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Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Wild Grass Identification Course

If you've been reading this blog for any length of time, you'll know that I'm passionate about indigenous grasses, and I usually look for any opportunity to use them in the gardens I landscape.

If you have a similar fascination for this beautiful, incredibly diverse group of plants, or you want to know more about one of the most threatened plant-types on the planet, or maybe you just love the way they look as they sway in the wind, then you should definitely sign up for a course on identifying wild grasses in Southern Africa.

Wild-grass expert Fritz van Oudtshoorn - the author of the Guide to Grasses of Southern Africa (an easy to use, essential field-guide to identifying grasses) runs courses throughout the country. I was talking to him this morning about the possibility of running a grass identification course here in Durban, and he was quite keen provided there were enough people to attend the course.

If you are interested in grasses, and would like to know more about how to identify them, please email me ASAP to let me know whether you would be keen. The price of the course would be R650 per person and would probably include lunch. The course would probably be around the end of January or beginning of February 2011.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Recycling Your Bulbs

No free give-away of plant bulbs here I'm afraid...but if you're looking for a safe and convenient place to get rid of batteries and light-bulbs, this is the place...
I've been looking for a place to get rid of fluorescent tubes and batteries for a while now - it's amazing how hard it is to do things in an environmentally responsible way in South Africa!

Waste Recycling Unit outside Builders Trade Depot
So I was pleasantly surprised to see this little waste disposal unit for recycling outside the Builders Trade Depot off Umgeni Road in Durban.
If you know of any other places to recycle the rubbish that shouldn't be dumped in a municipal dump, feel free to leave a comment.

edit: Check out this post on The Art of Engineering about the problem of eWaste in SA.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Limestone Fynbos

I was recently contacted by the Duiwenhoks Conservancy to spread the word about a book that they have put together about South Africa's quite unusual Limestone Fynbos.

Limestone Fynbos is an intriguing flora that occurs on South Africa's southern coast, wherever there are limestone hills or cliffs. Most of the plants occur in a broad sweep from Gansbaai to the Gouritz River, including pockets at Cape Point and Macassar. This flora can be divided into three natural units, Agulhas Limestone, De Hope Limestone and Canca Limestone.

Limestone Fynbos of the Vermaaklikheid Area
Limestone Fynbos is floristically very different from other vegetation. The reason for this is that these plants thrive on a soil type that would be toxic to most fynbos plants, which are normally found on acidic or neutral soils.  They grow on limestone soils, which are so alkaline that if you squeeze lemon juice on them they will fizz. It is this alkalinity in the soil that is toxic to most fynbos plants. In a remarkable adaptation to a hostile soil environment, Limestone Fynbos has evolved as a unique flora that shares only a few species in common with sandstone fynbos and sand fynbos. As one would expect from a flora that is confined to such specific soils, many plants are endemic, meaning that they grow only on such soils or even at only one locality.

At first glance, this little-known flora appears as dry woody scrub. On closer inspection a fascinating array of intriguing and sometimes tiny flowers emerge. Over the past ten years, the author Louisa Oberholzer began collecting, describing and photographing the plants in the Vermaaklikheid area of the Western Cape ( Near Stillbaai). The Duiwenhoks Conservancy provided financial support for the identification of the species and finally for the publication of the book, Limestone Fynbos of the Vermaaklikheid Area. It presents a photographic record and description of 124 species. Of particular interest are the intriguing Fabaceae, or pea-like flowers and the pungent buchus, which belong to the Rutacea or citrus family.

The book is priced at R130.00 available from the Duiwenhoks Conservancy, ( and also from the author, (

This book is an important vehicle to inform the public and particularly landowners about the value of Limestone Fynbos and the importance of controlling alien vegetation, which is a major threat to all the fynbos plant communities. As people see its value, this little known vegetation type will hopefully be better protected.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Behind The Scenes - Minimalist, Stone Garden

I've been planning a garden over the last couple of months that has made me quite excited. The house itself is quite contemporary, and in a great setting. Its flanked on one side by 2 magnificent, verdant green fig trees, and on the other side by amazing views over Beechwood Golf Course and out to sea. Its quite close to the existing house next door, which makes for an interesting challenge in trying to soften the views from both sides whilst not creating too much shade.
The owner and the architect had some great ideas, which gave quite strong direction as to what the garden should eventually look like. They wanted to create an almost minimalist, oriental feel with rock and grasses. After several concepts, we settled on a simple approach to the design, which would would require some very large rocks, which would in turn compliment the natural stone that has been used as a strong design element in the house.

Our first step was to remove the alien vegetation on site, which would also open up the views from the house. This would also create more space for the main rock garden area.
The almost blank canvas...
Using the initial concept sketches, I finalised the design, and worked out the position and rough size of the rocks that we would need for the space.

To get a better feel for the size of the rocks, I drew the site on Sketchup, and moved the rocks around to find the best position, shape and size. I wanted to also plan the position of the rocks around the possibility of adding some decking into the design at a later stage.

Sketchup drawing of the area showing the volume of the rocks
The drawings and sketches are more of a guideline to use when the choosing the rocks, because its quite easy to be overwhelmed by the size of the rocks when you're looking at them by themselves in a quarry.
Shorty stands in front of Rock No.9
The tendency is to choose smaller rocks when you're looking at the rocks by themselves. I went into the quarry armed with my sketches showing the shapes and measurements of the rocks that I wanted. I took photographs, and numbered each rock according to the position it was going to fill.

Even with all the preparation there are always a few slight hiccups. Unfortunately this job was no exception. The crane company I had hired to move the rocks got cold feet the day before the rocks were due to arrive. They were nervous because there was no way that we could know (and plan for) the weight of the rocks until they had been weighed on the weigh-bridge and were on their way to site. I had been given figures of anything from 1-7 tonnes per rock. Fortunately, after several anxious hours of phone calls, I managed to get a rigging company - Lovemore Brothers, to step in at the last minute (for a considerably higher fee), to handle the process of moving the rocks from the truck into position.

