Monday, 9 September 2013

A Better Rainwater Harvesting Solution

I first heard about this solution about 10 years ago while trying to find a better solution to deal with the fact that we funnel all our rainwater off site one day, and then irrigate our gardens using municipal water the next day.
Arum lilies make great plants for rainwater gardens
If we are really forward thinking, we use green solutions such as water tanks, in which we try to catch as much water from our roofs as possible, store it, and then pump it out into our gardens. This really is a great solution. But I'd like to suggest an even better option.

Our soils were created to be natural water tanks. Depending on their composition, they (like sponges) have the ability to catch and hold water. They catch hundreds of thousands of litres of water, releasing it slowly over a period of time, either upward to the roots of plants, sideways into rivers, or downward into the groundwater below. Good soil is essentially a reservoir for plants to survive through periods of dryness. So why do we funnel it off into tanks, or even worse let it drain away into the stormwater system?

Normal rainwater could be funnelled into the soil where it belongs, and excess water overflows into the stormwater system.
The answer to this problem is actually an age old one, and it lies in using plants, and in shaping the soil to slow down and catch the water.

Instead of using the downpipes to carry water straight into our stormwater system or at least into tanks, the water would flow from the roof down the drainpipes and into a catchment area with plants that would naturally be found in wetlands. These plants can tolerate both waterlogged and dry conditions depending on the season. The water can then drain away naturally into the soil.

Vancouver's innovative stormwater solution
Another application is alongside large paved areas, like parking lots, driveways and roads. The water that comes off these areas usually has a mixture of oils, litter, and other pollutants that end up in our rivers and eventually the sea, creating huge long term problems. We should be creating filtration areas before the water runs into any kind of stormwater system.

This can be a beautiful way of bordering or softening hard areas like parking lots and roads, and in a water thirsty country like ours is an ideal way of conserving water in the place where it should be conserved.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

When Should I Hire a Landscaper?

I'm so glad you asked that question...actually, its really a rhetorical question, because its never too soon to involve a landscaper in a project. Of course, the reverse is also true - Its never too late to involve a landscaper, but the overall effect achieved, is diminished the later we're involved.

Having a landscaper involved from the inception can only yield beautiful results
The general mistake that is made by most people - home-owners and professionals in the associated industries included, is to bring a landscaper in as the project has really gained momentum.

But its at this point, that most of the key decisions have already been made. Money has been invested in a direction which usually means that this direction is now set in stone.

As I've mentioned before, I'm a big believer in collaboration. Architects and landscapers should be talking to each other from the start and all the way through a project.

The problem is that as long as we view the garden as an afterthought, this attitude will reflect in the final appearance of the garden. Rather than the garden being an integrated part of the whole home, it will look like something that has been tacked on.

I can't tell you how many times we could have saved our clients a huge amount of time and money. Here are some examples:
  1. Like the project where we needed to hire a crane to move pots, rocks and palms in because a wall had been built already, which could have been moved by hand at the beginning of the project.
  2. Or the time where a retaining wall had been built to hold a bank, where we could have planted Vetiver grass which would have held the bank better (and more attractively) than any concrete retaining wall.
  3. There have been several instances in projects that I have been involved in too late where an environmental solution was available for a problem, which engineers and architects could only see an (expensive) engineering solution. You'd be amazed at how many problems rocks and plants can solve.
  4. Areas of natural water seepage can be controlled more effectively with plants and appropriate landscaping.
  5. Roof gardens and green walls can save thousands in insulation, airconditioning and heating costs.
  6. A regular problem I run into, is where a retaining wall has been built but has been filled with sand and rubble instead of topsoil resulting in us having to replace the sand with topsoil by hand.
  7. Topsoil can and should be stockpiled on site, rather than having to pay thousands to transport it in at the end of a project.
  8. Retaining walls are an expensive option, natural stone found on site can be used to create dry stack walls instead (provided its done properly). There is nothing worse than a badly built dry stack wall...
There are thousands of ways that an experienced landscaper could not only save money, but help integrate the house to its surroundings in a far more meaningful way. But if we are only brought in at the end of a project, its too late.

In my next post I'll give an example of a relatively new environmental solution that is currently being solved through engineering only, and which is costing home-owners and the environment countless thousands.


Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Why Gardening Is Not Sustainable

Sustainability. What does it mean really?

Its a very broad term which at its essence describes the ability of a complex web of inter-relationships to endure. More specifically for us humans, it refers to the healthy inter-relationship between the environment, healthy society and the economy.
The beautiful spiral of Ctenium grass
Seldom has a word meant so much and yet so little at the same time. Its used as a clarion call by environmentalists and other greenies as they try to enthuse an apathetic populace. But its also peppered throughout the speech of politicians, economists and developers, as they attempt to greenwash their (often anything but sustainable) activities.

