Saturday, 7 November 2009

Bad design kills - a gnome for the gnomes

I think we have a serious problem on our hands. I predict unrest in monolithic proportions - if the garden gnomes around the world get wind of this.

I am sorry to say this but the garden gnome has been unceremoniously dethroned as the king of all redundant garden objects. I have just found an object that (as hard as it is to believe) is more redundant than the garden gnome!




I have been looking for a sundial to use as a focal point in a garden that we are finishing up, and found that I had 2 choices. The first being unsuitable because of its rustic look, but the second was closer to what I was looking for. Until I looked closer...

It didn't work. It was made for a Northern Hemisphere garden.

The only obvious answer to its source is that it was made here in South Africa. Surely it couldn't be cheaper or at all necessary to import a piece of concrete from somewhere above the equator?

So that means it was intentionally designed that way?

The person who designed this object is fully deserving of all Dwarvish Wrath that will surely come their way. But I really hope the Gnomes don't forget to scorn the people who sell, distribute and buy a piece of rubbish like this.

I surprised myself at the irrational irritation produced during this discovery. But after giving it some more thought, I realised that what really upset me has less to do with sundials and solidarity with gnomes and more to do with lazy, short-sighted, ill thought out or just plain bad design.

To my way of thinking - a man-made object with no function must have an allegorical, or an aesthetic reason for being. This had neither.

Good design has a lot of responsibility resting on its shoulders. I believe good design should make the world a better place to live in. It should make our lives better, easier, more pleasurable, and simpler. It should save us time, or money, or give us more energy. And truly good designs should be able to fulfill many or all of those descriptions at once.

Unfortunately there are too many bad designs out there, and too many people propagating them. To a certain extent nature evolves, we should take a leaf out of her book. We as intelligent beings should be looking to improve our design with every step, and in every aspect of our lives.

And we should shun bad design as if the lives of gnomes depend on it.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Update : Steeply Sloped Garden



I got a chance today to visit a garden we completed in the beginning of winter this year. Its one of my favourite parts of my job - going back to check and see how things are going in a garden that I've planted months or even years before.

I approach these visits as if I were seeing a long lost friend again - with mixed feelings of excitement and trepidation. You're really looking forward to seeing them, but you're also wondering whether time may have been unkind to your friendship.

As much as I research, and deliberate and finally decide on a design for a garden, there are always things that I haven't bargained for, and sometimes things don't always turn out exactly as I'm expecting. Sometimes a certain plant may not have worked in its situation, other times, weather or pests have taken their toll.

But often the hard work does pay off. Sometimes I'm even pleasantly surprised to see how well things have taken. It may be a combination of plants that I'm trying for the first time or a plant that does very well in its new home. But it always makes me happy to see one of my gardens thriving.

Today was one of those days, and it also happily reinforced my love affair with grasses.  The steep slope from the road up to the house, on which we planted mainly wild grasses is covered in lush green Aristida, and the bergundy plumes of Melinis are a lovely greeting as you drive into the property. Bearing in mind that the garden was planted at the beginning of a relatively dry winter, the growth has been amazing.

The only blight on the visit, was that white ants had eaten the bark off the base of 2 of the Crossberries that we planted on the bank, and in the process assigning them to the compost heap.


The groundcover in front is Asystasia, a pretty little groundcover that thrives in coastal sand dunes, and great for stabilizing banks quickly. The plan is that in time the grove of Cross berries will hide the fence, and blur the boundary. At the same time they will help create a bit of screening from the house.

Friday, 11 September 2009

The Consequences of a Life Disconnected

I noticed today that the Jacarandas are flowering again. Here in South Africa, the purple portent was a signal to students to start studying for end of year exams. If you waited until they layed their purple carpet below the tree you were already in big trouble. How many of these natural signs do we pay attention to these days?
In the past, our ability to survive depended on our intimate knowledge, and connection with nature. We'd be watching for the migration of birds, or the lengthening of shadows to guide our decision making in everything from when to plant vegetables, to when to propose marriage.

In our modern day lifestyle, we live our lives very disconnected from nature. Seasons come and go, and we hardly notice the changes, cocooned in our temperature regulated environments. Food no longer comes from last seasons planned planting, but is neatly packaged at the local supermarket for our last-minute convenience.
Both are perfect examples of our great sophistication, our triumph over the capriciousness of life, and our ability to design our landscape to suit us. But what happened to working with nature? Good design has to be more than imposing our will on our environment, surely its got to include a harmonious relationship with the landscape.

I'm far from being ready to return to an agrarian existence, and finding ways to keep chickens in my 3rd floor apartment - as much as my cat would argue for the perfect logic of that decision. Nor do I plan on basing my decisions on the changing seasons, when science can give such exact information. But I just wonder if the repercussions of this basic disconnection are more insidious and far-reaching than we imagine.