True to their word, the 55 tonne crane arrived at 7h30 the next morning. After several days of rain I knew that we had a window period of a few hours of good weather, so I began to grow quite anxious when I was told that the rocks were delayed by a broken down truck.

Eventually, at 14h30 the first load arrived, just as the clouds began to roll in. We worked quickly knowing that a storm was approaching, and that we had only a few more hours of light to get the remaining 16 tonnes of stone onto site. We finished the first load as the lightning began to strike around us. (An especially worrying thing when you have a 30-40m lightning-conductor sticking out above everything around it.) The very cold rain began soon after, which was just the precursor to the large hailstones that followed. It seemed like everything that could make our work harder, was going to happen. Fortunately, as is the norm with storms like that in Durban, it didn't last long.

3 long hours later, the second load arrived - just 25 minutes before the cut-off time that Devan (the very capable rigger in charge) had put in place.
With the light fading, and the dangerous prospect of positioning 3 tonne rocks in place in the dark, looming quickly, we tried to work fast. But before we knew it, the light was gone, and we were literally positioning rocks by lamplight.

That's the last rock being lit up with a light in the top left corner
 Next week, I'll do a follow up, showing the completed garden, with the rocks and plants all in place.

Friday, 15 October 2010

The Elephant in the Living Room

I must admit I'm not a fan of politicians. In my somewhat limited experience "Politician" is just another word for "Self-promotion". Its in my thesaurus as a synonym for narcissism, egotism and hegemony. And I'm afraid to say, my already jaundiced view of politics just took a turn for the worse.
1 of the 3 Elephant Sculpture due to be torn down for political reasons
A couple of years ago, the City of Durban embarked on a R500-million upgrade of the Warwick Avenue Interchange. Its an incredibly busy junction at the entrance to the city, with a confluence of highways, taxi routes, and pedestrians from the local markets and bus ranks. Its already become a bit of a political hot potato, with various self-interest groups jockeying for position by using the market situated in the middle as a pawn.

In 2009, an internationally acclaimed local sculptor Andries Botha, was commissioned to create a sculpture of 3 elephants at the entrance to the Warwick Junction, at a cost of R1.5-million to the tax-payer.

Work seemed to be progressing quite well, and looked to be on track to be completed in time for the start of the 2010 Football World Cup here in South Africa. The sculpture was shaping up to be quite an impressive site as you drive into the city.  That was up until an ANC (African National Congress) government official decided that the elephant, being a symbol of the opposition IFP (Inkatha Freedom Party) was not a suitable symbol to use. Work was stopped, and the sculpture now seems to be scheduled to be destroyed.
A view of the 3 Elephant Sculpture at the entrance to Durban
 The R1.5-million will no doubt still have to be paid, because the contract with the artist still stands. But what would have been a grand site at the entrance to the city will be reduced to rubble. All for the sake of insecure, egotistical politicians with an eye on their own self-interest, at the (literal) expense of the people that elected them.

You can sign the petition here to stop this violation of the freedom of expression.

When will the elephant in the living room stop being ignored (in this case - politicians that have their own selfish, corrupt interests at heart) and this piece of artwork be allowed to be completed.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Why is my grass full of weeds and so patchy?

This has to be one of the most common questions I get asked. I've seen it drive people to all kinds of vices (well not exactly). But I have noticed that in striving for picture perfect lawns people can get quite frustrated as they struggle with weeds taking over the lawn, or patches forming as their lawn becomes sparse.

The answer is usually very simple to diagnose.
Choose a grass that is happy to grow in the shade
Plants are just like us humans. We need the right food, water, rest, space and a pollution-free environment if we want stay healthy. The lack of any of those, causes stress, which makes us prone to disease. And just like diagnosing us humans, if you work out which one or more of those are causing the stress, you've most likely solved the problem.

Follow these steps to isolate the problem:
  1. Water - The most common source of stress on lawns is either too little or too much water. The amount your grass needs depends on many factors. Temperature, wind, soil-type, season all affect the amount of water that your grass consumes. Often the type of weed that's imposing itself on your grass will tell you whether you're giving too much, or too little water. The presence of moss or algae on the soil is a good indicator that there is too much moisture around (they often signal poor drainage). Make sure your irrigation system is correctly adjusted for the seasons. Sandy soils drain very quickly causing the grass to dry out easily. Clay soils become waterlogged, and cause several problems as a result.
  2. Food - Plants have 2 main ways of getting their food - nutrients via the soil, and sugars via sunlight. Lawns almost always love as much sun as they can get. If your lawn is sparse or patchy in the shady areas but looks good in the sunny spots, its most likely due to a lack of light. Thin out the canopy of any trees around the trouble spots by removing some of the branches. Pruning trees right back is almost always the last resort, because they will quite likely grow back thicker than before.
    If light isn't a problem, then you may have a lack of nutrients in your soil. You can get your soil tested quite inexpensively - this will tell you what nutrients are missing and how best to treat your lawn. Generally though, feeding your soil with compost will do wonders for your grass. Compost usually has all the micro- and macro-nutrients your soil needs and will improve the soil over time. Feeding your grass with chemical fertilizers is like feeding your kids nothing but vitamins. It might seem like the same thing as real food, but in the long-term they will have health problems. Organic fertilizers or compost are always best.
  3. Space - Grass needs room to grow - both down and across. If you've had builders on site, make sure they haven't dug a hole in your garden, and buried their rubble, leaving just a shallow layer of soil for your grass to grow in. It sounds ridiculous, but I can't tell you how often I see this done.
    Other short-cuts can also be the problem - if paving or pathways or concrete is too hard to remove, sometimes soil is just used as a cover, and grass is grown over the top. You can usually see the signs during times of drought - a light green weedy patch usually forms over these areas. Thatch (a layer of grass clippings that forms a layer above the soil) can be a problem from time to time, especially if you don't use a grass box when cutting. Diseases and mould can form in this layer, which negatively affects the lawn. Clean out any dead grass cuttings once a year by cutting the grass very short and raking the clippings out.
  4. Rest - If your grass gets a lot of traffic, and it doesn't get enough time to recover properly, bare patches will begin to form. Often, pathways form along the most used areas. Consider formalizing a pathway in these areas, or changing to another type of soil covering i.e. hardy ground-cover, gravel or paving.
  5. Pollution - This can be almost anything that creates a toxic environment for the plants. The most usual suspects are animal urine, soapy water, cement, swimming pool water, fuel or oil from lawnmowers, paint, chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. If the soil is particularly poisonous, the only route that may be left is to remove the soil and bring in new soil. Often though, water can help leach the offending substance out of the soil. Unfortunately, this only results in the toxins being washed into the groundwater. This may not be a problem with animal urine and some substances that break down easily, but for the most part these substances are causing huge long-term health and environmental problems.
Usually by eliminating one or more of the above factors will dramatically improve the health of your lawn.

