Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Making Mountains Out Of Moles

So...your lawn is looking amazing.  The grass has just been manicured...it looks like an immaculate green carpet out there. You couldn't be more proud of the kingdom you survey. Suddenly, you start to notice little piles of earth being pushed up around your pristine lawn. The ground becomes soft and uneven in places. Where there was once perfection, little brown piles now punctuate your sea of green, taunting your obsessive compulsive side. This means war! How can I get rid of these damn moles!

But before you begin, its important that - in the words of Sun Tzu - you know your enemy.

The first thing you should know is that (if you live in South Africa) there are no moles in your garden.

"But wait!" I hear you say, "I'm definitely not imagining this mess in my garden." Thats true, but moles are not native to Africa. They are a resident of North America, Asia and Europe. What you are actually seeing in your garden is one of either two groups of mole-like creatures that are found in Southern Africa - Golden Moles, or Mole Rats.

Take a look at this cute little Golden Mole (picture credit)
Golden Moles are a distant relative of the hedgehog, and are mainly insectivores, with a predilection for termites. They range in size from 8-20cm, and are covered in a moisture and dirt repellant, black/grey/yellow fur. Their eyes are non-functional, and their ears are just tiny holes, so their sense of touch is highly developed to the point where they can feel termites and other insects nearby. Golden Moles are generally solitary creatures, and can travel great distances (up to as much as 6km in the case of the Grant's Golden Mole) in search of food.  Sadly, 11 of the 21 species of Golden Moles are now threatened with extinction.

Mole Rat caught pink handed (picture credit)
The name Mole Rat is a misleading title, as it is neither a mole, nor a rat.  It is possibly a closer relative to a porcupine. They're herbivores, and enjoy munching on bulbs and grass stolons. Very often eating but not destroying the bulbs that they feed on. They tend to live in family units of up to 14 individuals. Their tunnels are quite extensive, and can go down as much as a 80cm below the surface. Tunnels have been found to be as much as a kilometre in length. They can be quite grumpy little creatures if they are cornered, so take care when handling them.

The second thing you should know about these 2 groups of creatures that we have up till now been mis-calling moles, is that they also perform an important function of aerating the soil, improving drainage, and essentially tilling the soil from underneath.

Thirdly, and most importantly, based on my experience, it is very difficult to get rid of mole rats in particular. I have employed most of them - sonic devices, spinning plastic coke bottles, garlic solutions, urination (not me personally), Jack Russells, and I'm sad to say that when I was younger I even used pesticides. None of these solutions have worked for more than a couple of months, and most didn't work at all. Pesticides seemed to work the best, but you have to weigh up the long term damage that you are doing to the environment. The chemicals are highly toxic, heavier than air and will poison the groundwater, all the surrounding soil, and in the process killing off all the life in the soil. In the long term your grass and plants will end up suffering, as the symbiotic relationship they have with the myriad organisms in the soil will be destroyed.

There are 2 solutions that I have as yet not tried. The first is the use of wire mesh. This involves, essentially spreading galvanised wire mesh over the entire area about 15cm below the surface. The problems with this option are that the wire mesh would have to have a tiny aperture to prevent the moles from squeezing through, it would be quite an expensive option especially for larger areas, and there would be nothing stopping the mole from walking along the surface, and burrowing into the newly fenced off area. But it still may be a good option worth exploring. I would imagine the key would be finding the right depth for the layer of wire to be spread out at.

The second solution is in my opinion the best. At one point I heard about someone who traps moles/mole rats/golden moles alive, and then releases the animals back into the wild far away.  I was never able to get hold of his details. I would have been happy to send him lots of work.

At the moment, the advice that I most often give my clients is more of a remedial one. Prior to regular mowing, any mole hills, and and any surface tunnelling, should be stamped down.
Then during your annual top-dressing, the loose soil can be stamped back down, rolled and then top-dressed to deal with any minor unevenness.
This essentially gives the lawn a fresh start, but the moles will still be there and will eventually work your lawn back to its previous bumpy self.