Friday, 21 August 2009

The Answer is Blowing in the Wind

Ok, I'm not holding out for my Nobel Prize, but I have got this roof gardening thing down to a simple, easy to use formula. Here it is, but remember, you saw it here first:
roof garden + high winds = hard, scary work
Throw in the fact that even though the artificial grass we were laying weighs nearly one and a half tons, and was being lifted by the wind as if it was a pancake being flipped on a teflon pan, and the fact that there is no real service elevator to get the couple of tons of materials up onto the roof of the 10 storey building...well lets just say my calf muscles would now give Usain Bolt a run for his money.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Anyone Have Any Garden Maintenance Advice?

As part of our business, we provide a regular garden care service to many clients around the Durban area. We care for our gardens on a regular basis - mainly on a weekly or 2 weekly cycle.

For years we have struggled with finding a solution to the complications to our schedule created by not being able to work in heavy rain. Fortunately this is not much of a problem in our dry winter, but summer is just around the corner, and soon we'll be having our usual summer rains.


Sunny Durban in winter

Missing a day because of rain isn't too big a deal especially for our weekly clients - the garden still looks reasonably good. But missing 2 services in a row for fortnightly clients results in a gap of nearly a month between services. With the growth that we experience in summer, you'd be lucky to find your way to the front door through your garden.

I would love to find a solution that would make our clients happy, but would also not require us having to constantly play catch-up.

Any ideas or advice?

Friday, 31 July 2009

5 Points to Consider when Planning a Roof Garden

This roof garden on Durban's Berea, must have some of the best views in Durban. We had been asked to install artificial grass in order to soften the hardness of the roof, which would also reduce the maintenance requirements of this lofty perch.


The garden was once a simple but attractive foreground to these spectacular views.

The garden is probably about 20 years old now, but there was some careful thought that was put into the planning of it initially, with some good ideas to keep in mind in the planning of any roof garden:

1. Wind-Barriers - As on most rooftops, wind is one of the biggest factors to be planning around. The plants initially chosen were all quite wind resistant, including the grass that was used as the lawn. The planting on the South East side where the prevailing wind comes from is quite dense, creating both privacy and protection from the wind. A solid barrier often creates swirling wind as air moves over or around it, but using plants to help minimize the chaotic movements of the wind, it filters and slows the wind rather than blocking it.


Plants create more effective wind-screens than any solid barrier

2. Frame the views
- the planting on either side, framed the views of the city very well. This is one of the simplest methods of enhancing a view from any garden By creating a frame, using plants on either side and even above, your eye is naturally drawn out towards the views. Thick safety glass was used all around the edge, so that there is almost nothing blocking the views of the city and ocean beyond.

3. Don't Distract from the view - there was nothing too showy in the planting. A common mistake when planting in front of a view is to use plants or features, that are bold and distracting. This is especially easy to do on a rooftop, where space is a premium and you want to get the most out of the space available. You should rather look to emphasize the best features - in this case the views outside of the garden. By adding too much visually to the garden, it pulls the focus away from the view. As always though, good design is a tightrope walk as you try to balance all the considerations.


Views out from the entertainment area

4. Use Wind-resistant plants
- As I mentioned before, the plants initially chosen were all very wind resistant. Using succulents, and plants that would naturally thrive in similar conditions is a good place to start. Wild grasses and flaxes are also a great complement to a rooftop garden. In this case, the plants chosen were also salt resistant, because of the proximity to the ocean.


View out between palms, showing Moses Mabhida Stadium in the distance

5. Careful Maintenance is essential
- For several reasons, maintenance is an extremely important part of any roof garden. Moisture on the ceiling below is an all too common problem when the waterproofing hasn't been done properly. But when plants with very aggressive roots are left to thrive in the small reservoir of soil on a rooftop, you are just asking for trouble. This is a problem easily avoided in the early stages, but with serious consequences if left too long.


Ficus natalensis preparing itself for roof-garden-domination

In this case, a fig, which has probably been planted by birds using the garden as a resting point, has now become quite large, even managing to squeeze in between the glass panels. This is one of the worst plants you could allow to establish itself, because of its massive root system. This should be cut back and poisoned as soon as possible.

Our next step with laying the artificial grass, is to put down a porous base for drainage, and then begin laying out the Duraturf. Once completed, I will post some before and after pictures of the garden.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Some Soul In The City - Durban

This month seems to be a month for straying from the subject a little. So if you'll indulge me again, you'll see the tenuous link to landscape design and gardening. It is there, its just hidden behind the charity.



Gardening in a 'Third World' (although that term doesn't quite describe SA's contrasting economies) can sometimes look a little agrarian at times. Eating food grown through subsistence farming is probably the closest many South Africans may ever come to enjoying their garden. Those of us fortunate enough to look at gardening from a purely aesthetic vantage point don't get to experience a worldview where plants are functional long before they are beautiful.