Sometimes though, if you are really battling with growing lawn in an area, giving up is actually the best solution of all. As beautiful as a virid green lawn can be, its an addiction that we gardeners have become a slave to - there are very few environmental benefits to a perfect monoculture lawn. Work with nature and plant a mixture of low growing groundcovers instead. Or better still, plant a meadow with wild grasses and flowers.
Like any addiction, only once you stop do you fully appreciate the bountiful benefits.

If you have any questions that I haven't answered about your troublesome lawn, feel free to leave a comment?

Monday, 4 October 2010

Seven Hats That The Best Landscape Designers Wear

If you came looking for fashionable garden clothing tips, I'm afraid I may have misled you slightly. Maybe that'll be a post for another day - although I doubt that anyone would want to take my fashion advice.
It struck me the other day as I drove past an (expletives deleted) attempt at creating a garden by a "landscaping company", that a good landscape designer must wear many hats when planning a beautiful and functional garden.
A sheet of water begins the rill in a formal garden
A good landscape designer needs to have at least a part-time interest and respectable understanding of many fields and professions, and is at least one reason why I'll feel like I'm a student till the day I die. These are some of the professions that landscape designers should understand:
  • Architect - you should have at least a basic understanding of architecture. The buildings are typically the most dominant aspects of a site and are usually the media through which people relate to the environment. It follows that for a garden to be harmonious with the buildings you should have a basic understanding of architecture.
  • Botanist/Horticulturist - this is an obvious and essential aspect of the profession. But not only should you know the common and latin names of 1000's of plants that are suited to your region, but you should at least have a good knowledge of their individual characteristics (to the point of knowing how their characteristics differ depending on their environment).
  • Business-person - this was the least emphasised aspect during my studies, and the area I've since felt the most out of my depth. A healthy business means you can focus on being creative. A lack of good business sense probably accounts for the biggest reason why so few of my colleagues are still in the industry.
  • Marketer/Communicator - it isn't good enough just being good at making beautiful gardens. If you can't market yourself well, it makes your job so much harder. Once you have a prospective client, you have to be able to communicate your vision clearly, either visually or verbally. Add to this the need to use on and offline business networks and web 2.0/social media.
  • Psychologist - Our clients are almost entirely people. (Tell that to the hare I spotted munching on a client's Wild Iris) We need to understand people, what moves them, motivates them and stirs them. Creating something for our own tastes and preferences will leave your clients short changed.
  • Scientist - to create sustainable gardens, a passable knowledge of what is happening on a chemical level is definitely an asset. Knowing the effects and inter-relationships between soil, water, minerals, light, flora and fauna can't be overlooked.
Those are some of the many hats worn by the best landscape designers. Not all of the above are absolutely essential, because specialists can help take up the slack in those areas where we're weak. But these should be the basic traits of a landscape designer to be able to create truly beautiful gardens. This final skill on the list is the most important:
  • Designer - I think an intuitive design sense is the most important skill of a landscape designer. You could probably scrape by with little understanding of any of the previous professions, but if you lack in this area, you should pack your pencil and shovel away. There are several principles of design that can be learnt, but they need to built on a foundation of intuitive design. I'll be following this post up in the next few weeks with an outline of some of the less understood principles of design. Even though they may be the least understood, I believe they are the tools every good designer should understand and employ.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

How To Build A Green Wall

I decided last year that I needed to green up our balcony. Space is a premium, so the only place left to plant is on the walls. My plan was to build a Green Wall on our south facing wall.
Photo from Eco-friendly Promos
I had the idea when I saw all the water that was being generated by our air-conditioner just going to waste. I was using some of it to water our plants around our apartment and on our balcony, but I thought there must be another way I could use it. A green wall seemed like the ideal way of planting in a confined space, and using the waste water from our air-conditioner.

After quite a bit of research, I found the simplest method was pioneered by a French botanist by the name of Patrick Blanc.  He calls it Le Mur Vegetal, and its really quite a simple solution. He has built several Vertical Gardens throughout the world, and a few people have adapted his method to create their own. Before I began, I sat down and planned in detail on Sketchup how to build it. If you're interested in building your own one, this is a short video I made to show the steps involved in making your own green wall.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Indigenous Beauties : Kleinia fulgens

If you're looking for a small plant that makes a big difference, then the coral senecio is it. Its a hardy plant, ideal for a rockery, amongst grasses or planted alongside aloes. Its a plant to rival David Blaine - the endurance artist and illusionist. Its incredibly tough - plants can be left out of the ground for weeks, and when replanted, carry on as if nothing ever happened.
Kleinia fulgens peaking out of Aloe vanbalenii's legs
Added to its supernatural abilities the fact that it is a perfect combination of silvery-blue foliage and bright red thistle-like flowers, you know it will stand out in any garden or container.
Kleinia Fulgens in flower
The resilient succulent grows to about 500-600mm, and loves a hot dry spot in the garden. It flowers best when its been well fed and watered in summer and then left dormant in winter. The lipstick-red flowers look amazing flowering alongside Aloes in winter.

