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?

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Earth Hour



I'm not sure if you've heard any of the hype around Earth Hour, but its an amazing initiative by the World Wide Fund, encouraging every individual, business and community to take a stand against Climate Change. To show your support, you need to sign up and commit to switching off your lights for one hour on Saturday, March 28th at 8:30pm.

It started in Sydney, in 2007, and had around 2 million people coming together to switch off their lights for one hour for this vital cause.

In 2008, that number grew to about 50 million. Global landmarks like Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, Rome’s Colosseum and the Coca Cola billboard in Times Square, all switched off in support of Earth Hour.

This year, 2009, Earth Hour will see the lights go out on some of the most recognised attractions on the planet, including Cape Town’s Table Mountain, Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, Merlion in Singapore, Sydney Opera House, the iconic 6-star hotel, the Burj al Arab, in Dubai, Millennium Stadium in Cardiff and the world’s tallest constructed building, the Taipei 101.

Earth Hour 2009 has one major aim: to unite the citizens of the world in the fight against climate change in order to convince governments and world leaders that our planet cannot wait any longer. There simply isn’t enough time, and therefore 2009 is a colossally important, if not the most critical year, to take action on climate change.

Click here to join.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Indigenous Beauties : Leucosidea sericea

This is a small tree that I've been wanting to put the spotlight on for a while now. Its common name is Ouhout, which directly translates as 'old wood'. It probably gets this name from the way the trunk and specifically the bark looks old and wizened.


Leucosidea sericea
Ouhout

It is an extremely fast growing, evergreen tree that gets to about 5m in height, it loves full sun, and is often found near rivers or streams. It is best planted in groves and preferably where the bark can be truly appreciated. Even its soft and serrated leaves are beautiful, and release a strong aroma when crushed.

Its flowers are light green to yellow, and appear from Spring to Summer.

It will handle frost easily, but doesn't take well to dry conditions. It would normally grow at higher altitudes - it is quite common along rivers in the Drakensburg.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Behind The Scenes - Steeply Sloped Garden

We've just finished some landscaping for a wonderful couple in Durban North. They were very trusting in giving me quite a bit of freedom in the planting and design, but also had some good ideas that helped guide me in giving them what they wanted.

Their aim is to create as sustainable a home as is possible. They will be harvesting their natural run-off from their roof, to use in watering their garden. Solar panels on the roof help provide electricity. So the next project was the garden. We needed to create a balance between water-wise planting and still create a beautiful garden. Bearing in mind that the soil on the verge had been washed down the road in a previous thunderstorm, and therefore needed to be retained with strong plants.

The home was on a steeply sloped piece of land with magnificent sea views. The problem of the steep slope had been solved by creating a series of terraces with retaining blocks. The verge was still quite steep and the planting needed to be carefully chosen. The drawings below, show the level area near the house, with a patio, and water feature, that is positioned to make best use of the views.



The terraces drop away below, down to the verge, and the road. On the terraces, we decided to plant masses of the same plant on each level to create an impact when looked at from the top.

On the first terrace we planted Salvia leucantha, which has mauve and white spikes for flowers. The next level was a mass of grass - Melinis nerviglumis, with the start of a grove of Indigofera frutescens, and Grewia occidentalis.



This then carried through to the verge, which was a swathe of Aristida junciformis grasses, and Asystasia gangetica groundcover below. Both of these are great at holding soil, and also are fast growing. The grove of trees will help disguise the security fence, but neither the Grewia or Indigofera get high enough to block the views.

We piled in masses of compost, which would help bring nutrients back into the very sandy soil, as well as help speed up growth.


Friday, 20 March 2009

How do you improve clay soil?

This is a question I've been asked quite a bit lately, and it seems to be a common problem in many gardens. Put simply - clay soils have a very strong bond with water, and tend to get waterlogged, with very little space for oxygen for the roots to breath. The result being, that rot can set in very quickly, or at the least, plants tend to look unhappy and become diseased easily.

The simplest solution would be to 'soften' the soil by adding coarse sand (as much as is possible). The shape and size of coarse sand leaves lots of gaps for air, and makes the soil less 'sticky'.

Another way to fix clay soils, would be to add large amounts of compost or well-decomposed organic matter - this does the same thing as adding sand, but it will also improve the soil's fertility at the same time. The only problem is that you would need to add quite large quantities to see the equal 'softening' effect.

Also, bear in mind that clay soil compacts very easily when wet, and doesn't bounce back up the way sandy soil would. Because of this, make sure that when the soil is wet that you try to walk or run wheelbarrows over it as little as possible.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

What are the differences between Indigenous, Endemic, Exotic and Alien Plants

In the 'stampede' towards being environmentally aware the waters of what actually constitutes environmentally sensitive has gotten quite muddied.

