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.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

When Should I Hire a Landscaper?

I'm so glad you asked that question...actually, its really a rhetorical question, because its never too soon to involve a landscaper in a project. Of course, the reverse is also true - Its never too late to involve a landscaper, but the overall effect achieved, is diminished the later we're involved.

Having a landscaper involved from the inception can only yield beautiful results
The general mistake that is made by most people - home-owners and professionals in the associated industries included, is to bring a landscaper in as the project has really gained momentum.

But its at this point, that most of the key decisions have already been made. Money has been invested in a direction which usually means that this direction is now set in stone.

As I've mentioned before, I'm a big believer in collaboration. Architects and landscapers should be talking to each other from the start and all the way through a project.

The problem is that as long as we view the garden as an afterthought, this attitude will reflect in the final appearance of the garden. Rather than the garden being an integrated part of the whole home, it will look like something that has been tacked on.

I can't tell you how many times we could have saved our clients a huge amount of time and money. Here are some examples:
  1. Like the project where we needed to hire a crane to move pots, rocks and palms in because a wall had been built already, which could have been moved by hand at the beginning of the project.
  2. Or the time where a retaining wall had been built to hold a bank, where we could have planted Vetiver grass which would have held the bank better (and more attractively) than any concrete retaining wall.
  3. There have been several instances in projects that I have been involved in too late where an environmental solution was available for a problem, which engineers and architects could only see an (expensive) engineering solution. You'd be amazed at how many problems rocks and plants can solve.
  4. Areas of natural water seepage can be controlled more effectively with plants and appropriate landscaping.
  5. Roof gardens and green walls can save thousands in insulation, airconditioning and heating costs.
  6. A regular problem I run into, is where a retaining wall has been built but has been filled with sand and rubble instead of topsoil resulting in us having to replace the sand with topsoil by hand.
  7. Topsoil can and should be stockpiled on site, rather than having to pay thousands to transport it in at the end of a project.
  8. Retaining walls are an expensive option, natural stone found on site can be used to create dry stack walls instead (provided its done properly). There is nothing worse than a badly built dry stack wall...
There are thousands of ways that an experienced landscaper could not only save money, but help integrate the house to its surroundings in a far more meaningful way. But if we are only brought in at the end of a project, its too late.

In my next post I'll give an example of a relatively new environmental solution that is currently being solved through engineering only, and which is costing home-owners and the environment countless thousands.

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Why Gardening Is Not Sustainable

Sustainability. What does it mean really?

Its a very broad term which at its essence describes the ability of a complex web of inter-relationships to endure. More specifically for us humans, it refers to the healthy inter-relationship between the environment, healthy society and the economy.
The beautiful spiral of Ctenium grass
Seldom has a word meant so much and yet so little at the same time. Its used as a clarion call by environmentalists and other greenies as they try to enthuse an apathetic populace. But its also peppered throughout the speech of politicians, economists and developers, as they attempt to greenwash their (often anything but sustainable) activities.

Let me put it another way - I'm not great at budgets, but even I know that its not sustainable (there's that word again) to spend more than I earn. If I do, I'll be soon be homeless, my health will suffer from the stress, and/or I'll have to take shortcuts (which will soon catch up with me) as I make my finances suit my lifestyle, and not the other way around.

Gardening (and I'm just picking on gardening here, but this applies to most if not all professions) for the last several decades has been built around the mistaken decision to decide on a lifestyle that we want, and make it happen - be damned the consequences.

So we look at the glossy magazines showing gardens that are photographed at their cornucopial prime, that in reality only look like that for maybe 2 months of the year. And we expect our garden to look like that all year round. So we plant unrealistically, we fertilize to death, we water until there is nothing left in the taps - and finally we get our perfect garden.

When is this going to change?

The problem, I think speaks to an underlying human condition called greed that sadly, is not easily remedied. But if anybody should understand the importance of living sustainably, it should be us gardeners. If anybody should be leading the way in the sustainable lifestyle, it should be we who live close to the ground. It should be those of us who see the cyclical and seasonal nature of things, and know first hand that what you sow, you will reap.

When are we going to wake up, and take stock of our lifestyle, and make the kind of fundamental changes that we absolutely have to?

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Weeds - In Their Defense

I've been reading a great book by Richard Mabey called Weeds.


Its a subject that I spend a lot of time thinking about, and if you've been reading my blog for any length of time, you'll know that I have strong thoughts about the proliferation of alien invasive plants.
We have a serious problem here in South Africa, with exotic, alien plants that have adapted to our conditions and are thriving and often out-competing our indigenous plants.

The feelings of peace and joy that most people derive from looking out over a seemingly natural forest valley, for me, can be a truly depressing feeling. At first glance, it may look like a serene, beautiful forest, but under the surface, there is a serious battle going on for space, food, and water...with lives being lost on a daily basis.

Montanoa - A pretty alien that frequents forest edges
That all sounds overly dramatic, and maybe it is...just a touch, but the reality is that even with our internationally renowned programmes like Working For Water, the reality is that these aliens are taking over.

If you consider that nearly 10% of the surface of our country is covered by alien plants, and every season, each one of these plants are producing hundreds of thousands of seeds, you begin to realise the magnitude of the problem facing our country and our natural vegetation. And all this is aside from their obvious threat to our own existence with the potential looming water shortages brought on in large part by these decidedly thirsty denizens.

Having said all of that, its been a refreshing read going through his book and looking at these 'evil' plants through different eyes. Even his attempts to provide a definition of what a weed is, sheds a different light on these tormentors and the symbiotic roles we have in each others stories.

I found the irony to some of his stories both tragicomic and terrifying. The story of the way in which Cogon grass has infiltrated the Southern States of the USA after its indiscriminate use of Agent Orange in the jungles of Vietnam is particularly stinging.

If you have a moment, you should definitely get hold of a copy - its well worth the read.

I've also begun a series on instagram - #invasiveplantsa - in which I've begun highlighting some of the more dangerous yet beautiful aliens. My hope is that by making them more visible, we would all be able to recognise them and do something serious about them.

You can also check out a previous post about the top 6 aliens and what to do about them.

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