The name Kleinia comes from the German zoologist - Dr Klein, who first documented the plant, but klein also happens to be the Afrikaans word for small. Fulgens is the latin word for glittering. 'Little Glittering' is a perfect summary of this amazing plant.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

If It Aint Broke, Don't Landscape It...

Lately I have been aware of how landscaping a home garden entails a very careful balancing act between imposing your own ideas, and doing what the client wants. All the while making sure that the garden suits the environment.

Alstroemeria in the Baynesfield Gardens
I have been working on a garden for a very sweet elderly lady, and it has truly been a pleasure adding a fresh touch to her garden. The garden itself is well established, albeit in a style that is a little outdated (I hesitate to use that word because I believe if a garden is well designed it should never really become outdated) and also relatively thirsty.

Normally in a situation like this, I would try to steer the client towards making some quite significant changes. But in this case, having weighed up the clients tastes and preferences, I didn't believe that much change was required at all.

She already loves her garden.  Thats exactly what I strive to achieve when I create a garden. So, why fix what isn't broken?

Monday, 26 July 2010

Behind The Scenes - Coastal Dune Garden - Follow Up

I mentioned in a previous post on a Coastal Dune Garden we completed, that I would follow it up with some photos, so here they are:

This is where we started - no level area. Trees screened the house in front, but also blocked the view.

Berms now hide the house below, and give additional height for the plants to grow on. The area, now level, provides ample room and gives a feeling of space and openness.

Aloe vanbalenii, is one of my favourite aloes. The amazing changes in colour of its leaf from apple green to burnt red is only just surpassed by its spectacular flowers. When they're grouped together they look their best. I used mainly succulents on the front of the 'dunes' because of their neat look, and easy maintenance. They handle the wind and poor soil normally associated with beachfront properties.

Behind the dunes, I planted swathes of grass, to create a soft backdrop to the 'harder' looking succulents. I also wanted the grass to create movement, almost like water washing against the beach.

I interspersed the grass with Eucomus, Gladiolus, and Watsonia which will create little spots of colour in amongst the predominantly Melinis nerviglumis grass. Watsonia is quite rare, and on the endangered list, so I try and use it wherever I can, and as close to its natural habitat as possible.

Behind the grass, I planted Plumbago, and a pocket of Leonotus leonurus, which the vervet monkeys are apparently loving. Sunbirds are also a common visitor to the spires of nectar-filled orange flowers, which remind me of little miniature fireworks.

Round-leafed Kalanchoe thyrsiflora is nestled in between the large rocks that we placed close to the top of the dunes. We really sweated while trying to manouvre these massive stones down to the lower garden without damaging them, ourselves or anything else.
Although rocks are seldom found on actual dunes, they do create an immediate sense of permanence to the garden, that the plants will eventually grow into.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

The Best Way To Landscape Your Website

You may have noticed that I haven't been posting a whole bunch lately? That old idiom has been coming to mind quite a bit recently "Make hay while the sun shines". Its a great piece of advice, especially for us procrastinators, who might rather be blogging than tackling any tough tasks.

Another task that I have been tackling in the last few weeks, has been the pruning and replanting of my landscape website. Its been a project that I have been working on bit by bit for the last year or so, but I felt that it was time to make a concerted effort to finish it.

As I've gotten it closer to where I want it, I've realised how similar creating a website is to landscaping a garden:
  1. Its essential to have a plan of what you want the finished garden/website to look like.
  2. Before you start figure out who will be experiencing the website/landscape.
  3. Use the best tools you can afford.
  4. Its important to have a theme that brings everything together. In a garden, you could have more than one theme depending on the size of the garden, but if you do, it could leave the visitor confused.
  5. Figure out the structure first, and build onto and around that.
  6. Simpler is often better.
  7. Don't make the landscape/site too busy or distracting, it leaves you feeling unsettled and less likely to enjoy the experience.
  8. Repetition of certain elements throughout the site/garden is important to give the eye some familiarity
  9. When its looking messy, and you're feeling a little overwhelmed, don't give up. Its usually just on the other side that you'll start to see the end in sight.
  10. Look at your use of colours carefully - complimentary colours are really restful and harmonious, contrasting colours are bold and exciting.
  11. Make sure you do as much research as possible before you start, and if you're unsure of any code/application/plant, do some more research.
  12. Experimenting is how you learn. Place the plant/code in your website, and see how it looks. If it doesn't look right, be ruthless and pull it out - it'll get harder to do when you build other plants/code around it. If you feel bad about pulling it out, you can always give it to a friend - a gift of 'html code' is always welcome. (ok, maybe I'm pushing the similarities too far there.)
  13. Ask experts for advice (if you can afford it - hire a professional to do it for you), and get feedback from friends, but trust your instincts too.
  14. Have fun doing it, but don't let it consume you - everybody needs a hobby, no-one needs an obsession.
I'm currently at number 13. I would love some feedback about the website. Feel free to be as critical/honest as you want. Personally, I think its the best landscape website I've ever seen - but hey, I might be biased ;-)

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

The Importance of Beauty - A View on the 2010 World Cup

Its been hard to ignore the fact that there's a World Cup happening in our backyard at the moment. Its been something we've been building (literally and emotionally) towards for the last several years, with equal doses of pessimism and excitement. I'm looking forward to seeing the long-term benefits to our economy and nation, as the rest of the world has a chance to see what a truly amazing place South Africa is. The truth is, once you've lived here, its hard to be happy anywhere else.

