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Green machines: How to create an on board garden

Fancy sitting by a tree in your yacht’s tropical garden? Or brightening up the saloon with exotic creatures and live coral? Claire Wrathall learns how to fit the flora and fauna on board...

Launched last year, Dilbar is the world’s largest yacht by internal volume. Designed by Espen Øino, the 156 metre Lürssen-built vessel has 3,800 square metres of living space, sufficient to accommodate not only two helipads and a 25 metre swimming pool, but an expansive garden complete with a specially developed variety of grass that tolerates salt air, according to its creator Axel Massmann.

Massmann is the founder of Yacht Green, a Hamburg-based company that specialises in what he calls “exterior greening” on superyachts. Trained as an engineer, he was working as a project manager on the construction of the Viceroy hotel (now Four Seasons) on Anguilla, where his areas of specialisation included landscaping, drainage and irrigation. During his year in the Caribbean he had the chance to observe a lot of superyachts moored in the bay, and it occurred to him that they too might benefit from green space, especially those belonging to owners who want to bring their pets on board. “Some yacht owners seem to love their dogs more than their kids,” he says. “Some want big dogs on their boats for security. Or small ones for their wives to wear on their arms when they go ashore.”

But all mutts, large and small, need lawns on which to exercise and heed the call of nature. Massmann’s solution on one 100 metre-plus project was to have 100 square metres of turf recessed into the aft deck, irrigated in such a way that the grass can be washed clean after the dogs have relieved themselves.

The scope for exotic planting on a yacht has, he suggests, far greater potential than has yet been realised. “Why aren’t there huge palms around the beach club or the swimming pool to offer shade?” he asks. “Why can’t the owner walk across real grass to his wellness area or relax in a Zen garden planted between real bonsai trees?”

The short answer is because in order for trees to thrive at sea, your designer needs to have incorporated into the plans “the necessary recesses in the decks, irrigation and draining systems – you can’t just water a tree by hand or with a hose – as well as automatic humidity-measuring devices and additional lighting” specific to the plant type. Not to mention a specially cultivated substrate for the planting. A three metre tall tree, for instance, will “have to be built in before all the decks are closed,” says Massmann, explaining that owners want them to look as though they’re growing out of the deck, so a basin large enough to accommodate a substantial root ball and room for it to grow needs to be accommodated at the start of the build. Waterfalls are also possible – Yacht Green has put a six metre high cascade on a yacht – but they too need tanks and engine rooms.

In contrast, the planting of gardens should be quite straightforward, but it will depend to some extent on whether it is sited on deck or inside. If outside, the vegetation must be able to tolerate salt; if inside, you’ll need to install special lights that mimic sunlight.

A boat’s sphere of operation may also be a factor. “Dilbar tends to be between the South of France, northern Spain and sometimes Cyprus, so we chose plants from Mediterranean areas,” Massmann says. (By not leaving EU waters, it is spared the customs regulations that tend to forbid the import of plants.) Generally, however, he finds, his clients prefer tropical species from Asia and Latin America. Certainly the small starboard-side glass-enclosed conservatory garden on the aft main deck of Stella Maris, another Øino-designed boat, bears that out, incorporating as it does a jungle-like cluster of tropical planting to provide a focal point and fill vibration-laden space directly above the engine room.

There are, however, simpler ways to incorporate nature. On Galactica Star, troughs of wild grasses were sited on the aft deck. On Ocean Paradise the main deck foyer doubles as a Japanese garden, a meditative space with artfully raked gravel and potted bonsai trees, specified by its owner, in order “to inspire thought and question life”. Laurel has a four-layer, semi-enclosed, temperature-controlled vertical herb garden next to the spa pool on the sundeck to ensure the galley never runs out of the wherewithal for salsa verde.

It is possible to farm on a more ambitious scale, too. VistaJet founder Thomas Flohr has a small hydroponic garden, an irrigated vertical wall of herbs and vegetables, on his 43 metre Baglietto yacht Nina J. And, says Simon Rowell, creative director of Bannenberg & Rowell Design, there is scope for market gardening on an even greater scale. “We have a specific project for a 120 metre-plus yacht on which we’ve been asked to explore potential for food production. This has involved research from NASA into bio-regenerative life-support systems.” In other words, hydroponics and aquaponics.

These are a means of growing plants in nutrient-rich water, without soil. Hydroponics are often “a drum format, where you have a consistent ultraviolet light source in the centre, around which you rotate the plants in an irrigated system that enables the cultivation not just of leaves – salads, spinach, chard – but aubergines, courgettes, cucumbers, tomatoes and chillis”. More remarkable yet are aquaponics. “This sounds like alchemy,” Rowell says. “Basically it’s a fish tank in which you grow edible plants that feed off the by-product of the fish, a bit like using manure on land. The plants then filter the water, so it’s a very efficient cycle, although you need a power source to regulate the light and water temperature.

“You can produce a lot of vegetables this way,” he continues, “and some people say you can breed the fish to eat too. Tilapia, perch, trout, catfish and hybrid-striped bass are very good species for this. However, we haven’t yet fully resolved the top-up system because there is evaporation in aquaponics. And we want to make it quite a visual experience, but don’t yet know to what extent we can control the environment: what it will smell like, what sort of humidity it will need to be kept at. But it’s very clean. There’s no toxic run-off, which you get from conventional fish farms.”