In this increasingly complicated gamble with our planet, you'd be forgiven for thinking that using any plant, as long as its green and alive, means that you're doing your bit for the planet. With this poker game though, the stakes are high, so its important to know some of the rules of the game before it goes any further.



I thought it would be good to try and explain some of the words that I hear used so often, but in the wrong context.
For example, what does indigenous mean, and which plants are aliens? Why is an indigenous plant better than an exotic, and for that matter, why does endemic planting beat any other hand in the house?

Here are some quick definitions:
Indigenous/native - a general term used to group plants that would naturally occur in a fairly large geographical area. Both words have the same meaning, it just depends where you are in the world as to which one you might use. A plant is indigenous to an area, if it would naturally be found there without mans influence.

Endemic - is taking indigenous a step further (or closer actually) These are plants that would naturally be found in a relatively small region. The advantages of using plants that are endemic to your area is that they would grow best in your conditions, provide food for all kinds of creatures, and help maintain genetic diversity.

Exotics, are those plants that have been brought in from other places around the world, and very often require a lot of resources to keep them happy.

Aliens/invasives are plants that have usually been brought in as exotics, but are so well adapted to their surroundings that they spread uncontrollably, pushing out indigenous plants, and consuming precious resources at the same time.

Naturalised plants are those that have been introduced into an area, but are surviving and spreading without man's help. Naturalised plants tend to become aliens if they are particularly well suited to their environment.
If its possible you should always look for an Indigenous alternative to the plants that you are choosing for your garden. It may be a bit more research, but it will pay off in the long run, with birds and butterflies being frequent visitors to your garden. At the very least, if you plant exotics, make sure that they are not likely to consume large amounts of precious resources.

If in doubt, check your local municipalities or government for lists of good and bad plants.

In South Africa you can find a helpful tool for finding good indigenous plants here, an invasive plant list can be found here.
In North America, a list of invasive plants can be found here.


Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Forage Oakland

If you follow Bloggers 'Blog Of Note' you'll probably have already read about this great idea, and even though its a rather tenuous link to the world of Landscape Design, I thought it was worth a mention.

Asiya Wadud has started a movement called Forage Oakland - the idea being that people would get together in their neighbourhoods to forage for produce from gardens, that would otherwise go to waste. She puts it far more elegantly in her manifesto, and is definitely worth reading.

I love the idea of taking such an ancient method of survival, and bringing it back into todays context as a solution to some of the problems that we face in society at the moment. I hope the idea catches on.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Any Advice On Dealing With Voracious Pigeons?

We are doing our best to care for a roof garden in the center of Durban which has recently been landscaped by another company.
The planting is a bit of a mix of indigenous and exotic, with a definite tropical theme to it. There are bamboo palms at the back, which provide a bit of height to the garden, and then a mix of Aloes, Cordylines, Dianella and Helichrysum underneath. At the front of the garden, a stretch of Gazania's were originally planted, which would have provided a much needed splash of colour.

But lately, this roof garden has reminded me of a scene from Alfred Hitchcocks 'The Birds'. The pigeons sit on every little outcrop of the building - looking down ominously on the smokers that congregate outside the offices. For now, (fortunately for the smokers) the pigeons have been satisfying their hunger by eating the plants.



The Gazania's were the first plant-victim to be devoured by the swarm of pigeons almost immediately after they were planted. Pilea microphylla was planted as a replacement plant, which in just as short a time, was grazed into non-existence. The next attempt, that the landscaping company tried, was to try a fast growing groundcover - Carpobrotus edulis, which is quite common on our beaches and does an excellent job of stabilising sand-dunes. To all of our surprise, these have also been completely eaten.

I'm going to suggest that we replace these little Pilea corpses that you can see in the photo, with Carissa 'green carpet', but before I do, I was wondering if anybody in the ethernet has any suggestions as to how to keep the pigeons from eating everything in sight, or a better option to try planting?

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Why I'm Wild About Indigenous Grasses

I read a comment the other day that stated quite matter of factly that using wild grasses in your garden is no longer fashionable...what? When did wild grasses ever reach any kind of recognition that puts them in the fashionable bracket? I haven't checked recently, but I don't think they want to be fashionable anyway. If anything, I don't think we've even begun to explore the beauty and the practicalities of using bunch type grasses.


Here's a few reasons why I think you should find a corner of your garden to plant some indigenous grasses:
  1. Grasslands need to be protected...Most people are surprised to know that grasslands are the most threatened biome in South Africa, but even more surprising is the fact that the biodiversity of our grasslands is second only to the species richness of our world famous fynbos.

  2. Birds and butterflies and other creatures love grasses...Now I'm not suggesting that by planting wild grasses in your garden, it comes anywhere near to making up for the destruction to this sensitive vegetation type. But by planting grasses, you will definitely attract birds and insects that would normally skip over your garden in search of more hospitable habitats.