Flag Wrapped Tree outside the Africa Art Centre on Florida Road
Huge amounts of money have been spent on things like building brand new stadiums, fixing infrastructure that wasn't too bad before, and tidying beaches, parks and other public places. None of which would and should probably be a high priority in a country, where there is such an extreme between rich and poor. Where the AIDS epidemic has effected almost everyone to some degree, and where many essentials are spoken of as priorities, but are in actuality, neglected.

But honestly, I'm not sure that I'm unhappy that money has been spent on these "superficial" things. You can't deny the effect that this World Cup has had on uniting a nation obsessed with pointing at our differences, rather than celebrating what makes us unique.

Natal Mahogany wrapped with South African Flag for the World Cup
The money that has been spent on revamping our Durban beachfront, or creating parks where there were empty lots before, or planting trees to beautify the neighbourhoods, would never have been spent on these 'less important' things. Sadly, creating beauty is seen as unimportant in our needy world.

But beauty is what inspires us, its what takes our minds off of the mundane. Beauty affects our emotions, and perceptions. It changes the way we feel about ourselves. I'm not advocating choosing something pretty over buying food to eat. But if we're not looking, we might miss the fact that the beautiful doesn't always have to be sacrificed to the practical.

Wrapped Trees lining the streets of Durban for 2010
Very often, beauty doesn't have to even be costly. Sometimes, it just needs a different perspective, new eyes, or the desire to appreciate.

Friday, 18 June 2010

Thinning Plants or Thieving Plants?

A common mal-practice amongst landscapers here in South Africa, and particularly the larger companies that provide landscaping or maintenance services on a large scale, is the theft of plants.
Aloes in flower, planted with Strelitzia back-drop
Its an accepted fact that when a bed becomes overcrowded, it becomes necessary to thin those plants out, and then replant them elsewhere. Often, they are just replanted elsewhere in the garden, and sometimes they are even sold on to other clients. Both of which I believe are acceptable solutions.

The lines become blurred, however, when there is no real need for thinning. The landscaping company is just looking for free plants that they can then sell on to another client.

I saw a particularly bad case of this recently, in the turning circle of an office park in La Lucia. The bed was planted with a swathe of Strelitzia reginae (Bird of Paradise Flower), which had begun to mature over the last couple of years, and was creating a perfect backdrop to the Aloes planted in front. When I drove past the other day, all the Strelitzia had been removed and replaced with Anthericum - a favourite amongst generic landscapers because they are fast growing, and cheap. The value of the Strelitzia when sold on, would have been in the tens of thousands.

Normally, I would be happy that wild grasses are being used in the landscape - they are a great source of food for birds, and are very under-appreciated. But in this case - I'm fairly certain that the client had no idea what had just happened. The grass will never create the same effect that the Strelitzia had - and I believe the garden is aesthetically poorer for it. Not to mention the fact that I have spotted a troop of mongooses using the Strelitzia as a place to hide.

The sad thing is, the client may never even notice the difference, and probably for this very reason, crimes like this continue to be committed by unscrupulous "landscapers". The unfortunate result of this type of action is that it calls into question everything done by the landscaper, and erodes the trust required to design and maintain a garden.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Planning a Beachfront Getaway

Its been a busy month, with so much happening. Trying to finish up work within deadlines is always tough, but its made a little easier when one of the deadlines is a holiday.

A friend asked for some advice in landscaping the beachfront holiday home he's decorating. In return, he offered the place for us to take a holiday at. I think we delayed it 3 times before eventually taking the gap, and having a break.

It was set behind some coastal forest on the KZN North Coast, and was quite idyllic. I always find it hard to switch off when on holiday - I'm always thinking about the gardens I'm planning, and the things I haven't managed to get to yet. But in such a peaceful place, with the sound of the waves in the background, it was a whole lot easier.

In sitting down to plan the garden, I decided to take photos of the whole process and put it into a video. So here it is (with a special guest appearance while I stepped out of the room):

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

5 Easy Steps To Growing The Best Hedge

The other day, as we walked through her garden, a client asked me how get her newly-planted hedge nice and thick. I realised that this is one of those questions that are too seldom asked, and some of the answers are actually counter intuitive. Here are 5 easy steps to choosing and growing a great hedge:

A mature Duranta hedge with large gaps underneath - too late to fix easily
  1. Feed me. The first step as always, is to make sure that your soil is healthy. If in any doubt, add plenty of rich organic compost. Don't skimp on this part (actually that's number 3's point).
  2. Choose the right plant. Ask your local nursery for advice, or better still hire a garden coach who can give you a more complete picture after having looked at your garden. Do research. Look at the suggestions given in books, and look at what plants are making great hedges in your area.
  3. Don't skimp. That's good advice when addressing any soil problems, as well as working out how many plants you're going to need. Trust the experts advice about how close to plant. Too close, and the plants are competing for space in the soil, too far apart and you'll have a very sparse hedge with a lot of gaps.
  4. A pruning lapse leaves bigger gaps. Don't be fooled into leaving your hedge to grow to the height you want it before cutting it back. Start pruning it back in the first month or two, and repeat a light pruning every few months during the growing season. It may take longer to reach the height you're wanting, but with regular pruning, the plants send out more lateral branches, and will fill the gaps in-between much better. The last thing you want is to have a fully grown hedge with big gaps at the bottom, that you can do nothing about.
  5. Feed regularly. Add compost at least once a year, and mulch to retain moisture especially during dry months.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Nothing is Certain, but Death of Plants, and Taxes

Taxes. A swear word in most people's vocabulary.

Nobody likes paying them, but we all enjoy the benefits of public libraries, smooth roads and waste removal.

