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Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Behind The Scenes - Courtyard Garden

Don't be fooled, a small garden can be just as much work as a big garden. There have been several reasons, but this project has taken nearly 6 months to complete. Thats a long time for a space that is only 3m x 3m!

This was part 3 of a bigger garden project that we had completed about a year ago. My clients had a small courtyard built onto their bedroom, to give them their own private garden. The brief was quite straightforward:
  1. A place to sit with a small table and chairs
  2. A waterfeature - along the lines of a letterbox type water feature
We discussed a few options, looked at several books and magazines, and finally settled on a basic style. It would be quite a contemporary formal garden, with a touch of an oriental feel. We would lay a white concrete floor, with white pebbles around the border.
The budget was quite tight for what was needed, but provided everything went according to plan it would be fine.

This was the blank slate:

The work progressed in stages:
1. Subsurface preparation
We laid irrigation pipes and electrical conduit. The irrigation for the entire garden would be run from the unit on the wall in the left-hand corner.
The irrigation, lights and pumps would all need electricity. This created quite a few boxes in the corner that would need to be screened, but still with easy access to plugs and controls.

2. Adjusting of walls and steps
The existing step was too high, and was subsequently chipped away and re-built. Also, the pillar in the center of the facing wall would need to be removed for the water feature that would be installed in the center.

3. Laying the concrete base
Once the builders had finished in this area, we positioned boards around the edges of the soon-to-be concrete slab, and began pouring our concrete. This was then roughly levelled, and left for a few days to harden, before the boards were removed.

4. Building the water feature
The water feature wall was built from brick. The stainless steel chute which would form the sheet of water, had been made up a week before. This had to be installed perfectly level. Even if it is slightly out, the sheet of water coming out would very obviously be skew. The pipes were all joined up, and then connected to the reservoir below.
The test run with a hose pipe connected into the system is always an anxious moment, but the water feature worked according to plan. The top of the wall was then closed up, and plastered.

5. Screeding the surface
We used a combination of white cement and very light sand, so that the concrete screed would be as close to white as possible. Because of the amount of time needed to dry, and the fact that this was our rainy season, we had to wait until the weather man was predicting a dry couple of days. The first chance we got, we carefully screeded the whole surface, and left it over the weekend to dry.
Unfortunately, the final result was a little cloudy, and not entirely white. It did look quite a nice natural sandstone colour, but wouldn't give the necessary final white look that we were looking for.
We chipped it all up, and re-laid the screed. This time fortunately, the colour was a lot more even, so we let it harden for about 10 days before anyone was allowed to walk on it - not that the dogs agreed to that though!

6. Planting
Getting the planting right would be most important, in that I wanted to soften all the walls without closing down the space. I installed trellises on the sides to blur the boundaries of the courtyard a little, and in so doing, make it seem slightly bigger than it is.
I had 3 plants in mind from the start - Bamboo, Arum and Maple. These plants all suited the contemporary, slightly oriental feel, that I wanted to create. Alongside these, I planted Bergenia, Imperata Cylindrica (Red Baron Grass), Tulbaghia and Gardenia. I also planted Jasmine (Trachelospermum) to climb the trellis. Both the Gardenia and Jasmine have beautiful scents.
I planted the Maple in 2 pots on either side of the step - this would also help screen the electricity and irrigation boxes in the corner.

I wanted to add some statues into the courtyard, that wouldn't be too overpowering, and would suit the overall feel. I had seen these dog statues, right in the beginning of the project, which I thought would be perfect, showed a photo to my client, and she agreed. We placed these on pedestals on either side looking into the center of the garden.

After a few weeks, my client called to say that she was a bit disappointed that the concrete would go so dark when it was wet (which was most of the time due to the regular rain that we were having). After a bit of investigation, I discovered a sealer that could be applied to the concrete which would prevent this from happening. I was given the go ahead, and we rolled it onto the surface. It did lose some of the brightness, but at least the colour would remain constant regardless of whether the concrete was wet or dry.
A few days later, white patches began forming on the surface after any rain - the company which supplied the sealer were at a loss as to why this would happen, and suggested that I try waterproofing the surface with an epoxy. We took their advice only to find that it still appeared under the surface. It has improved slightly after a few weeks, but is still there.

Apart from one or two hiccups, the finished garden has turned out exactly how I had planned - the water feature wall was painted a burnt red to tie in with the bedrooms colours. This made all the difference in finishing off the garden.

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Those Happy Sods

I was collecting some grass today. I had to take a picture of these little rolls all lined up and ready for me. They almost looked happy to see me?

I also learnt today, that if you need to get rid of nut grass in your lawn, you can use a great herbicide called Servian. It can be used on most lawns, as it only affects Cyperus spp. - provided you get the correct dosage.

That should save a lot of man hours trying to pull all the pesky plants out of my lawns!

Sunday, 18 May 2008


While waiting for a table at Adam's Book Store's Coffee Shop I usually look for new landscaping books that will have something new or interesting in. Its not very often that I find a book that I can justify buying, but this last week I found a book that will definitely be on my list for Santa this year. I know you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but I knew I would love it when I saw it.

Avant Gardeners by Tim Richardson is a look at 50 designers/practices from around the world, and a look at the underlying principles behind their innovative approaches to garden design.

