Wednesday, 14 December 2011

5 more Great Gifts for Gardeners

This is Part 2 of my list to Santa - this selection is tending towards my love for gadgets. I hope you're checking my list Santa!
  1. Tree Trainer For Bent Trees
    • I've often been irritated to have plants delivered to site, and finding that some of the trees that have been supplied are slightly bent. I didn't even know that a tool like this even existed, but I have to have one...
       
         
  2. Droplet Mower
    • How cool is this lawn mower! Not only does it look like something you'd use in outer space, but its also electric. So no more dependence on fossil fuels... I think if we kit our garden service out with these, my staff will have to wear space suits to fit in with what they're using to cut the grass.
       

  3. Nature Zap Electric Weed Killer
    • I'm always looking for environmentally friendly ways of doing what I do, and I hate using chemicals to deal with the problems in my gardens, so if this works, it will be a great tool to add to the garden shed.

       
  4. Electronic Soil Analyzer
    • This is a tool which every gardener should have - It not only measures the fertility and pH of the soil, but it also shows the moisture content and gives a light reading too! Gone are the days of using those irritating, cumbersome pH kits.
       

  5. High-Tech Plant Glasses
    • These glasses seem too good to be true. They've apparently been developed by NASA, and will help you spot stressed plants just by looking at them. This really does seem like a scam, but if they work, I'll be first in line to buy a pair.
       
       

Monday, 12 December 2011

Sex, Politics, Religion and...Budget

Sex, Politics and Religion. Three topics guaranteed to cause awkward subject changes, but I'd have to add the topic of budget to those classics...
I loved designing this penthouse garden - but a clear budget is essential when preparing any design
I've written about this subject before in 'How much does landscaping cost', but it still amazes me how uncomfortable people are about providing a budget for their landscaping. I know very often the problem comes more from clients not knowing how much is a realistic figure to set aside, but without at least a rough budget to work within, there is so much place for time-wasting.

I recently had two clients with two completely different approaches to the subject. The first fidgeted when the subject came up, and wouldn't give any guidelines. I worked on some ideas and presented the concept along with an estimate only to find that it was not within their budget. I went back to the drawing board to try to find a way of adapting the design to the budget, before eventually having to come up with a completely different design that would fit within the parameters. It seemed to me that the issue wasn't that they didn't know how much they could spend, because it turned out that they had a very clear budget - it seemed that they felt that disclosing how much they could spend would somehow disadvantage them.

My second client gave relatively clear guidelines. Knowing what the budget was, gave me a clear overall picture of what we could work with. When I presented the concept, which they loved, I was able to keep the costs within their budget so that they had enough left over for some garden furniture and some additional accessories.

The first project was fraught with frustrations from the start, while the second was a pleasure from start to finish.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

10 Great Gifts for Gardeners Part 1

With Christmas just around the corner, I thought I'd make a list for Santa - I hope she's reading...but if you're looking for gifts for the gardener in your life, or need some inspiration as to what to add to your list for Santa, I've got just the thing(s) for you...
  1. Bird Feeder
    • I first saw these Bird Feeders at the I Heart Market in Durban. They come as a do-it-yourself kit, with everything you need to make your feeder right in the box. The feeder stands 18cm high by 16cm across, and can be hung from a tree or pegged on a broom handle. The kit includes a stack of little signs to bling your feeder once it's assembled.

  2. Leafsnap App
    • Well this is not quite as helpful for us South Africans (being developed for American users), but I'm putting it on the list anyway. More in the hope that something gets developed for South African budding botanists. The name says it all - take a picture of the leaf of an unidentified tree, and using images and algorithms, the app will identify the tree for you. How amazing is that! Or maybe I'm doing myself out of a job?
       
  3. Ornate Spades by Master Artist Cal Lane
    • These spades are not very practical, but I think Form used these to bury Function in a shallow grave. As is the case with so many beautiful things - I love the contrast she creates with her work.