Let me put it another way - I'm not great at budgets, but even I know that its not sustainable (there's that word again) to spend more than I earn. If I do, I'll be soon be homeless, my health will suffer from the stress, and/or I'll have to take shortcuts (which will soon catch up with me) as I make my finances suit my lifestyle, and not the other way around.

Gardening (and I'm just picking on gardening here, but this applies to most if not all professions) for the last several decades has been built around the mistaken decision to decide on a lifestyle that we want, and make it happen - be damned the consequences.

So we look at the glossy magazines showing gardens that are photographed at their cornucopial prime, that in reality only look like that for maybe 2 months of the year. And we expect our garden to look like that all year round. So we plant unrealistically, we fertilize to death, we water until there is nothing left in the taps - and finally we get our perfect garden.

When is this going to change?

The problem, I think speaks to an underlying human condition called greed that sadly, is not easily remedied. But if anybody should understand the importance of living sustainably, it should be us gardeners. If anybody should be leading the way in the sustainable lifestyle, it should be we who live close to the ground. It should be those of us who see the cyclical and seasonal nature of things, and know first hand that what you sow, you will reap.

When are we going to wake up, and take stock of our lifestyle, and make the kind of fundamental changes that we absolutely have to?

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Weeds - In Their Defense

I've been reading a great book by Richard Mabey called Weeds.

 

Its a subject that I spend a lot of time thinking about, and if you've been reading my blog for any length of time, you'll know that I have strong thoughts about the proliferation of alien invasive plants.
We have a serious problem here in South Africa, with exotic, alien plants that have adapted to our conditions and are thriving and often out-competing our indigenous plants.

The feelings of peace and joy that most people derive from looking out over a seemingly natural forest valley, for me, can be a truly depressing feeling. At first glance, it may look like a serene, beautiful forest, but under the surface, there is a serious battle going on for space, food, and water...with lives being lost on a daily basis.

Montanoa - A pretty alien that frequents forest edges
That all sounds overly dramatic, and maybe it is...just a touch, but the reality is that even with our internationally renowned programmes like Working For Water, the reality is that these aliens are taking over.

If you consider that nearly 10% of the surface of our country is covered by alien plants, and every season, each one of these plants are producing hundreds of thousands of seeds, you begin to realise the magnitude of the problem facing our country and our natural vegetation. And all this is aside from their obvious threat to our own existence with the potential looming water shortages brought on in large part by these decidedly thirsty denizens.

Having said all of that, its been a refreshing read going through his book and looking at these 'evil' plants through different eyes. Even his attempts to provide a definition of what a weed is, sheds a different light on these tormentors and the symbiotic roles we have in each others stories.

I found the irony to some of his stories both tragicomic and terrifying. The story of the way in which Cogon grass has infiltrated the Southern States of the USA after its indiscriminate use of Agent Orange in the jungles of Vietnam is particularly stinging.

If you have a moment, you should definitely get hold of a copy - its well worth the read.

I've also begun a series on instagram - #invasiveplantsa - in which I've begun highlighting some of the more dangerous yet beautiful aliens. My hope is that by making them more visible, we would all be able to recognise them and do something serious about them.

You can also check out a previous post about the top 6 aliens and what to do about them.

Follow me on instagram...

Monday, 29 April 2013

Beauty and the Brithys

There is always a price to pay for beauty...

If your name is Lily, or Aggie, or you go by the name of Amaryllis, or even Clivia, you'll know what I'm taking about. You may not have many enemies, but one of your worst foes is the beautiful-sounding Lily Borer...AKA Crinum borer, Brithys pancratii, or Amaryllis Caterpillar.

I've just finished a garden a few months ago, and having planted several types of rare bulbs, I was keen to see how they were doing. After visiting recently I was upset to find that this voracious little caterpillar was wreaking havoc on several different species of plants in the garden.
Eggs of Brithys pancratii
The moth lays its eggs, usually in clusters on the underside of the leaves.

This is why its sometimes called the Lily Borer
The larvae hatch, and bore into the soft fleshy leaves, often munching their way all the way down into the bulb.
The markings warn any potential predators that it is poisonous
I'm usually a firm believer in letting nature take its course, but sometimes something has to be done. Especially when the life of the plant is at stake.

The caterpillars usually recur regularly throughout the warmer months and less often in winter.  A pyrethroid-based insecticide sprayed onto the caterpillars usually does the trick in killing them - but it necessitates early spotting.

If I don't catch them early enough on plants like agapanthus, I will often take the drastic step of cutting back and destroying the leaves to prevent them from boring into the heart of the plant.

Monday, 8 April 2013

How To Transplant An Established Tree

I recently had a client email me asking for advice about how to move a relatively established tree. In moving any plant, there is always a risk that the plant won't survive. So of course, the best advice is to plan ahead, before you plant.
Flowers of the beautiful Halleria lucida tree

Do some research. Find out how big, how wide, how messy, and how deep the roots will grow when fully grown. The ideal is that you would never have to move a tree once it's planted...BUT that's not always possible - circumstances change, and it's not always possible to predict the future with any kind certainty.