But that's just what about 350 Christian students from the UK have had a chance to experience this past week. Working in various projects in some of the poorest communities around Durban, they've been helping out doing anything from caring for abandoned and HIV positive children, planting and digging vegetable gardens, painting orphanages, planting trees, and vegetable gardens, putting up wash lines, running kids clubs, soccer and volleyball tournaments.... All this, at their own expense!



As part of Soul Survivor, they each saved up about £1000 to pay for their plane ticket, accommodation and food to fly across the globe for 2 weeks, so that they could come to our city and help out in the various projects scattered around Durban. The movement is called Soul In The City (SITC) and they've already done this in a few other cities around the world, but I think SITC Durban is the furthest they've travelled in making a difference in peoples lives.



I'm amazed by these kids generosity. love and energy...

Thursday, 16 July 2009

The Search for an Alternative to Lawn...

While walking through a garden this morning, I stumbled on a very strange plant growing as a 'weed' in a very sad lawn. Its the middle of winter here, so most lawns look like they are just hanging on to life by their bare stolons. The only things that seem to be thriving are the weeds.



I noticed the plant, because of its pretty pink flowers - and although there was something quite familiar about it, I didn't think I had seen it before. That is until I looked closer.

The flowers looked very much like the flowers of a ribbon bush - Hypoestes aristata. For those of you that don't know it, its a great indigenous shrub, that gets covered in pink or purple flowers that look like little bits of ribbon spread all over the place. It normally gets to about 1.5 - 2m in height if its left to its own devices. But here its growing quite contentedly - and its being kept regularly cut at about an inch in height! Given time, it will probably happily replace the lawn.


Hypoestes aristata

Hypoestes is a great garden shrub. It likes to be well watered and fed, and if you pay it some nominal attention, it will look good throughout the year. It grows in full sun and shade, but will flower better with more sun.
Its also a favourite snack for most buck along the coastal forest of eastern South Africa - as I found out too late, after planting a garden with it!

Here though, its a great example of the ability of most plants to adapt and thrive in almost any conditions. Without any looking after, its looking green and even flowering. It probably would not have entered my mind, and isn't the ideal, if you're looking for an alternative to lawn. But here it is doing quite well when the grass around it is looking dry and brown.


The search for lawn alternatives hasn't truly begun here in South Africa - the ideal for any SA garden is still a perfect monoculture of grasses that require copious amounts of water and fertiliser, and weekly mowing. But the tide will turn. Eventually. We will begin to realise the real cost of this unsustainable ideal of having most of, and every garden covered in lawn.



The difficulty comes in that, in most peoples minds there is no alternative to a beautiful green lawn - even I sometimes find it hard to imagine anything better. And lets face it very little beats that look of a perfectly mown carpet of grass. But I think its the responsibility of every gardener to help swing the tide by putting alternatives out there. How about a wildflower meadow? Or even planting some indigenous/native grasses to let them grow tall, and cutting pathways through? People want what they see, so we as designers, need to put examples out there to try to coax them out of their comfort zones.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Indigenous Beauties : Aloe vanbalenii

Who needs flowers when you've got this Aloe in your garden?


Aloe vanbalenii

I started these 'Indigenous Beauties' posts as a way of highlighting indigenous plants that are not very commonly used in the garden, but really should be. This plant doesn't quite fit into that category, because I've noticed that people are paying more attention to this particular Aloe...and for good reason.

Aloes are especially useful in a garden, because they mostly flower in winter when everything else is looking dry and spent. Add to this, the fact that during hot, dry periods, the foliage of many aloes will start to turn red, and you'll begin to see their unique place in a garden.

Aloe vanbalenii especially, needs very little attention, and forms dense clumps of competing plants. In times of plentiful water, or in a little shade, their foliage is a pleasing apple green, but as the heat increases, they turn a deep orange-red colour. They remind me of a bunch (what is the collective-noun?) of Octopuses jostling for their place in the sun.



Their foliage looks great in combination with yellows and other warm colours. Here they've been planted with equally hardy silvery Kleinia fulgens to fill the gaps. The silver really emphasises their colour.

They are stemless, so they don't get tall, but each plant will spread to about 1m wide and about 50cm high. Their flowers are yellow, and occasionally pink.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

A Time For Everything

Well, its been a while since my last post... the last few months have been quite difficult. My mom passed away last month after a long fight with cancer. We weren't taken by surprise, but I don't think you can ever be entirely prepared for losing someone close to you.
Her death has brought about a time of contemplation (which is probably quite common) in my life, and I haven't felt much like getting back into the daily tasks of life. The pull to continue with this blog has felt a little like the plant sitting on my window-sill, calling me to feed and water it and get on with life.
I haven't known how to get the process of writing going again, so I decided to start with where my thoughts are at the moment. So if you'll forgive this departure from gardening for a moment...



My Mom was an amazingly, strong, positive woman who taught me to enjoy life, and to squeeze every drop out of it. She had a pretty difficult time during her life, but she almost always had a smile and a laugh even when things were at their worst.