  4. Sasol eBirds of Southern Africa iPhone App
    • Yes, another app, but you'll love this if you're a big twitcher...no, nothing to do with coffee...If you enjoy the classic bird book, then you'll love this app. Its a perfect gift for avid birders or even just for casual spotting in your garden. With images, distribution maps and text descriptions for over 950 bird species found in the Southern African region, its a perfect tool to use with your iPhone, Blackberry or Android.

  5. A Pile of Compost
    • A slightly eccentric gift to be sure, but no gardener would look a gift horse in the...er...manure maker. A load of manure or well-rotted, weed-free compost is like gold to a gardener. If you're in Durban, you can order truckloads from Allgrow or Gromor.

  6. Deluxe Weather Station
    • Ok, this is a bit of a pricey gift, but look what it can do. If you're a climatophile and a gadgetophile (yes, I made both those words up) then this is perfect for you.
       
  7. Scarecrow Sprinkler
    • This would have come in very handy in so many of the gardens that I've done. Its a motion sensor attached to a sprinkler head, which shoots a jet of water out every time something moves near it. Its perfect for gardens with pesky animals that love to dig in your newly planted flower beds. Just make sure that its off before doing your chores...

  8. Hammock
    • With this gift, you're not going to get a lot of those gardening chores done, but it will be time well spent. No garden is complete without one of these.
    Photo via Stairropes
       
  9. Garden Hose Water Usage Meter
    • If you're worried about the amount of water disappearing through your hose nozzle, or want to measure how much water is being used on your very thirsty lawn, then clip this meter between your tap and hose. Definitely on my list for Santa...
       
  10. Potting Bench
    • A potting bench is an indispensable piece of equipment for gardeners - if you've got the space, it's definitely something even the occasional gardener would make use of. Even if its just used to display your nursery-bought potted plants, to fool people into thinking you've been hard at work.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

COP17 - Things Fall Apart

Its funny how we tend to leave the tidying of the house to the last minute before our visitors arrive - I tend to do a quick superficial clean-up about half an hour before hand. Durban municipality it seems is no different - I always look forward to the big events (COP17 being the most recent) that get hosted here in Durban from time to time because things get cleaned and planted up properly. Its really just window dressing, but I'm torn between embracing the effort that gets put in because at least things are being done, and feeling frustrated that things are being done in such a slap-dash, hurried way.

What's left after the last major Durban landscaping effort. Photo via Dying in Paradise
During the 2010 Soccer World Cup, thousands of palm trees were planted throughout Durban in an effort to spruce up the tourist areas, and lend a tropical aesthetic to Durban's sup-tropical climate. They looked beautiful for a couple of months before a large portion of them began dying off, leaving their cut-off stumps exposed above ground. The reason for the wholesale 'biting of the dust', was that the trees were obviously not correctly prepared before being dug out, they were often transported huge distances and then re-planted days later. All in a superficial effort to get things done at the last minute.

COP17 has now entered its second week here in Durban, and it seems a similar mindset pervades. At this stage, the talks appear to be nothing more than empty rhetoric - talks about talks, backtracking, greed and lack of commitment. The US, China and India together make up more than half of the world's carbon emissions - essentially the 3 biggest polluters of our world.
You have to wonder, what is the point of flying half way across the globe and making such a half hearted attempt at addressing the concerns of us ordinary citizens. Why did delegates from these and some of the other stiff-necked self-serving countries even bother showing up?

At the same time, I have noticed an increase in the general awareness on the issues of climate change and the environment. Its effect may well be further reaching than the fat cat politicians with their bloated expense accounts, with school children and the general public becoming for the most part, better educated. Hopefully some of the momentum that has been created by the hype around COP17 will be sustained in the long term.

Or maybe it'll be too late by then, and our children will be digging up the dead root balls of the fragile ecosystems that hold our beautiful planet together?

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Deadly Dodder

It seems as if my subject matter is heading towards the dark side lately - Poisonous Cycads, and now Creepy Dodder. I promise, its purely circumstantial and no substantive change in direction…

After not having seen any Dodder (Cuscuta sp.) for about 10 years, I've spotted 2 infestations in the last week in gardens that I've visited. If you don't know of Dodder's reputation, then its about time someone passed on its diabolical legend - its really the plant equivalent of a super-villain.
Cuscuta (Dodder)
Dodder is one of the only plants that don't have chlorophyll, and therefore cannot make food from sunlight. You would think this would put it at a disadvantage, but actually, this is where the story takes a bizarre twist into the horror-genre of the plant kingdom.