One of the chapters especially caught my eye. In it he coins the phrase Psychotopia. This is the understanding of place not only in terms of location, but also in terms of meaning. How we interact with gardens, their history, their use, ecology etc. all affect how we experience them.

Very basically put, how we look at an empty beach is different to how we would experience a beach with footsteps in the sand. The landscape has been changed by the viewer, and takes on a different feel (and effect on us) as a result.

Gardening can be/should be/is so much more than just placing pretty flowers in garden beds. Amanda Patton says "gardens, ..... must move you on a deeper level than just being visually pleasing..."

A lot has been spoken about the ability of the more traditional arts, movies, architecture etc. to effect change in the people or society that experience them. Gardens have the ability to change people in ways we haven't even begun to realise. They can be explored, moved through, discovered. They create a constantly changing scenery, opening up new vistas or creating new intimacies in a far more real way than traditional art has ever been able to.

It really is time that gardening begins to be understood as an art-form rather than just a past-time.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Behind The Scenes - Art Deco

It doesn't happen often, but every now and then, I visit a garden and have a design in mind for it from the moment I see it. This was one of those times.
I had been asked years ago by the previous owners, to give a quote to clean up this garden that surrounded a beautiful art deco home. They never took my radical advice on cleaning up the overgrown nightmare that had become their garden.

Then a couple I had done some landscaping for at their previous home, bought the place and called me in for some advice. They had already made the bold decision of removing most of the plants in the garden, and as a result, had been on the receiving end of a few disapproving looks from their neighbours.

We spoke about their needs from the garden. Privacy and security were big issues, as the house was surrounded by the road on all sides except one. They also wanted a relatively low maintenance garden that would also be a fun place for their 2 children to play and grow up in.

The biggest influence on the design was the strong art deco building, which sat strongly in the middle of the plot. The garden was also roughly split into 3 levels with a pool on the bottom level. The garden felt quite physically disconnected from the house - there was no easy flow from the house into the garden, but was still well connected visually. The terrace and windows all looked down onto the garden from above.

The garden definitely suited a Burle Marx approach to the design - with very strong curves, bold colour combinations and textures that would be appreciated even more when looked down at from above. My clients were fortunately quite trusting, and were happy with the initial sketches.

The budget for the garden was quite limited, with the restoration of the house taking obvious priority. We dug trenches and installed irrigation to lower the long term water costs and maintenance requirements. We had to drop the levels above the pool, and used the soil to raise and level the area around the pool.

I drew lines on the ground to mark out the grass and planting patterns, and then laid the grass. We kept the existing Cycads and Cycas as feature plants, and used quite tropical style plants. They were planted in groups that contrasted with each other in order to emphasize their outstanding qualities. Some of the bright, bold plants that were used - Bromeliad, Heliconia, Alocasia and Sanseviera. We planted about 8 palms around the building to bring down the scale of the building, which would also not hide the uniqueness of the house.

These pictures were taken 6 months later:

Update: I have revisited this garden in a more recent post.

Saturday, 3 May 2008

Indigenous Beauties : Leonotus leonurus

Leonotus leonurus
Wild Dagga

This is really an outstanding plant. It is one of the most noticeable plants during a dry winter, bringing much needed pockets of colour to the rocky grasslands in which it is naturally found.

The flowers are usually bright, fountains of orange, but can be found in apricot and even white. Sunbirds love the nectar found in these flowers.

I've found it flowering throughout autumn and winter.

After it is finished flowering it should be cut right back, and will reach around 2m by the next flowering season. It seeds itself very easily if left.

It grows in well-draining loamy soil. It should be composted, and watered well in the summer, but needs little attention in winter.

It should be planted amongst wild grass, or at the back of a flower bed to give height and colour. It is best to plant with an evergreen plant so that when it is cut back drastically every year, the gap is not as sorely noticed.

Thursday, 1 May 2008

Plant Some Weeds In Your Lawn

I found this quote the other day...
The difference between a flower and a weed is a judgement - Anonymous
Having a beautiful lawn can be an all consuming focus of gardeners and homeowners. You'd be right in thinking that a well manicured lawn can be an asset in the garden, but part of the reason why lawns are such hard work, is that we are trying to maintain a completely false state in our gardens.

The perfect lawn that everyone is striving for is a monoculture. Mother Nature and monocultures are not friends. She does her best to mess up anything that even resembles one.

One of the most maligned plants in a perfect lawn is clover. How can I get rid of clover in my lawn, is one of the most common questions I am asked.

First, you need to identify the plant - there are 2 plants that moonlight as clover, Trifolium(Clover) and Oxalis. They are easily identified by their flower.

Clover - Trifolium

Sorrel - Oxalis

Sorrel just looks pretty but isn't the good, industrious Clover. Trifolium is a nitrogen fixer. This means it works hard to take nitrogen out of the air and put it into your soil. Your hungry grass on the other hand, does its best to use Nitrogen up and always wants more. If your lawn is looking anaemic and yellow, generally speaking, it is short on Nitrogen.
Most times, we like to take the easy route out - we apply bag after bag of fertiliser to try and put the Nitrogen back into the soil.

Maybe its time we let Clover and grass share some space. We'd probably all be the happier for it.

Home Made Pest Control Solution(s)

I'm really not a big fan of pesticides or chemicals. Actually, that's putting it mildly...I hate pesticides. They are almost always ...