  3. Wild Grasses look amazing...From an aesthetic point of view, there is not much that beats the sound and look of tall grasses being blown in the wind, or the early morning dew that sparkles on cobwebs and leaf blades.

  4. Veld Grasses are easy to maintain...There is also not much to maintaining a good sized area of wild grasses. If you consider that once established, you need only cut it back once a year to let the new green growth take over from the old bronzed foliage.

  5. Bunch Grasses are a great way of retaining soil...The roots of most grasses go down fairly deep, and therefore help anchor the soil. So that even in times of heavy rainfall, you can relax knowing that your precious topsoil is not going to be washed out to sea.

  6. Native Grasses conserve water...you need very little water to keep indigenous grass looking good - in fact, you shouldn't really have to water them at all once they are established.

Wherever you are, and whatever you call Veld Grass (Steppes in Russia, Pusztas in Hungary, Pampas in South America, or Prairies in North America), there are a wide selection of plants to choose from that will add an incredible amount of beauty to your garden. I will provide a selection of great indigenous grasses that you can use in your garden in a post soon.

If you still need convincing look at the some of the masters of using wild grass in the garden - Dan Pearson and Oehme & Van Sweden.

Now that I think about it, don't just find a corner to plant some grasses, why not plant your entire garden just using grasses.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Who Wants My Back Garden?

Food gardening by individuals and communities in South Africa is quite commonplace. Driving through many built up areas - often near areas of umjondolos (the zulu word for informal housing), you will often see gardens of maize, pumpkin, tomatoes etc. being well looked after - and all this, mostly on the verge of highways and busy roads.



But despite the fact that food gardening in SA is thriving, its also quite looked down on - as being backward or rural - definitely not something to be aspiring to!

So its interesting to see that there is a move in the UK and USA to make use of unused land for food gardening. Allotment food growing in the UK is so popular that there are waiting lists to get to garden in the small spaces allocated. Just look out the window on any train ride around London, and you'll see a green streak of community and food gardens going by.

But this latest push to get people gardening, and growing their own food, is aimed at matching up people with space for gardening, and those who want to garden. On Landshare, a UK based website, you can register as a grower, a land-owner, land-spotter or a facilitator.

The idea is simple - if you have a backyard (or any area for that matter) that would be suitable for growing - you can register it on their site. Anyone who is keen to get growing themselves can register on the site themselves, and look for an area close to them where they can get their hands dirty.

I've been wondering, how we in South Africa can learn from this latest agrarian advance? There are a lot more things to consider in our environment. The most obvious being security. Quite honestly, I'm surprised that roadside farming can thrive in a society where petty crime is flourishing - I wonder how often people help themselves to the fruit or vegetables of someone else's labours?
Sharing Backyards - a North American Site has a helpful list of things to consider - from time, to water use, to privacy and security concerns. But I think if its carefully organised, its a concept that could be adapted really well to a South African situation. So who out there wants to organise it?

Another thought that comes to mind - which is possibly far more Utopian. Wouldn't it be amazing, to truly share backyards? Although not suited to everyone, and every situation, wouldn't our neighbourhoods be better off, if we took down the fences that separate us, and linked our gardens. This would encourage birds and other wildlife back into our gardens, and who knows, maybe we would see real community growing alongside our vegetables?

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Behind The Scenes - Drakensburg Aloe Garden

The Drakensburg is a spectacular range of mountains that creates quite a scenic border to the South West of Kwazulu Natal. It has quite an extreme climate compared to what we're used to on the coast - with hot days and cold nights, sudden extreme thunderstorms which bring heavy rain and sometimes hail.


I was asked recently to come up with a basic sketch for a back garden in the Drakensburg that sloped away quite steeply. The concept was to use mainly Aloes and other indigenous plants that would add to their already beautiful scenery.

I felt that the garden didn't make good enough use of the views, so I suggested that we have an area of flagstone pavers just outside the back sliding doors, where you could have a table and chairs and sit and have meals while enjoying the view.



As you can see in the very misty photo's, the ground just disappears away, and leaves very little interest in this part of the garden. To remedy this, the plan would be to bring in some extra soil to create a couple of small berms to plant on, and these would create a bit of a replication of the distant hills and mountains. We would also bring up some of the large rocks from the bottom of the bank to plant around, and to make great features themselves.



The planting itself would be indigenous, and ideally endemic to the area. I created a couple of palettes of the plants that I would like to use, to give my clients an idea of what the garden would look like.




The sketch plan, shows the position of the house, with the new paved area, and the changes to the back garden area and bank. The idea is that the plants would slowly blend into the existing grassland below the house.

I have provided a plant list on the side with approximate positions of the plants.



Implementing the design would be quite a challenge, due to the fact that it is with it being so out of the way, and sourcing materials might not be that easy. But also because some of those rocks that I would like to use won't be easy to roll up hill - but they'll be essential in creating a beautiful garden.
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