Dodder is a parasitic plant which feeds on its host plant by entwining its leaves and stem, and then producing haustoria - suckers which grow into the host and then literally suck the life from its limbs. If this isn't scary enough, it also has the ability to grow from even the tiniest fragment towards its next unwitting victim. It doesn't even need to have the apparent crutch of a root system to hold it back.

It appears to have the ability to 'smell' its next victim and grow towards it - with plants surviving about 5-10 days without a host. It also spreads by seed - tiny little pea-sized seeds which germinate very easily.

All these aspects of its incredible design is also what makes it so tough to get rid of. Here are a few simple steps to rid yourself of Dodder:
  1. Try to catch it early, the more there is of it, the harder it is to remove.
  2. Catch it before it seeds itself - as the seeds can lie dormant for quite a while before sprouting.
  3. It is best to place a piece of plastic as close as possible to where you are working to catch all the pieces of the plant that might fall onto the ground.
  4. Cut back the host plant well below where the dodder attaches itself, because the plant can regrow from its Haustoria.
  5. Ensure that you try to get rid of as much as possible without dropping any pieces.
  6. Burn all the traces of the plant, and don't try to make compost from it!
  7. Follow up - keep looking for traces of it (Go back to Step #1)

Sunday, 6 November 2011

One Man's Cycad Is Another Man's Poison

Are Cycads poisonous?

I was recently asked this question, and realized that it's something not too many people know about. The plain answer is yes, Cycads are poisonous, but as with most things plant related, when you dig below the surface you'll find some interesting things.

Most parts of Cycads contain toxins that can, when eaten in large enough doses, cause sickness and even death. But the ironic thing is that the Afrikaans name for a Cycad is a broodboom (lit. Bread Tree). This comes from the fact that in South Africa and in many cultures around the world, the seeds of Cycads have been used to make flour.

In South Africa, legend has it that a group of Boer soldiers were hiding out in the hills - after a while they got hungry and decided to try cooking and eating the seeds - for the next few days they were laid out in pain, before recovering sufficiently to keep going.

In Australia, an aboriginal tribe would prepare the seeds by putting them in water to leach out the toxin, this would take about four days. The seeds were considered safe to eat once fish had started to nibble on it. At which point, the seeds were then ground down into flour and made into bread. (don't try this at home - and if you do, don't invite me)

But don't go out and uproot your Cycads in a hurry. If you consider how many gardens have Cycads growing in them, and yet cases of poisoning are extremely rare.

Just as a side note - Cycads are a rather large group of plants. In South Africa, the Encephalartos (usually spiny) and Stangeria (stemless) are indigenous, while the Cycas - commonly known as Sago Palm (softer leaves with relatively small spines at the base) is not. Indigenous Cycads are a protected plant in South Africa. BlogBooster-The most productive way for mobile blogging. BlogBooster is a multi-service blog editor for iPhone, Android, WebOs and your desktop

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Medicinal Plants Training

Plants were once our primary source of medicines, only to be replaced by Western medicine (usually coming from plant extracts). South Africa has been particularly blessed with an abundant source of medicinal plants, and a wealth of knowledge which is an important part of our natural heritage.



Prof. Ben-Erik van Wyk, author of the book “Medicinal Plants of South Africa”, is hosting a 1 day course at the Pretoria Botanic Garden on the 12 November 2011. The cost is R550 per person, and I'm sure it will be very interesting for anyone with a fascination for medicinal plants.

Contact Jolene at info@alut.co.za or 014 717 3819 to book for the course.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Bringing a Concept to Reality

Ok...well...it's been a while since I've had time to blog. I've had several projects on the go which have been taking up a lot of my time.

But I'm happy to say that the one that has been giving me the most sleepless nights lately, and the endeavour I'm most proud of, is the arrival of my daughter Emily Ann...

