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Friday, 28 November 2008

Limb-eating insects

Ok, thats a pretty scary sounding title for this post. But actually it is quite scary what these insects seem to be able to do. This branch fell down on top of 2 cars that were parked innocently on the side of the road.

On closer inspection, you can see the core of this branch had been entirely eaten away, and there were insects busy trying to burrow away deeper into the tree.

There were 2 of these insects on the ground next to the severed limb. They were anemic-looking and slightly translucent, and both were about 2 inches long. It looked like 2 pairs of wings were busy forming close to the head. Any ideas as to what this creature is?

Falling branches and trees seems to be on the increase in Durban lately. The windy conditions don't help, but at the core (literally) of this problem seems to be insects that eat their way into the trunks and branches of trees. Most often its white ants, but it seems other insects seem to be capable of just as much damage.

The problem is that this is all happening below the surface of apparently healthy trees. Looking at the tree itself there were no obvious signs of the damage being done on the inside. This is something that will start happening more often now that a lot of our street trees have matured and are showing signs of old age and weakening, and are therefore more susceptible to insects and disease.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Beautiful Dirt, Beautiful Plants

Beautiful Dirt? It seems like a bit of an oxymoron, but, yes I think dirt is beautiful! Or at least it should be beautiful. Plants are just like humans, if you get their diet right, they will live long, healthy lives. They'll be less prone to disease, and will look good at the same time.

I've just given a soil sample report to a client, who's garden went through a bit of a rough patch around mid-winter. She called me in to look at the plants in a section of her garden that were looking a bit shabby, and in some cases were being attacked by aphids, scale and downey mildew.

Deciphering a soil analysis, is usually pretty daunting. The key is to know what you're looking for, and what all the figures mean.

The soil report for the 2 samples came back relatively positive, and this is what it looked like:

The report showed that a lack of Nitrogen (Cat2) would most likely be responsible for the poor health of the plants. The report shows that Phosphorous levels are very good, while Pottasium, Calcium, Magnesium, and Sodium levels are all healthy.

Clay content and organic matter is a little low.

Nitrogen is very low, and the pH is much too alkaline (most plants prefer a slightly acidic soil).

There is also the potential for deficiencies of micro-nutrients/elements such as Zinc and Copper, but this would be rectified by adding compost to the soil.

The overall best long-term solution would be to add regular large amounts of compost (as is usually the case) to all the beds, but particularly to the bank area below the house level. This will boost all the levels, but will increase the amount of organic matter in the soil, which in turn will help retain moisture and increase the plants abilities to absorb nutrients.

If chemical fertilizers (a short term solution) are used to boost nitrogen levels, then it is best to use Ammonium Sulphate Nitrogen (27%N) or ASN as this will help improve the pH slightly.

In general this specific report and remedial feeding of the soil could probably be easily applied to most of the Durban coastal surrounds.

The key to healthy plants is in the soil. If you can get the soil right, you take most of the irritating work out of the garden. Its also not something that you are ever finished with. Adding compost and feeding your soil should be a regular process, especially in areas like ours, with sandy soils and high rainfall. Most nutrients leach out of sandy soils very quickly.

But even clay soils can benefit from copious amounts of compost - it helps soften the soil, and reduces compaction. In short, you can never really add too much compost to the average garden to get beautiful dirt, and as a result - beautiful plants.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Designing a Family Courtyard

I've given a few options to a friend/client of mine who is looking for ideas in the renovation of this beautiful old house. Aside from the obvious need to revitalize the house, the family that stay in the house need an area where they can entertain and spend time with friends and family.
The existing layout of the courtyard is messy, and has several levels, all of which make it less used than it could be.

The first step is to raise the courtyard level, to bring it level with the house. This along with enlarging the doorways, will make the transition between the inside and outside easier.
The area was also quite exposed to the neighbouring property, and the road, and therefore creating privacy was essential.

In the first option, the water feature was a little too large, so it was scaled down, and a built in seat was added instead. A gas braai/bbq was added to the North wall. The necessary privacy would be created from strategic planting in the garden.

The urn water feature, creates a perfect focal point from the path, and from inside the house and is a simple, elegant, but cost effective way of creating the soothing sound of water. It can be easily made child-safe, by filling the reservoir with pebbles or covering with a grid.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Garden Coaching & The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics

In very basic terms, the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics (or the Law of Entropy) says: "That everything tends towards a state of decay." That's probably a little too simply put, and its also probably a bit of a stretch to try to apply a law of physics to gardening, but here goes...

Looking at gardens over the last few years, I can see a definite pattern forming, of:
  • initial energy and enthusiasm in the planting of a new garden,
  • a tapering off of the enthusiasm,
  • the garden starts to become neglected,
  • its then left to people with very little knowledge of gardening or the care of gardens,
  • the garden begins to decay
Its definitely a symptom, (of something I can't quite put my finger on) of the way we live our lives today - that we have a lot of energy for new ideas and projects, but lack the long term commitment needed to keep nurturing them.

When I look around at the gardens all around me, the majority just seem to be in a slow state of decay. This might be a bit of a glass-half-empty mindset, but the frustrating thing is that I can see these gardens as they are, but in my minds eye, I can see what they could be with a little bit of knowledge and focussed energy.

Another aspect of the Law of Entropy is that without any outside energy acting on a system, it will tend towards chaos.

But maybe a change is on the gardening horizon. Garden Coaching is a new idea that seems to be catching on as a way of learning about gardening from gardeners that have the experience and passion, and want to share some of their enthusiasm. Hopefully this will create the kind of 'outside energy' that we need to bring gardens out of the chaos that they're tending towards.

What is a Garden Coach?

Garden Coaches are experienced, passionate gardeners who give consultations to first-time gardeners, and to those with a little more experience that might just want a second opinion.
They’ll give practical advice, help you identify your plants, give you design ideas or show you how to look after your garden properly.

I am hoping that Garden Coaching goes right past being the latest trend, and really catches on as a positive influence on the average garden, and practical help for the novice gardener.

For more information on Garden Coaching check out The Garden Coaching Blog.

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 ...