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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.

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