For long-range expedition yachts, a supply of fresh food grown using hydro or aquaponics is a compelling alternative to banks of freezers packed with frozen provisions and circumvents the need to dump soil on entering the waters of countries that forbid the import of plants and soil, which is most of them. Plants, too, are among the items confiscated by US Customs and Border Protection, and indeed the border agencies of most nations. (For permits to bring in live animals or birds – and if the pirates of yore were indicative, then parrots and their like can thrive on boats, though I’ve yet to find a yacht with an aviary – you need to apply in advance to the US Fish & Wildlife Service or its equivalent elsewhere.) The EU is no less strict.

For those who want more permanent displays of foliage, one option is to fake it with what is known as stabilised planting, a process in which the sap is removed from a tree or plant and replaced with glycerine. This preserves it in a way that looks convincingly lifelike, enabling designers to incorporate vertical walls of exotic plants and indeed trees into their interior schemes without the need for soil, water or special lights. Indeed, the only maintenance they require is occasional dusting by means of a hairdryer.

When the Dubai-based Bahraini designer Fatima Ahmed Al Maidan of SFL Design created the interiors of Mondomarine superyacht Serenity, the panels of flowering plants and lichens she used in the guest cabins were made by the Italian company LinfaDecor. But Nice-based Déco Végétale also has an impressive line in vertical gardens and indeed trees (thuya, a kind of miniature cypress; dwarf eucalyptus, and several varieties of palm) as well as bonsai fukuoka and juniper, which can last 10 to 12 years before they begin to shed their leaves. (Flowers have a shorter lifespan of more like four.)

Corals are another biological organism that can thrive on a yacht. Prince Khaled bin Sultan’s Golden Odyssey incorporates a glass-bottomed swimming pool to observe the natural world in a double-height aquarium between the dining saloon and the pool. This aquarium is large enough to accommodate a living coral reef seeded in collaboration with the Monaco’s Institut Océanographique, which has been cultivating coral since 1989. (As founder of the Khaled bin Sultan Living Oceans Foundation, the prince’s concern for the plight of the world’s deteriorating reefs is well known.)

Maintaining a live reef requires specialist skills, and for owners disinclined to employ an aquarist among their crew there is always the option of an easier-to-maintain artificial reef, such as the one that fills the vast 2,650 litre aquarium of OceancoAlfa Nero. This was created by Living Color, a US specialist in on board and indeed public aquariums, whose clients include Disney Parks, Universal Studios Theme Parks and South Florida Science Center.

As Daniela Iurascu of London-based Aquarium Architecture puts it: “Artificial corals are indeed an easier option than living ones, which require weekly professional maintenance. But the beauty of natural corals cannot truly be replicated. And artificial corals need expert cleaning periodically, so we recommend having a second set.”

Then, of course, there’s the aquarium itself. Iurascu recommends acrylic over glass for its construction, which is less likely to fracture under stress. She also emphasises the importance of having back-up filtration equipment – the lives of your fish may depend on it – and a battery in case of a power failure.

Care, too, should be taken over the aquarium’s location. Too much heat can affect the health of the fish. And too much light can create algae in a freshwater aquarium. (Beach clubs, therefore, aren’t ideal.) “And it’s not a good idea to put an aquarium next to the sound system,” she warns, “as fish really don’t like noise.” (They can also suffer from seasickness. In 2009, Dr Reinhard Hilbig, a zoologist at the University of Hohenheim in Stuttgart, analysed the behaviour of 49 fish in an aquarium on a plane after the aircraft went into a sharp dive. Eight of them “completely lost their sense of balance,” he observed, losing “their orientation [and becoming] completely confused”. His conclusion was that a loss of eye contact with the movement of the water and the vibration caused them to become disoriented.)

Deployed carefully, aquariums can make intriguing room dividers. On 76 metre Anastasia, Sam Sorgiovanni placed a 2,700 litre tank between the lounging and dining areas of the 30 metre main saloon, so that its corals and colourful inhabitants can be admired from both sides.

Other Oceanco yachts also incorporate an aquarium. Jubilee has one by its beach club; and, also the work of Sorgiovanni, Nirvana features not just an aquarium but two vivariums. “It was the owner who suggested we have lizards and water dragons,” Sorgiovanni has said. (Though there are also frogs, turtles and a chameleon.) “The jungle theme of the yacht developed from there. The design intent was to create the kind of relaxing and refreshing feeling you get when visiting a tropical island.”

Of course water dragons look a lot less scary than they sound. But Aquarium Architecture has created an Amazonian environment in a 2,500 litre tank stocked with 17 “ravenous, fearsome, typical James Bond meat-eating” red-bellied piranhas, which were flown in from Brazil and have to be fed by hand each day. “Some clients just want something out of the ordinary,” says Iurascu. “We’re currently working on two tall jellyfish tanks for a yacht. And we’ve had clients ask for octopuses, rays and sharks.” Nothing quite as audacious as the three pairs apiece of great whites, sand tigers and blacktips, all of them deadly, that Hannibal Gaddafi, son of the late Libyan dictator Muammar, reportedly requested for the gigantic boat he ordered in 2012 from the South Korean shipbuilder STX. But it’s probably just a matter of time until someone does.

Images: Massimo Listri; Luxury Vision Production/SRD; Thierry Ameller; Alberto Cocchi; David Churchill; Jeff Brown/Breed Media

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