As with most garden problems that come about from our attempts to control our environment, I believe the best mindset is to work with nature and not against it. The Japanese have a way of thinking called Wabi-sabi, which essentially means embracing imperfection. Something we obsessive compulsive westerners would do well to learn.

Embracing the unevenness, the weeds, the creatures, the yellowing leaves, the non-linear and the imperfect is so hard for us to do, but says so much about our need for control of the world around us. I wonder if it is an outward sign of an impossibility that we expect of ourselves and others around us.

Monday, 14 July 2014

The Problem is the Solution

Gardening is for old people.

That sounds like an absurd over-simplification, and besides, why should you care? What difference does it make if young people aren't interested in gardens and nature? We live in a hi-tech world, where all the worlds problems will be solved by computers, and where science will be our saviour.

A group of young people preparing a food garden at Summerhill Children's Home in Salt Rock
That's an attractive thought for today's youth, that live in an instant world with its resulting short-term thinking.

So how does digging in the dirt, or mixing manure compete in this internet age, and why should it?

In South Africa, the latest statistics show that 1 in every 4 people are unemployed.
Education stats are even scarier. Out of 100 children that start school, only 28 will pass matric, 4 will enter university and only 1 out of those 4 will graduate.
Of the staff that I have employed over the last 2 decades, I have noticed an alarming trend over the last 5 years, that school leavers seem to have completely unrealistic expectations. The common perception seems to be that it will be fairly easy to find a job, that job will be well paying, with very little effort or commitment involved. The difference between dreams and reality in South Africa are quite stark.

In the words of the wise Gogo "Qho" Mthethwa - young people don't want work they want jobs. As a country, we seem to be content to foster an attitude of dependence rather than an entrepreneurial mindset.

Realistically speaking, looking to technology to solve our problems, may well be fine in the long term, but we need solutions now. We need to feed people now. Science and technology alone can't give us that. So what can?

If you plant a food garden from seed, you can begin eating the food from your garden within a matter of weeks.
Growing food or plants doesn't need a huge injection of cash. Seeds can very often be harvested from existing crops, providing the next seasons crops for free.
Gardeners are almost to a fault, overly generous in offering their time, information or even seed/plants when they see enthusiasm and willingness to learn.
There are several amazing initiatives around the country with the sole aim of passing on the skills to grow food gardens in our particular climate.

I agree with guerilla gardener Ron Finley that as with many problems in life, the solution is inside the challenge.

With our ridiculously high unemployment rates, we have 1 out of every 4 people who have the capacity to tend a garden, which could if properly managed, feed themselves and even provide an income as they feed their community. As solutions go, its not sexy, and it may not have the mirage-like appeal that science and technology offers, but it is immediately attainable and realistic.

So how can YOU go about doing this? Here's some inspiration:

Ifu Lobuntu is an inspiring South African idea that is looking at ways to harness technology to connect small scale food growers directly with customers. By using simple cloud-based apps and economies of scale, they hope to make it possible for subsistence farmers to sell directly to the public. The idea is still in its formation stage, but hopefully it will grow into its full potential.

Ron Finley plants vegetable gardens in South Central LA — in abandoned lots, traffic medians, along the curbs. Why? For fun, for defiance, for beauty and to offer some alternative to fast food in a community where "the drive-thrus are killing more people than the drive-bys." Check out his Ted-Talk.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Plant Pretty Practical

When I was studying landscaping a couple of decades ago, I spent hours in the library, poring over gardening books, and paging through landscape architecture and gardening magazines, admiring the beautiful, mainly US or UK gardens.  I couldn't wait for my chance to create similarly breathtaking gardens.
Aloe cooperi in the morning light. An easy to grow, low maintenance, beautiful plant.
My first attempts at landscaping, (that were fortunately in my mothers garden) failed dismally. The plants that I had used, either died or grew so big that we lost pets inside them. This left me wondering whether I had made the wrong choice in vocation, and I'm sure must have caused my mother to wonder whether she had just wasted a couple of years of tuition on me.