I had an epiphany the other day - that having a beautiful garden requires the same investment as paying taxes. You only notice the problem, when its too late, and the infrastructure isn't there.

The insight came to me when I visited a garden recently, where I had been called in to consult (a few years ago), during the preparation stage of this garden.

At the time, my client was more concerned with the final product than with what went into getting it there (and trying to get there as economically as possible).

They rashly ignored my insistence that they pay more attention to the preparation of the soil. I suggested that they should almost spend a larger portion of their budget on remedial work for the soil, than on the plants. It fell on deaf ears - or perhaps I didn't articulate it well enough.

Either way, two years later, the result is a problem that is far more difficult to address. The plants are pale and sparse, and the grass is patchy and full of weeds.

My suggestion if you're still in the early stages - pay your garden taxes now. You'll reap the rewards later (literally). If your soil is in overdraft, its not too late to start making regular payments now.
Start by topdressing your lawn with a thin layer of good, rich compost, add copious amounts of compost to flower beds, and mulch wherever possible. It may take a while, but the fruit will be so much richer.

Monday, 29 March 2010

Indigenous Beauties : Helichrysum umbraculigerum

On a recent trip to Vernon Crookes Nature Reserve (which is beautiful at any time of year), I had a chance to take some photo's of this beautiful Helichrysum. Its not a very common garden plant, which is hard to understand when you see the large yellow flowers that rise up above the veld. I really had to fight hard to resist the urge to take some cuttings!

Helichrysum umbraculigerum

Actually, as with many Helichrysum, the 'flower' is actually an umbel. This is basically a collection of tiny flowers that all rise from the same point on a stalk, and form a flattish top - think umbrella. They remind me of little landing pads for insects flying over the grass in search of food.

Its a fast-growing perennial with hairy grey-green leaves. It flowers towards the end of Summer, as most other flowers are starting to go to seed. It reaches about a metre in height, and spreads out about 1 metre wide.

It looks spectacular when planted in large groups.

It generally prefers sun or light shade, rich well-draining soil in summer rainfall areas.
The umbels make excellent long-lasting cut flowers.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Black Mambas, Ticks and Other Tenants

In this business, you get to meet all kinds of people. You get to see them at their best and their worst. This last week, I met a lady with such inspiring strength. A few years ago, her and her husband bought a plot of land in Forest Hills - an area of Durban that borders on the Krantzkloof Nature Reserve, and proceeded to build a house on it. During the build her husband passed away, but with a determined spirit, she continued on to complete the home.
As we walked around the garden, she spoke about how difficult a process its been, dealing with all the frustrations and challenges that come with the normal building of a home. This place is however, not what most people would call normal - because of its out-of-the-city setting, it has a few extra residents that come with it.

When I first arrived, I recognised the property from my childhood as a place where a friend and myself would explore in the afternoons after school - we would build forts and make paths through the overgrowth. Actually now that I think about it, it was all good preparation for my future interest in gardens and indigenous plants.
Very little had changed since then, just a few more houses in the area, but otherwise it was still very much the same wilderness.

As this intrepid lady and myself walked around looking at the property from its various aspects, I was excited to see how passionate she was about keeping the property as natural as possible. She was also very keen to make the best possible use of the rocks that had been dug up and stockpiled in a section to the side of the house.

It was as we blithely began walking towards the rocks with the grass up to our waist, that she began to tell me of the creatures she was encountering in the garden. The smallest of which were the ticks, which she warned me to check my legs for when we were done. Sure enough within a few minutes, I was picking the flat-bodied blood-suckers off my legs, and trying to pick routes through the grass that entailed as little brushing against grass as possible. Ticks love to loiter about on grass, waiting for animals (usually 4-legged) to walk past so they can hitch a ride and a meal.

The second account she told me, was how some time before, as she boldly pushed through the grass exploring her beautiful piece of land, she reached out to remove a pine branch in her way. As her fingers went to close around the branch, a little voice told her to look at it more carefully. As her eyes followed the stick along its length closer and closer to her body, up to its end right in front of her chest, she saw that its end was actually the head of a highly venomous vine snake! At this point, she screamed and ran in the opposite direction. I'm sure the snake probably did much the same - with less screaming and more slithering (although they are venomous, they rarely bite). Needless to say, she walks more circumspectly through the garden now, and usually carries a stick to part the grass in front of her.

The story that made me the most nervous though, was how she had been sitting on her verandah enjoying the view, when she noticed the head of a black mamba rise up out of the grass. As she watched, it rose further and further until it reached the lower branches of a tree a few metres off the ground, and then proceeded to make its way up into the tree. Apparently some snakes can use a third of their body to stand up above ground. So that being the case, this black mamba must have been pretty large.

How not to handle an 11ft Black Mamba
Black Mambas are reputed to be territorial, and can be quite aggressive in certain circumstances. Their venom is also some of the deadliest in the world. Fortunately she told me this story when we were just about done walking through the garden. Even if we weren't finished, I might have found a reason to observe the garden from a more "elevated" vantage point.

I left the meeting with an excitement for the potential that I could see in this garden, and a huge amount of respect for a lady who obviously has a lot of guts and determination. That she's able to complete this project in spite of some difficult circumstances, and not waver in her vision for a natural garden where wildlife is welcome. If only there were more people in this world with her indomitable spirit.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Behind The Scenes - Coastal Dune Garden

Creating gardens on the coast is always a challenge. There are all kinds of things to consider, like salt air, strong winds and sandy soil. Added to these natural limits, is the fact that the garden is often just the foreground to the real view - the ocean. So it needs to compliment rather than try to steal the show.

This garden is actually the second garden I've done for these particular clients - they moved from their previous home in Morningside when they found this odd 1970's house in the La Lucia area of Durban with potentially amazing views of the ocean.
They kept the general layout of the house and completely gutted it, but essentially started again. The garden itself was a neglected, overgrown mix of plants that sloped down to the neighbour's house below.