She was an expert markswoman receiving numerous awards for her shooting abilities. She enjoyed her shooting so much so, that she was back on the shooting range two days after having given birth to my sister.
Everyone who knew her, and especially those she spent time with in her last days were surprised at the measure of strength and positivity that she held right up to the end.

Thinking about the life she lived, makes me realise how much of our attitude and outlook is based on a choice that we make in every moment, in spite of our circumstances or situation. I 've also realised the need to prioritise the things that I value the most, and to try to keep my focus on the things that are most important. I hope I can savor every moment of life by a similar measure that my mother has set for me.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Almost Successful Minimalist Front Garden

I'd been waiting in anticipation when I saw the bones of this landscape being formed. I was looking forward to how it would turn out, because it looked like it would be something different to the usual front verge on Essenwood road.



As it turned out, it was different. But to tell you the truth, I was disappointed. Where it had great potential was in its basic structure, but it was let down from that point on.

Everybody has their own opinion on what makes a beautiful design, but there are some basic fundamental things that make a good concept into a good design. And only a good design can be beautiful.

To play with an old saying by St Augustine - In all things sensible compulsory, in all things aesthetic freedom, but in all things passion.

I appreciate the minimalist simplicity of the design, and it probably looked good on paper. Breaking the bank up using terraces was a good practical idea, and the curve gave it something fresh. The huge rocks emboldened the design. The use of Aloes gives a different feel, they're low maintenance, and when they flower, will look amazing.



But the positives can only carry it so far. The first and biggest flaw, is using grass that has to be constantly cut, more than a metre off the ground. Why not use a simple ground-cover, even something as over-used in South African gardens as Mondo grass would have been better from a maintenance point of view. Who wants to lug a lawnmower up onto a terrace?

Why do people over-use white pebbles? Gardeners that use them remind me of magpies that are just attracted to shiny and sparkly things, thinking that the garden will somehow be improved by them. As a general rule, use white pebbles sparingly. They seldom stay white anyway.

You should always be careful using contrast in a garden. There is a very fine line between contrast and kitsch. I believe the design would have been better if the pebbles used had picked up on another colour in the design - whether the rock that they are spread around, the plants used or even the colour of the walls.

In a situation like this, where the rocks themselves are the focus of the design, they should be chosen and positioned deliberately. Japanese garden design has very precise ancient guidelines for using rocks, and while this is not an oriental garden - those guidelines are built around good aesthetics, and should be followed more often than not if you want rock to work well in a design. But that's probably a post for another day. In this case, the third rock looked completely out of place - it was flat and didn't have the presence that the other rocks had.



Another basic mistake made, was not hiding the water valve (it was at least hidden in the standard municipal cover). The design could have been easily adjusted to obscure the box, while still giving access to the meter. It was painted the same colour as the wall, which helps to make it less noticeable.

The choice of Pachpodium as the main feature plant (although it is small it will get a nice size in a few years) for the back of the planting looks slightly out of place - but that's probably just my personal preference rather than any design flaw.

Some of these mistakes are basic, and some might seem nit-picky, but I think this little garden could have been very successful had the person who designed it paid that extra attention to detail, instead I think its been left a little short-changed.

A Crush on Chelsea?

Its not actually my thumbs that are green at the moment - I'm just generally envious after looking at photos of the Chelsea Flower Show. I've been wanting to visit Chelsea ever since I learnt how to say Chrysalidocarpus lutescens Agapanthus.


We miss-timed our holiday by a couple of weeks (in my opinion not my wife's) a few years ago while visiting the UK and back-packing around Europe, and didn't get to see any of the spectacular gardens on display. I did however, get to see a wall at the back of the Royal Hospital Grounds, as we got lost on the way to IKEA - but that's sadly as close as I've come.

I've developed this slight crush on Chelsea, because (judging from photo's only, mind you) you get to see what can be done, with a lot of imagination and similar quantities of cash. I'm sure that very few of the gardens are long-lasting, or could be easily transferred into a real-life garden. But Chelsea's gardens set a standard, and in some cases push the limits of what gardens could be in an ideal world.

So every year, I scour the internet for pictures, vicariously appreciating the gardens from 11000 miles away. But I console myself with the thought that in most cases the actuality of something isn't what you've built it up to be, and judging from my friend Viv's experience, it can be painful too.
She also wrote a story for the Times, in which she talks about how the budget's were pruned back this year, but that designers were taking a positive approach, and showing ways to garden on a small budget and recycle where possible.

I've also found some great pictures of Chelsea by Robert McMillan from Garden Focus.

So I guess another year goes by that I didn't get to visit Chelsea for myself, but so what...at least I have those amazing ice trays from IKEA!