But slowly it dawned on me that the old garden maxim "right plant, right place" were words to live by. Just because something looks amazing elsewhere doesn't necessarily mean that it will suit the situation that I'm working with.

I also began to realise the deception that is inherent in almost all gardening books and magazines. It is the job of publications to sell magazines and books. The best way to do this, is to showcase beautiful gardens in all their splendour. Nobody wants to buy a magazine that shows dry, colourless gardens or gardens that have been pruned back to make way for new growth. These gardens are photographed during the 3-4 week period in an entire year, that they are at their best. In many cases, the planting that you see is entirely temporary, as annuals are planted in their abundance.  Page through any gardening magazine, and you will see the majority of the plants on display are pretty, yet short-lived annuals.  This creates an unrealistic expectation on the part of the casual observer, which when it comes time to garden leaves them frustrated or disappointed.

The garden industry through television and magazines, whilst creating a sense of excitement about the potential for beauty in your back yard, has also created a rod for its own back. I can't tell you how many people I've known through the years, that are keen to get stuck into the garden, but give up after the reality sinks in.

So before you get started with your garden, figure out whether your expectations have been over inflated, by looking around you at the best gardens in your neighbourhood. Ask yourself the following questions:
  1. Do they consistently look that way?
  2. What plants have they used?
  3. What kind of soil have they got? Is it the same as mine?
  4. Do they regularly compost and water?
  5. Have they got an irrigation system in place?
  6. What are my realistic time commitments and abilities?
Finally, do some research before you buy your plants from the nursery. Have a plan in mind, and plant for the long term. Go with a list of plants that grow well in your area, don't get suckered in by the pretty things that are flowering at the entrance to the nursery because almost by the time you get home, the flowers will be gone.

Remember, beauty is fleeting so don't just plant pretty. Be pretty practical too.

Monday, 9 September 2013

A Better Rainwater Harvesting Solution

I first heard about this solution about 10 years ago while trying to find a better solution to deal with the fact that we funnel all our rainwater off site one day, and then irrigate our gardens using municipal water the next day.
Arum lilies make great plants for rainwater gardens
If we are really forward thinking, we use green solutions such as water tanks, in which we try to catch as much water from our roofs as possible, store it, and then pump it out into our gardens. This really is a great solution. But I'd like to suggest an even better option.

Our soils were created to be natural water tanks. Depending on their composition, they (like sponges) have the ability to catch and hold water. They catch hundreds of thousands of litres of water, releasing it slowly over a period of time, either upward to the roots of plants, sideways into rivers, or downward into the groundwater below. Good soil is essentially a reservoir for plants to survive through periods of dryness. So why do we funnel it off into tanks, or even worse let it drain away into the stormwater system?

Normal rainwater could be funnelled into the soil where it belongs, and excess water overflows into the stormwater system.
The answer to this problem is actually an age old one, and it lies in using plants, and in shaping the soil to slow down and catch the water.

Instead of using the downpipes to carry water straight into our stormwater system or at least into tanks, the water would flow from the roof down the drainpipes and into a catchment area with plants that would naturally be found in wetlands. These plants can tolerate both waterlogged and dry conditions depending on the season. The water can then drain away naturally into the soil.

Vancouver's innovative stormwater solution
Another application is alongside large paved areas, like parking lots, driveways and roads. The water that comes off these areas usually has a mixture of oils, litter, and other pollutants that end up in our rivers and eventually the sea, creating huge long term problems. We should be creating filtration areas before the water runs into any kind of stormwater system.

This can be a beautiful way of bordering or softening hard areas like parking lots and roads, and in a water thirsty country like ours is an ideal way of conserving water in the place where it should be conserved.
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