This was a really great project for a number of reasons. I have the benefits of having a good relationship with both the client and the architect, and that, coupled with being involved right from the start, I was able to add my 2 cents worth to the project as it evolved. Also, having the advantage of being part of the project from the start - almost 3 years in total, it gave me the time to really digest the site and the design. These are definitely key ingredients in making a successful garden.

Too often in landscape design, everybody involved is in a rush. We designers, are usually brought in at the last minute, and are usually the last on site, and so we often bear the brunt of the clients lack of patience because of the usual contractors delays. Being last in the chain also has other disadvantages. In most cases, projects run over budget, and the easiest place to save money is by cutting back on the 'luxury' areas like landscaping. But its not all frustration. You also get the best look at the finished product, and share in some of the excitement that the client is beginning to feel as they see the project nearing completion. This really makes for great job satisfaction.

My clients previous garden, with roses and lavender
My clients were wanting the garden to be quite different to their previous garden, which was full of roses, and quite formal. I was relieved to hear this, because the property was quite exposed on the top of a dune, which meant we would be using a fairly limited range of plants. Roses or similar exotic plants would need an inordinate amount of attention to keep them alive - let alone looking good. The words Aloe and stone were mentioned during our preliminary discussion about the garden, and I could feel my excitement levels rising...
Although they did have one request, coming from a relatively small garden they would want it to be as open as possible, with as big a lawn area as possible.

The "Blank Slate" - you can see the unusable lawn, and the house below, that needs screening.
We removed almost all of the plants while the builder began the demolition of the existing house. The only plant that had any real value to the garden was a huge milkwood in the driveway. The driveway and boundary wall was laid out to make sure that it was kept safe.

One of the first steps, as in most landscape designs, was to sort out levels. As I've mentioned before, creating level areas makes the garden much more user-friendly. Keeping the garden on the same level as the house means that people are more likely to spill out into the lawn.
The retaining wall below the garden had a height restriction which was well below the homes ground floor level - this would mean I would have to do some lateral thinking to try to find a way of getting the lawn level right.

Due to height restrictions, the top of the retaining wall was still well below the level we needed it to be
The second challenge in the design of the garden, was the proximity of the house in front. From the ground level of the house it not only partially blocks the view of the ocean, but is the last thing you want to be looking at when you're sitting in your lounge or dining area.
The solution would be to raise the garden to the groundfloor level. This meant that we would be able to keep the planting relatively low, and still screen the neighbour's house.

Making use of the attractive vistas, and hiding the less attractive can be one of the hardest balancing acts in a garden design. It needs to be done subtly, but effectively.
This garden was one of the trickiest I've worked on, because of the multiple levels and views in the house. Also, having the beautiful sea views and the big house both dominating the front view, made it particularly difficult.

Oehme & Van Sweden - Chicago Botanic Gardens
I began the design of the garden with a picture in my mind of flowing grasses, and mass planting along the lines of an Oehme and Van Sweden garden. They use a more naturalistic style, which would suit the site, and the use of indigenous plants. The challenge would be to create this feel in the narrow space available for the planting.

I also had a picture of the way sand forms ripples on the beach, and thought I'd like to capture something of that feel in the design. This would translate into building up berms of sand, which would make a great platform on which to plant. Slowly, the design was beginning to take shape.

I took some photos of the garden, and used these to trace and sketch the picture that was beginning to form in my head.

After all the planning comes the hard slog. To begin with, we had to move about 80m3 of soil into the garden, and shape and level, and re-shape and re-level, and then do it all over again. Finally, the structure was all there just waiting to be dressed up with plants. We're almost there now, but I'll post a follow-up on the planting once we've completed it.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Food For Thought

I'm reading a book by Barbara Kingsolver at the moment called Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. It begins with an honest look at the divorce in the United States between humans and nature (especially their food), and the resulting social, economic and environmental catastrophe that we humans are hurtling towards.

 A tinker reed frog I found the day after planting this Aloe

Here in South Africa, we have the fortunate ability to be able to see into the future. We are like the furthest island from an earthquakes epicentre - we are able to receive the early warning, long before the tsunami hits. We could be likened to the late adopters in trend forecasting - there is often a lag of as little as a few months to as many as a few years in our adopting of certain fashions or trends.

So you'd think we would see the consequences of another nation's life in the fast-food lane, and make the changes necessary to steer clear of the mess to follow? The sad reality is that we are so distracted by the present problems that we have little capacity or will to take advantage of this advantage and plan for the future. The result is that the warning signals go un-heeded.

There has long been an inevitable shift in allegiance from rural farm life and a dependance and understanding of nature to urban living with its attendant ills. But urbanisation, doesn't have to spell out the death of communion with nature.
 It does require a certain amount of commitment on our part though. We need to take steps every day to notice nature, and welcome, and encourage it:

In South Africa, we have a term - Local is Lekker - which means buying locally made/grown/produced, is always better. Choose food that is locally grown as opposed to buying food which needs exponential amounts of energy just to get it to your door.

Encourage nature back into your garden by planting indigenous, or better yet, endemic plants. This gives animals a natural place to eat or rest - you'd be amazed at how quickly you will see all kinds of birds and wildlife returning to your garden.

Resist the urge to throw chemicals at your problems. Pesticides and herbicides are no solution - they just delay the inevitable. In extreme cases you may have no alternative, but most times all thats needed is a little patience. Nature's own balances, will kick in soon enough.

We need to take advantage of our prophetic viewpoint in SA, and begin learning from the mistakes made by other countries.

I do believe that every little action makes a difference - if we wait for governments or politicians to pass laws or push policies to protect and improve the environment, we'll be waiting till there are no longer cows to come home. We need to resolve to take a step now, no matter how small.