Monday, 1 June 2009

Redesigning the Umhlanga Promenade

Umhlanga (the Zulu word for 'place of reeds') is a thriving coastal holiday town, within easy distance of Durban. Apart from catering to a regular influx of tourists throughout the year, it also has a large portion of permanent residents, and visitors from around the area. The beaches are great, with excellent waves for surfing, and rock pools for kids. There are amazing restaurants close by, and Gateway - one of the biggest shopping malls in the Southern Hemisphere is just at the top of the hill. But it has always had a bit of a run-down look about it.

A few years back I did quite a bit of work in the gardens at some of the main hotels on the beach in Umhlanga. It always struck me that the walkway in front of the hotels, was an amazing asset, that was not being fully valued.
It should be an ideal place to go for a walk or a run, or to take your dog for a walk, but the walkway was uneven and narrow in places, and it was not very well lit at night.

But recently, the municipality has been doing some improvements to the area. The entire stretch of coast has been re-designed to make better use of the beach, and to generally improve the walkway, landscaping, storm water run-off and access down to the beach. After the recent storms which washed away sections of the beach and dunes, retaining walls were built to prevent this from happening again.

There has also been opposition to the changes - as there always is. But some of the residents of the area's concerns are valid - they have been worried about (among other things) the improved access resulting in more noise, increased amounts of vagrants, and worsening of security in the area. All of which can be controlled or mitigated if taken into account in the planning and design of the promenade.

After taking a walk along the promenade yesterday - it is still under development - I was impressed by what has gone on since I last visited. The new pier with its whale bone structure looked impressive and gave a glimpse of what the finished promenade should look like. The promenade itself is wide and the finer details are pleasing. The planting is still being done, but a few of the hotels are also taking some initiative by improving and landscaping their access to the promenade. The retaining wall, along the length of the beach, although functional and necessary is the only aspect that I'm unsure of its long-term success. Any planting in the walls is unlikely to survive without a fair amount of maintenance, which I don't see happening in the long term. And besides I'm not sure how well the walls will stand up to stormy waves battering them anyway?

The finished Umhlanga Promenade should be an asset to the entire area when completed, and already people are using it. I was surprised to see how many families, walkers and runners were using it - even in its unfinished state in the middle of winter. I guess the glorious sunshine didn't hurt though?

Friday, 22 May 2009

Indigenous Beauties : Stapelia gigantea

I love using contrasts in a garden, and Stapelia seems to have more than its fair share of contrasts all in one plant. The best description I can think of for this plant is that its Pretty Awful - but in a good way?


Stapelia gigantea
Carrion Flower

If you are used to looking at the fairly nondescript succulent stems for most of the year, the flower when it arrives, starting with a blood red bud, opens up into an incredibly beautiful pale yellow flower. The fleshy flower itself seems too big for the small stems, and although it looks amazing, it smells terrible - unless you're a fly of course.

Its common name is Carrion Flower because of its use of its awful rotting flesh smell to attract insects - and particularly flies. The flies spread pollen from one flower to the next as the pollen sacs get stuck to them.

The stems are four-sided and are spineless, and are able to withstand extremes - from dry to relatively moist conditions. It can be planted in semi-shade, but will flower well in full sun. It would often be found in rocky, sandy soil, and even in rock crevasses, where its root benefits from the coolness of the stone. It's large flowers put on their show from summer to autumn.

They generally need a cool dry winter period, and can be cultivated very easily. Stapelia is definitely an easy plant to grow and look after - and is well worth finding a spot for it. But preferably where a breeze will dilute its odour!

Monday, 18 May 2009

Advice on Dealing With Your Garden Designer

I've recently had some meetings with an architect where I presented some ideas for a project in the Umhlanga area.
I had initially presented an idea to him, where he gave good constructive feedback. He was very clear about what he liked, and what he didn't like about the concept. We agreed on the areas that needed re-thinking, and planned to meet the following week to review the changes.



When we met again, he was very pleased with the final concept, and I left feeling quite relieved.
He was quite apologetic for being so direct with his criticism, but I assured him that I appreciated his feedback.
It really highlighted for me again the value of good, clear, honest communication. Only when we can speak openly without fear of offending, is it possible to get a final result that everyone is happy with. It was only because of his comments that I was able to improve on what I had initially drawn up.

Another aspect that is important to understand in this process of design is that when you are dealing with your landscaper/designer, nothing is final. Almost anything can be altered in order to improve the overall design, and its best to make changes earlier rather than later - because once the design is finalised, changes result in delays, which almost always bring extra costs.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

How Do You Classify A Garden?

Gardening in this new millennium, has become a very different creature to what it once was. In some ways this is an oddity - gardening as a craft being at its core, so basic and archaic, is so intrinsically separate from technology.
But technology has had its effect though - through the development and use of new materials and technologies but also through the spread of ideas via the internet and media.


A Plant Dominant Indigenous Garden


There is more discussion taking place today about gardening and about what defines a garden than has ever taken place before. This conversation is occurring between professionals and hobbyists, intellectuals and labourers.