Friday, 12 August 2011

Romead Business Park - an inspiring green approach

Romead Business Park is quite an exciting project that I've been working on over the last year.  A prominent developer was looking for a new home for their offices, and rather than finding a cookie-cutter building for their offices, they decided to create their own space, and hopefully attract others with their same ideals.

Common Areas Landscape Plan for Romead Business Park
Their approach to the entire project has been quite refreshing. They found a property that was nestled in the escarpment below Kloof which was ideal from so many perspectives - a beautiful piece of land right between the Umbilo river and a part of the Durban Metropolitan Open Space System (D'MOSS). Part of the trade-off of developing on a slightly degraded section of this site, was to give a large portion of the property to be used as Open Space.

Grassland above Romead - the landscaping should eventually return to this
Their ethos behind the development has been quite inspiring - they have been looking for any viable opportunities to approach the project from an environmental perspective, which in these tough economic times is quite a brave stance. But altogether necessary from a long-term point of view. It's been an ethos that has come at a cost - both emotional and financial!

The design code for the development has been quite comprehensive and pioneering, and - I believe - one of the best guides for development from an architectural and landscaping perspective in Durban.

Some of the ideas that have been looked at, and in some cases, written into the design codes are solutions like rainwater harvesting, wind-turbines, creating mulch and compost from the existing vegetation on site, the use of indigenous planting and an approach that places an emphasis on the balance between aesthetics and function.

As the Business Park begins to gain momentum, I'm looking forward to seeing how it all comes together.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Beauty in Context

Landscaping in South Africa has its fair share of challenges. Not least of which is the huge disparity in lifestyles and priorities. I have created luxurious gardens in opulent neighbourhoods, while just over the hill, people are living in relative poverty. Sometimes 10 people to a shack, without the capacity for beautiful gardens. Maslow's hierarchy of needs is sometimes very obvious when living in a first-third world context.
Are Gardens Important Really?
A lady from our church who stays in one of these poorer areas (Cato Manor) recently had her house and all her belongings burnt to ashes. Fortunately she, and none of the orphans and children she cares for were hurt, but everything they owned is gone. I can't imagine what she must have felt to see all her possessions go up in smoke.
The good news is that several people have stepped in to help rebuild her house and put her back on her feet - the benefits of love and community!
Walking through the area today, I am reminded again of the imbalance that we live with on a day to day basis. Its hard to justify the need for spending money on creating gardens (or any art for that matter), when there is so much need around.

But 'imbalance' is probably a good word to use to describe the effect of financial extremes, as well as the difference between the two extremes. I believe a beautiful garden can do more to help restore the spirit, provide inspiration and aspiration, than almost any other art form. And is therefore almost as necessary as food for our bodies. People are at the heart of what we do when we create gardens, but people are multi-faceted and need more than just food.

Its within this framework that I choose to make gardens with little practical function other than food for the soul. But it is truly a careful balancing act that we need to walk, and community is at the core of what we do. The community are the clients we build them for, our staff we work with, the people we care for, and the people who find sustenance in enjoying the beauty of creation all around them.
Its in the context of community that my art finds meaning and value.
Poverty is also relative - A satellite dish in an umjondolo settlement!

Monday, 11 April 2011

Killing Your Dinner Guests, and Other Pest Control Solutions

Getting rid of pests in gardens is a tough subject. Its never easy watching bugs or other 'pests' eat their way through your beautiful garden. Especially when you've put in all that hard work, or spent all that money.
I left this little guy to eat what he wanted from my plants
But as with so many of the problems that we face in life, we resort to a knee-jerk reaction, or we respond emotionally. We don't stop to think things through properly. Sometimes it requires an unemotional look at, and a better understanding of the problem to decide what to do.
To put things in perspective, I look at pesticides (maybe we should more honestly call them naturecides because of the damage they do) in as serious a way as chemotherapy drugs. They should only be used in very serious situations, and when all other options have been examined and weighed.

Here's some questions to ask yourself before resorting to poisoning your garden with pesticides:

1. How serious is the problem?
Will the 'pest' kill the plant that it is eating, or will it just perform a natural function of cutting back, which gives space for new growth? Get some advice if you're not sure.
In most cases, its just a natural cycle, and the garden/plant will recover on its own without needing our intervention.

