaurants in downtown Portsmouth, N.H., a food mecca with tiny streets and passages lined with chic bistros and boutiques. So imagine my delight when a recent night out with friends combined both my passions.

Our restaurant of choice was Cava in Portsmouth’s Commercial Alley. In addition to delicious food, Cava has what may be the first vertical garden in northern New England. Vertical gardens, also known as living walls, differ from vine-covered walls by growing in soil-filled erect panels.

I came upon Cava’s living wall as I walked down the narrow brick passage reminiscent of old mews. Launched at the end of September, this living wall looks striking and contemporary, yet harmonious with the site.

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Panels have built-in irrigation

Five of the six main panels, covering roughly 160 square feet of the two-story facade, are verdant and give the old red-brick building a sensuous texture. One panel shows some dieback, but even that appeals — you can see the structure behind the garden, which is mighty cool.

The Cava garden uses metal GroWall panels with built-in irrigation to hold the plants. Each panel contains several planting cells.

Before attaching the panels to the wall, they were planted and grown horizontally. Eventually the root systems increased enough to secure the plants to the planting cells, thus keeping both plants and soil from spilling out.

The vogue for living walls started with botanist Patrick Blanc, who created his first one near Paris in 1991. Like green roofs, vertical gardens not only beautify a space but also benefit the community. They can perk up tight spaces and absorb dust and air-borne pollutants.

Living walls have an environmental impact

Living walls can also cool and insulate a house, thus lowering the cost of air conditioning and heating your home. As a bonus, they make habitat for birds and insects and may lower urban noise pollution.

Just ponder what that means for Cava. Low-maintenance, shade-loving, native perennials that we expect to see in the ground thrive on the wall, making a living tapestry that’s good for the environment.

Christmas fern, purple heuchera, wintergreen, tussock grass, and bunchberry are among the plants on the Cava wall, which was sponsored by Coastal Home magazine. Evergreen to semi-evergreen for the most part, they complement boxwood and ornamental grass in tall planters, which separate the restaurant’s patio from the alley path.

Part of the design challenge was finding woodland natives that would work on the site. “Asarum canadense (wild ginger) did not perform at all,” says Lynn Felici-Gallant, Coastal Home editor, garden designer, and owner of Indigo Gardens.

Charles (Chuck) Hugo, owner of Charles C. Hugo Landscape Design of South Berwick, Maine, collaborated on the project with Lynn and Maya Travaglia, Chuck’s wife and business partner. They also worked with numerous volunteers and businesses that gave goods, time, and money to bring the garden to life.

Cheers to Cava’s owners, John Akar and Gregg Sessler, who welcomed the area’s first living wall, and to Chuck, Maya, and Lynn for their skill in bringing a new garden form to New Hampshire.

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Penelope O'Sullivan blogs about trees, shrubs, and New England gardens at Diggin’ It. Penny, who designs and gardens in Zone 5b-6a, has written the “The Homeowner's Complete Tree & Shrub Handbook” and 11 more books. Her newest, “The Pruning Answer Book: Solutions to Every Problem You'll Ever Face; Answers to Every Question You'll Ever Ask,” comes out in March 2011. To read more by Penny, click here

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