Out of this conversation, a question I've been asking myself lately is -
'How do you classify a garden?'
Even as I write that, I can hear some people saying, "Why would you even want to classify a garden? A garden is something to be appreciated and felt, and admired."
That is all true, but I see so many types of gardens, from all over the world that it is becoming harder to fit them into the traditional definitions that I'm used to, and as a result, harder to understand.

I believe that people take comfort in our ability to divide and classify the world and put it into nice neat little boxes. In some ways it even makes us human - this ability to define something.

Gardening as an art-form, has not been spared this need to separate and define. Formal, Contemporary, English Country, Eastern, Natural, Wild, Indigenous, Zen...the list goes on and on.


A Structure Dominant Wild Garden


With this classification of gardens into types, and because of the continual segmentation, and the blurring of lines, I believe there exists a need to define gardens in more general terms.

To explain, I'll use an example that we as gardeners are familiar with - just as a particular plant has a Genus, and is then divided into its species, the Species of gardens (i.e. Tropical, Minimalist, Formal) need to be grouped together into Genera.

This is necessary, not for the sake of classifying for classifying's sake.
But rather as:
  • a way to clear up miscommunication between client and designer.
  • a tool for teaching and passing on knowledge in clear terms.
  • a spur to push designers and gardeners to try something different, and venture into new territory.
The most obvious way of defining, would be to look for the defining dominance in the design of the garden.
  • Plant dominant - Where the garden's essence is about the plants themselves (Tropical, Indigenous/native, English Country, Natural, Collector)
  • Concept dominant - These gardens revolve around an idea or concept(Zen, Feng Shui, Modern)
  • Structure dominant - These gardens have strong shape and/or geometry (Formal, Contemporary, Minimalist)
  • Function dominant - Where the function of the garden takes precedence (Lawn for playing, Parking Area, Patio)
This defining dominance would be primarily visual - it would be the character of the garden that unifies it or makes it stand out. It could also be intellectual - a garden built around an idea or concept that may or may not be immediately obvious, but that was the guiding principle behind its design. (e.g. Jenck's - Garden of Cosmic Speculation)


A Structure Dominant Formal Garden


But gardens are not always so easily put into their respective boxes, and here is where the Linnaeus analogy becomes inadequate. The gardens themselves may fall into more than one of the above groups. For example, a typical tropical garden at its essence is built around particular types of plants (Plant Dominant), but if the structure of the garden dominates, it could also be Structure Dominant. As to which is truly dominant would become a more subjective matter.

To use a more specific example - many of Gertrude Jekyll's garden's would have been strongly Plant dominant, but with Sir Edwin Lutyens' architectural input, they also had a very strong Structure dominance.

I see the practicalities of this idea being in creating a concept that makes communication clearer and simpler between client and designer, student and teacher, and between various professions relating to the gardening industry.

Gardening has been an art that has been nurtured by the hands of amateurs through the ages, and has at times, and in various cultures been analysed by the mind as well as the heart, but as the world gets internet-smaller, and communication happens across the globe, the thought processes behind garden design will and should become more apparent and utilised by the lay-person and professional alike.
For this reason, I believe that it would help if we spoke in similar terms.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Gardening on a Balcony

After 20 years of gardening, I'm amazed that I'm still amazed by the effect that plants have on a space. I don't often get to appreciate this first-hand, because I usually have to leave my gardens behind when I go home.



Michelle and I bought a flat a little over a year ago, and one of the things that really appealed to us was the big balcony, which in Durban is a great asset for enjoying our sweltering hot summers.
Its taken us a while, because up until now we've had other priorities, but we've finally gotten round to tackling the balcony.



The cage over the succulents is to keep our
vegetarian cat from munching


The catalyst was a pair of old pots that I had laying around from an old show that I did a few years back. After several coats of charcoal coloured paint to cover their awful green colour, and a quick trip down to the nursery, we had the impetus we needed to really get stuck in to planning and fixing up the area. Which up till now has become a bit of a dumping ground for all the stuff that has nowhere else to go.
A terracotta pot that we've tried quite unsuccessfully to grow herbs in, is now the home for all the succulents that I haven't been able to resist buying when I've been shopping for plants for clients.

Sitting down and appreciating the balcony with the plants, a cup of tea and Michelle's fresh baked biscuits this afternoon, it finally felt like a space that I can enjoy.

Now to figure out the furniture...


Friday, 24 April 2009

What does N:P:K stand for, and is it a four-letter word?

I'm asked this often, so here is the short answer:

N : Nitrogen (Good for growth of foliage)
P : Phosphorous (Good for roots and flowers)
K : Pottasium (Good for fruit & general health of the plant)
Four-letter word?: Yes & No



The numbers (e.g. 3:1:5 or 2:3:2) that you see on a bag of fertilizer represent the proportion of these 3 elements - N:P:K.