Moving plants is always a matter of minimising risk - there are no foolproof ways of doing it. And every situation, species, and tree are different...sometimes, I think there is even an element of intuition involved.

But there are some things that you can do to reduce the risk of losing a plant that has been transplanted. Here is my reply to her, giving advice about how to move a particularly delicate tree:
  1. Dig the root ball out as deep as possible, and then slightly deeper still (basically a trench all around the tree - leaving as much soil around the roots as is possible that you can still physically move),
  2. Trim off about a third of the leaves.
  3. Leave the plant in place for about 2 weeks to let it get used to having less roots, but all the time giving the roots a little bit of extra water on the root ball as compensation.
  4. In about 2 weeks time, get your hole ready, measured and dug,
  5. Water the plant and the new location thoroughly.
  6. Trim off at least half the remaining leaves,
  7. Move the plant as quickly and carefully as possible keeping as much soil around the roots as possible.
  8. Try to position it in the same orientation that it was in its previous position.
  9. Firm the soil down around the roots and try to wash soil down into any gaps that may have inadvertently formed, (I'm not a big fan of using fertilizers when planting unless your soil is terrible, but even then I would rather use copious compost instead)
  10. And then leave it for a week or two...it doesn't have much in the way of roots so don't over water.
  11. Then wait - it may lose a few more leaves, or even a branch - losing leaves is not a big deal, but keep an eye on the stem. If you notice any rot, then you can trim off the dying branch/trunk and paint the cut section with a tree sealant.
  12. Then wait some more...sometimes I have given up hope on plants that look dead for a year or two, and then suddenly they come back...
Generally speaking, the smaller the tree the easier it will be to move. Also, if it was originally planted from a bag as opposed to self seeded, it will transplant easier. I've also found that trees transplant a lot easier in Autumn.

Weigh up the costs of losing a tree as opposed to keeping it in a place where it's not ideal - Is it really worth it?

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Gardening On A Vertical

Plants love a good challenge... I admire the way they seem to survive thrive in the most death defying situations. You find plants growing in such diverse conditions - from Polar Bear hangouts right through to Desert furnaces. I've seen plants surviving on nothing but air, just clinging to rock faces. In the plethora of conditions that our amazing planet seems to dish out, plants seem to love to rise to any challenge.

Terramesh Wall Halfway Up
Cities pose their fair share of challenges to plants. Green Walls and Vertical Gardens have become 'the new thing' as people try to invite nature back into our inhospitable cities. They are an elegant solution to the stark walls and inert atmosphere of the places that we humans seem to flock to.

Several years ago, I built a green wall on a south-east facing, windswept balcony. Its been interesting to watch the evolutionary growth of the green wall, and I've used it as a proving ground for different plants to see which of them were best suited to this type of environment.
Some plants - particularly ferns seem to reproduce to the point of trying to suffocate everything else. Others, like a small aloe, and several different types of orchids have grown quietly and unassumingly before bursting into surprising flower. You can watch a video of how I built it here.

Green Terramesh being installed
An ongoing project (Romead Business Park) that we have been working on for quite some time, has posed several challenging situations which I hope to elaborate on in the future. One of the challenges, was the lack of space at the main entrance to the Park. We had some large banks that were held in place by a beautifully designed concrete curved wall. But the wall could only be so big before it would start compromising the design of the main entrance.

The final solution was to use a product called Terramesh from Maccaferri. This is woven wire mesh which is back filled and compacted with soil. Plants are then planted into the face, which in time forms a dense groundcover, and should prevent any long term erosion.

Just after planting
We planted up the wall, using a succulent called Crassula multicava. Its a plant with a happy disposition - content to grow on a South facing wall (no sun), and it seeds itself quite readily, and will even survive dry periods and still look very good. It has a pretty pink flower all through the year.
Before
After

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Roof Garden That Wasn't - 6 Months Later

What is it about human beings that we always expect the worst? There is always a feeling of apprehension when finishing a garden. The apprehension accompanies a few nagging questions... Will the clients like it? Will the design work? Will the plants do what I'm expecting? What if this...what if that...

So it was a huge relief going back months later to a garden to find a happy client, and a garden that has far exceeded my expectations. It was a garden with a few challenges. The biggest challenge being a huge concrete slab that covered at least half of the planting area.  The soil depth was at the most about 10cm. It was not at all an ideal place to plant.

I quickly popped in before going on leave and took a few pictures, but will go back in the next few weeks to get some more.

Lawn Area with flowering Plectranthus on the right
The concrete area is on the left (where the gravel path begins)
The view back towards the house
There is a fair bit of pruning and weeding that needs to be done to get everything back into shape after a very warm and wet summer, and the real test of the garden will be how it looks at the end of winter. But judging by the way things are looking now, those nagging doubts are gone.
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