Monday, 22 February 2010

Durban Heat

Durban is famous for many things; a collection of Art Deco buildings to rival Miami, some of the best beaches and waves in the world, the Sharks rugby team and a whole lot more besides. But one of Durban's hottest inventions is the bunny chow.
A quarter loaf of bread hollowed out, and filled with a tasty and extremely spicy curry. It's a meal of indistinct origins from the 1940's, but definitely worth experiencing on a trip to Durban. You know that it has to be good, if most Durbanites don't mind braving its spicy heat even in our ridiculously hot and muggy weather.

Working in the garden in Durban in Summer is also not for the feint-hearted. We've been seeing temperatures in the mid 30's (C) over the last few weeks, and combined with 80% humidity it makes for tough working conditions.
But this last week things have been hotting up for us even further. Having 5 of our 6 machines break down on our garden care service in a single day would always put the pressure on, but even more so during the season that sees our fastest growth. Throw in a few deadlines, and its no surprise we've been sweating quite a bit.

An ingenious garden feature that was used in North African and Mediterranean gardens to cool things down is the Rill. Its a narrow channel that was used to irrigate the hot courtyards in Arabic or Moorish style gardens.
As the water runs along the channel to water the fruit trees or gardens, it helped cool down the sheltered courtyards. Its a device we've used in our recent Sica's Guest House garden as a device to link the pool, and water feature along the main axis. It creates strong lines, and is ideal in a formal or contemporary garden.
Unfortunately, its not working just yet, so we'll have to brave the heat for a little longer.

I must admit I'm hoping this next week will be far more normal. Or at least a little cooler weather-wise. Maybe a bunny for lunch will help?

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Behind The Scenes - A Restored Guest House Garden

I've been working on the designs for a garden since the end of last year, for a beautiful old house high up on the ridge of Berea. I've driven past the house quite often in the past, and wondered when or if it would ever be renovated.

Last year, the owners of a guest house down the road took on the honourable task of restoring it to its original beauty. From white ant nests in the walls (which were held together in some places not with cement, but hard clay), to leaking roofs - I'm not sure if they realised the amount of work that was in store for them when they began. But they've taken to the task admirably, with the deadline of being ready for the 2010 World Cup looming.

My clients were incredibly trusting, and have allowed me quite a bit of freedom with the design of the garden. I felt obligated to make sure that the garden was a suitable adornment to the soon-to-be renovated house.

There were 2 main areas to the garden - the front entrance/parking area, and the back garden. I started with the design of the back area. This was the largest area, and I felt that this area would influence the design of the rest of the garden.

My first thoughts were that the garden needed to be terraced to make it more usable. A slope, even just a slight one can make it hard to use an area, so I prefer to level out a space to make it more inviting, and at the same time, allow it to be have multiple uses.
I also felt that because this back garden area was quite low down and there were no real views to make use of, the garden should be inward rather than outward looking.

The ideal way to do this would be to create a central focal point, and possibly screen the outside views with hedging, creating something close to a cloister garden.

The other aspect to bear in mind is that the garden will be viewed from above almost or more often than from inside. So it would be necessary to create a garden that would be as beautiful when looked down at from above. I believe the garden will have a very different feel when people take the time to walk down into it, than how they will perceive it from above. When you stand on the verandah on the main level, there is a great feeling of space and openness with views to the North West. You will look down onto a garden with a strong axis, focal points, and a lot of colour but it will still feel very open. Once in the garden it will feel far more introspective.

I thought the space would also lend itself to outdoor weddings, so in the long term it would be ideal to have an arbour on the lower terrace, which could also double-up as a shady outdoor eating area. A swimming pool in Durban is an absolute necessity. I positioned a long narrow pool on the top terrace, and then linked it with a rill to the main focal point which is a central fountain. Running water also helps cut out some of the faint sounds of traffic.

I wanted the garden to provide abundant cut flowers to be used in the guest house, so there will be a strong focus on flowers, and colour.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

The Top 6 Aliens To Watch Out For

You didn't expect to see little green men did you? This is a blog about Landscape Design - albeit from a South African perspective...but still...

I've recently joined Sprig as a guest blogger, and have written a post about an extremely important subject for us here in South Africa - Alien Invasive Plants. You may have noticed a few posts about the subject here before. I wrote about the efforts to control them through biological agents, and the differences between exotic and alien plants

Its important to be able to recognise them, so that you can eradicate them as quickly as possible. So here are some pictures of the most dangerous aliens to be on the lookout for where I live - in Kwazulu Natal, South Africa:

1. Chromolaena odorata - Triffid Weed - This plant spreads like wild-fire, because it seeds itself when it is still young, but it is easy to pull out when its still small.

2. Litsea glutinosa - Indian Laurel - I think this is our biggest threat here in KZN. Under a single tree, thousands of saplings shoot up. They grow at a rapid pace, and are difficult to pull out, even when small.

 3. Cardiospermum grandiflorum - Balloon Vine - Grows up into the tops of trees extremely quickly, and spreads its seeds out of sight. Easy to spot and pull out when its still small.

4. Lantana camara - Don't confuse this with the hybrid, which is safe to plant. Easy to uproot when its still small.

5. Melia azederach - Syringa - Like Litsea, it grows quickly and is hard to remove even when small.

6. Schinus terebinthifolius - Brazilian Pepper - It used to be planted as a fast-growing hedge, because of its pretty berries, but soon became a pest.

Now that you know how to recognise them, take a walk through your garden, and pull them out as quickly as possible...

You can also download a pdf list of all the Invasive Alien Plants of South Africa.

Home Made Pest Control Solution(s)

I'm really not a big fan of pesticides or chemicals. Actually, that's putting it mildly...I hate pesticides. They are almost always ...