Some quick facts:
  • A lack of Nitrogen is usually quite apparent when the green foliage of your lawn or plants becomes pale. (Although this is not the only reason for pale leaves)
  • Phosphorous does not move through the soil, so it should only be added in small amounts near the roots of plants, so that it can be absorbed easily.
  • Potassium deficiency shows up when the edges of leaves and the area between the veins start to go yellow. Potassium helps plants handle changes in temperature.
  • Generally speaking, unless the fertiliser is slow release (it will have (SR) after the N:P:K) you should always water your plants straight after applying in order to prevent any burning of the plants, and to help them to absorb the nutrients easily. Wash your hands immediately for the same reason.
  • The plant family Fabaceae (e.g. Peas, Beans, Acacia, Indigofera, Crotalaria) has a symbiotic relationship with bacteria which actually helps add Nitrogen to the soil naturally.
But good-old-fashioned granular or chemical fertilizer is poo-pooed (sorry I couldn't resist that) in many circles these days, rather there is a strong move towards using organic fertilizers instead.

The problem with this particular type of fertilizer has resulted from its over-use, and mis-use. Chemical fertilizers are sometimes applied in larger quantities than can be absorbed by the plants or held by the soil, they then leach down into the groundwater and rivers, and can result in the death of fish amongst other things.
It is also believed that in large quantities over time, they can actually poison the soil and kill off the natural organisms that are essential for plants and organisms in the soil.

My personal opinion is that chemical fertilizers should always be just a very small portion of the food that we provide for our soil and plants. Because the elements are in their basic form, and therefore easily absorbed, they are often great as a short term solution.
But organic fertilizers, such as composts and manures, provide a whole host of other macro and micro nutrients, as well as improving the structure of the soil. For these reasons, they are always better in the long run.

Friday, 17 April 2009

Lazy Landscapers

Plants are to a garden designer what words are to a writer. The larger a writer's vocabulary, the better they are able to communicate with their audience.
Unfortunately many garden designers have a very limited 'vocabulary', and they tend to only plant those few plants that they know, regardless of the conditions or what might be appropriate to the site or design.



Every landscaper or garden designer does have their palette of plants that they prefer to use, but those preferences should never be at the expense of good design.

I have been seeing a profusion of 'landscapers' lately, that seem to have a very small range of plants that they use, with the result being that all their gardens start to look the same. In some cases I've had to fix some of these gardens that have been planted up with plants that are not suited to our coastal conditions. All this because garden designers are either lazy and/or have a very limited range.

I believe that the only justifiable excuse for getting stuck using the same old plants, is when we have to revert to plants that need to be easy to look after. In these cases, when the person caring for the garden has limited skills, then its defensible to stick to safe and easy plants. The challenge then for us as landscapers is to be looking for easy-maintenance plants that we can add to our repertoir for situations like these.

How can we as garden designers not be continually learning, reading, watching and testing. We should relish the chance to try new plants, and experiment with new combinations. We should be constantly stealing from others (with our eyes of course)!

But really, how can we justify always using the same old boring plants?

Friday, 10 April 2009

Green Roofing on a Massive Scale

I have written about the benefits of Green Roofs before, especially for us in South Africa, with our extremely warm climate. The insulation and resulting cooling effects that it would bring are huge. They can be beautiful at the same time as functional.

The Vancouver Convention Centre is an amazing example of what can be done.

Monday, 6 April 2009

Getting Control Back From The Aliens

Getting control of Alien vegetation is an important subject for any gardener in South Africa. Our water resources and indigenous plants are under threat, and we all need to learn to identify and remove invasive plants whenever we find them. Fortunately, we have a little help that reminds me a bit of the plot from The War of the Worlds.

The other day, while driving, I spotted a very unhappy Opuntia growing on the side of the road. It looked as if its life had literally been sucked out of it - and looking closer, it had!



Thousands of tiny bugs called Cochineal insects had latched on and were pushing their little beaks into the plant. They were quite rapidly killing the plant by sucking the sap out of it.
This way of dealing with weeds is called biological control, and South Africa is one of the top three countries in the world when it comes to this method of invasive plant control. Since 1914, we have introduced over 80 species of biological agents in order to control or destroy the invasive plants that thrive in our ideal conditions.

The concept behind biological control, is that because invasive plants are in a very strong position in a new environment with no natural enemies, the playing fields need to be levelled. The best way to do this is to introduce their natural enemies from their countries of origin. this either destroys, or helps manage the burgeoning alien populations.

Biological control is an ideal way to get rid of invasive weeds, because:
  1. it causes no pollution and affects only the targeted invasive plant
  2. it is self-sustaining and as a result, permanent
  3. it is very cost-effective
  4. it won't disturb the soil or create barren areas where other invaders could establish, because it kills the targeted plants over time, and allows the natural vegetation of the area to recover gradually in the shelter of the dying weeds.
Obviously these biological agents need to be introduced extremely carefully, and there are very strict controls in place to make sure that there are no unforeseen results. It doesn't work in all situations, but there has been excellent results with Water Lettuce, Port Jackson Acacia, Red Sesbania, and of course Opuntia.