2. Is there a bigger problem behind this infestation?
Sometimes there are other reasons for a sudden increase in insect activity, but we end up treating the symptoms and not the cause. These reasons can be anything from a change in the plants ideal environment (too much sun, or shade), or even the over-use of chemicals in the past which has removed the pests natural predators or weakened the plant. Usually 'pests' increase when plants are weak and can't defend themselves.

3. Have I planted the right plant?
If we choose the right plant for the right place, it usually needs less attention. The right plant is usually less prone to attack from insects. Choose indigenous plants over exotics. Indigenous plants are normally more resistant to attacks.

4. Have I planted too much of the same plant?
Mono-cultures (a single type of plant spread over a wide area) are like an eat-all-you-want buffet. They're basically an invitation for insects and animals to come in take a load off, and eat to their hearts content. Most lawns are mono-cultures, and are usually the source of most problems.

5. Is this normal?
There is often a natural and harmonious balance between plant and insect that shouldn't be interfered with. Some plants actually need insects to eat them, to stay healthy. By spraying pesticides and herbicides, we're getting in the way, and could end up killing a lot more plants and animals than we intended.

6. Are you killing your dinner-guests?
This is really a follow up to the previous question. Most plants put "Open For Business" signs up in the way of fruit and flowers and juicy leaves. These attract insects for a reason, but these insects may sample other plants on their way in and out. If you plant a Butterfly Bush, it follows that you're going to see more caterpillars coming into the garden. Either get used to your visitors, or take the plant out.

7. Can I deal with them in other ways?
If at all possible, rather kill them by hand (or foot). If you're squeamish, there are plenty natural solutions out there; from beer, and grapefruit to chilli and flour. A little research usually yields a better solution (literally).

If none of these questions give you reason to resist the chemical route, then ask yourself one final question:

8. Is a little bit of chaos and mess not a good thing to have?
The need to have everything perfectly neat and tidy is sometimes a reflection of other issues that we are not dealing with, or other areas in our lives that are not under control. I believe that sometimes the challenges we face are there for us to confront the things we would rather not face.

If you still decide to go down the naturecide route, do it carefully and in a restrained way. But come back to these questions every now and then, and re-evaluate your garden as things change.

Friday, 11 February 2011

Cleaning Up The Garden

Pope Gregory XIII must have lived in Durban at some point when he invented the modern day calendar and assigned only 28 days to February. In Durban its the hottest, most humid month and thankfully there are only 28 days to get through! Unfortunately, for obvious reasons its also the busiest time of the year for us gardeners - the combination of the heat and rain means that you can almost literally watch the plants grow. Its also the time of the year when I appreciate how important good garden maintenance is to the success of any landscape project.
Sometimes a little wildness is good - a garden we did about 12 years ago reflecting off the pool
Its quite demoralizing coming back to a garden years later to find that the basic garden care hasn't been done and even in some cases finding that weeds have totally usurped the planting. Often, branches have grown out further than they should have, and the grass below has died. Regular composting has been neglected. The real value of the garden has all but been lost.

Garden Care has been on my mind a lot lately because we are in the process of turning over a new leaf in our business (please excuse the lame but apt pun).
For years, my focus has been on the landscaping aspect of our business. Creating gardens has always been my real passion and unfortunately, like a garden that's been left untended, the Garden Care aspect of the business hasn't had the attention it deserves.

For the last few months, I've been trying to revitalize the Garden Care component of our business. Like a real garden though, its been a difficult process. There have been some things we have had to prune right back, and still other areas we've had to replant entirely. I've been confronted with my limitations and insecurities - all good but painful realisations.

I have finally appointed a Manager to oversee all the maintenance functions of the business - someone who has all the skills and abilities I don't. Who'd have thought cleaning up, and letting go of the things you don't do well would be such a hard thing to do? Or maybe I'm just dense...

Its amazing though, how much better you feel when you clean things up. I'm looking forward to being more focused on the things I do well, and letting go of the things I don't. It's time to wear less hats around here. Talking of which, I better put my hat on and get back into the heat...
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