Something else to think about, is that this little Cochineal insect can also be harvested to make a crimson dye which is sometimes used in food colouring. Try not to think of that next time you're eating food thats been dyed red!

Friday, 3 April 2009

Common Trees with Aggressive Roots

This is a problem I've touched on previously, but I'm amazed at how often people plant or leave trees with strong roots to do their damage. The initial title for this post was going to be: Warning: Trees With Evil Roots. But I can't really call them bad can I? These trees have amazing roots, and as a result they are usually very fast growing, are often able to shrug off many diseases and pests, and are able to withstand drought easily. So really, they are incredibly well-designed plants.

But the problem comes in when they are planted near drains, walls, paving, or in small gardens. The following trees are just the most common trees that I see mistakenly planted:
  1. Ficus (Fig tree)
  2. Erythrina (Coral tree)
  3. Cussonia (Cabbage Tree)
  4. Schefflera (Common Cabbage Tree)
  5. Caesalpinia ferrea (Leopard Tree)
These all have the tendency to damage pathways or drains if planted too near. A couple of restaurants in Durban (Manna Restaurant & Churchill's Coffee Shop) have planted groves of Leopard trees in their outside areas, and while they're great at the moment to sit under, they are doing huge damage to the drains below.



Leopard Trees - Soft and Aggressive

I also often see damage to walls by plants that expand outward, putting pressure on foundations and walls. They are planted when they are still small, but in time get much bigger than anticipated. Some of these are:
  1. Chrysalidocarpus lutescens (Bamboo Palm)
  2. Strelitzia reginae
  3. Many palms are planted while still small, but get much thicker.
Are there any plants that you've noticed in your part of the world that need warning labels?

Monday, 30 March 2009

The Do's and Don'ts of Planning Your Front Garden

I don't believe that first impressions are always lasting impressions - If that were the case, I think my in-laws would have probably talked my wife out of marrying the long-haired, bare-footed mess that I was back then? Fortunately for me, they looked past my initial appearance.



Is this really the best decision? What a bleak first impression!


Unfortunately for most people though, the front garden is the first, and only impression people have of your home. Very often we pay so little attention to the front garden, and rather save our energies and efforts for the inside of the house, and maybe then we look at the back garden. Often the front garden is last on the list.

When my wife and I were looking for a place to buy, we would often pull up in front of a potential place, and make a decision whether to go in, entirely based on what it looked like from the road. We may have lost out on some gems by evaluating things this way, but we saved ourselves a lot of wasted time too.

The front garden doesn't have to (and probably shouldn't) require a lot of maintenance to keep it looking good. To achieve this though, a lot of thought and planning needs to go into it in order to save you work in the long run.

There is a definite move away from lawned verges - (a) because they need a lot of water, (b) because they're boring; and (c) because they constantly need to be cut.
A better solution would be to use groundcovers that need very little water to look their best, and don't need to be cut. Once established, they will even prevent weeds from establishing themselves.



I love this garden. Its simple, beautiful, and low maintenance!

Another option is to plant wild grasses. Just because they are 'wild' doesn't mean they have to look a mess. You would also be supporting an environment for all kinds of birds, that you wouldn't ordinarily see in your garden. I've written about them in a previous post, and used them in a front garden.

In the USA, in some states there are subsidies available if you convert your front lawn into a more sustainable garden. And many people are even going so far as to convert their front gardens into edible gardens.

The things to keep in mind when planning your front garden, are:
Keep things simple - You're not likely to spend a lot of time out the front of your house, so there is no need to put in a lot of detailed planting - also most people will see it only as a blur as they drive past. I think most front gardens should be quite 2 dimensional (like a painting or snapshot), because they are generally only viewed from one angle. You should be able to look at it for just a second, and have a great impression in your minds eye. If you achieve this, I think you have succeeded. There are always exceptions to the rule though.

The less work, the better - Save your time and effort for the areas of the garden that you will use the most. Get rid of lawns, and high maintenance pruning work. Plant good low maintenance alternatives instead.

Keep watering needs to a minimum - again this will save you time and money, and will help the environment at the same time.

What is next door? - Look at your neighbours verges, and look at what you can repeat in your front garden. Try to steer clear of just doing your own thing - your garden and neighbourhood will look better if it blends in well with its neighbours. Look for next door trees or plants that you can bring into your garden, and I mean buy your own. Your neighbour might be suspicious if he sees a similar plant appear in your garden to the one that used to be in his.

If in doubt call an expert - Call a landscaper/garden designer if you need any help. You may have to pay a consultation fee, but you can often get very good ideas, and good guidance in the beginning, and you will reap the rewards in the long run.
There are all kinds of options and possible ideas for your front garden - so why not explore some of these? You might find that you want to spend more time admiring your house from the front along with the rest of us?
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