Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Almost Successful Minimalist Front Garden

I'd been waiting in anticipation when I saw the bones of this landscape being formed. I was looking forward to how it would turn out, because it looked like it would be something different to the usual front verge on Essenwood road.



As it turned out, it was different. But to tell you the truth, I was disappointed. Where it had great potential was in its basic structure, but it was let down from that point on.

Everybody has their own opinion on what makes a beautiful design, but there are some basic fundamental things that make a good concept into a good design. And only a good design can be beautiful.

To play with an old saying by St Augustine - In all things sensible compulsory, in all things aesthetic freedom, but in all things passion.

I appreciate the minimalist simplicity of the design, and it probably looked good on paper. Breaking the bank up using terraces was a good practical idea, and the curve gave it something fresh. The huge rocks emboldened the design. The use of Aloes gives a different feel, they're low maintenance, and when they flower, will look amazing.



But the positives can only carry it so far. The first and biggest flaw, is using grass that has to be constantly cut, more than a metre off the ground. Why not use a simple ground-cover, even something as over-used in South African gardens as Mondo grass would have been better from a maintenance point of view. Who wants to lug a lawnmower up onto a terrace?

Why do people over-use white pebbles? Gardeners that use them remind me of magpies that are just attracted to shiny and sparkly things, thinking that the garden will somehow be improved by them. As a general rule, use white pebbles sparingly. They seldom stay white anyway.

You should always be careful using contrast in a garden. There is a very fine line between contrast and kitsch. I believe the design would have been better if the pebbles used had picked up on another colour in the design - whether the rock that they are spread around, the plants used or even the colour of the walls.

In a situation like this, where the rocks themselves are the focus of the design, they should be chosen and positioned deliberately. Japanese garden design has very precise ancient guidelines for using rocks, and while this is not an oriental garden - those guidelines are built around good aesthetics, and should be followed more often than not if you want rock to work well in a design. But that's probably a post for another day. In this case, the third rock looked completely out of place - it was flat and didn't have the presence that the other rocks had.



Another basic mistake made, was not hiding the water valve (it was at least hidden in the standard municipal cover). The design could have been easily adjusted to obscure the box, while still giving access to the meter. It was painted the same colour as the wall, which helps to make it less noticeable.

The choice of Pachpodium as the main feature plant (although it is small it will get a nice size in a few years) for the back of the planting looks slightly out of place - but that's probably just my personal preference rather than any design flaw.

Some of these mistakes are basic, and some might seem nit-picky, but I think this little garden could have been very successful had the person who designed it paid that extra attention to detail, instead I think its been left a little short-changed.

A Crush on Chelsea?

Its not actually my thumbs that are green at the moment - I'm just generally envious after looking at photos of the Chelsea Flower Show. I've been wanting to visit Chelsea ever since I learnt how to say Chrysalidocarpus lutescens Agapanthus.


We miss-timed our holiday by a couple of weeks (in my opinion not my wife's) a few years ago while visiting the UK and back-packing around Europe, and didn't get to see any of the spectacular gardens on display. I did however, get to see a wall at the back of the Royal Hospital Grounds, as we got lost on the way to IKEA - but that's sadly as close as I've come.

I've developed this slight crush on Chelsea, because (judging from photo's only, mind you) you get to see what can be done, with a lot of imagination and similar quantities of cash. I'm sure that very few of the gardens are long-lasting, or could be easily transferred into a real-life garden. But Chelsea's gardens set a standard, and in some cases push the limits of what gardens could be in an ideal world.

So every year, I scour the internet for pictures, vicariously appreciating the gardens from 11000 miles away. But I console myself with the thought that in most cases the actuality of something isn't what you've built it up to be, and judging from my friend Viv's experience, it can be painful too.
She also wrote a story for the Times, in which she talks about how the budget's were pruned back this year, but that designers were taking a positive approach, and showing ways to garden on a small budget and recycle where possible.

I've also found some great pictures of Chelsea by Robert McMillan from Garden Focus.

So I guess another year goes by that I didn't get to visit Chelsea for myself, but so what...at least I have those amazing ice trays from IKEA!

Monday, 1 June 2009

Redesigning the Umhlanga Promenade

Umhlanga (the Zulu word for 'place of reeds') is a thriving coastal holiday town, within easy distance of Durban. Apart from catering to a regular influx of tourists throughout the year, it also has a large portion of permanent residents, and visitors from around the area. The beaches are great, with excellent waves for surfing, and rock pools for kids. There are amazing restaurants close by, and Gateway - one of the biggest shopping malls in the Southern Hemisphere is just at the top of the hill. But it has always had a bit of a run-down look about it.

A few years back I did quite a bit of work in the gardens at some of the main hotels on the beach in Umhlanga. It always struck me that the walkway in front of the hotels, was an amazing asset, that was not being fully valued.
It should be an ideal place to go for a walk or a run, or to take your dog for a walk, but the walkway was uneven and narrow in places, and it was not very well lit at night.

But recently, the municipality has been doing some improvements to the area. The entire stretch of coast has been re-designed to make better use of the beach, and to generally improve the walkway, landscaping, storm water run-off and access down to the beach. After the recent storms which washed away sections of the beach and dunes, retaining walls were built to prevent this from happening again.

There has also been opposition to the changes - as there always is. But some of the residents of the area's concerns are valid - they have been worried about (among other things) the improved access resulting in more noise, increased amounts of vagrants, and worsening of security in the area. All of which can be controlled or mitigated if taken into account in the planning and design of the promenade.

After taking a walk along the promenade yesterday - it is still under development - I was impressed by what has gone on since I last visited. The new pier with its whale bone structure looked impressive and gave a glimpse of what the finished promenade should look like. The promenade itself is wide and the finer details are pleasing. The planting is still being done, but a few of the hotels are also taking some initiative by improving and landscaping their access to the promenade. The retaining wall, along the length of the beach, although functional and necessary is the only aspect that I'm unsure of its long-term success. Any planting in the walls is unlikely to survive without a fair amount of maintenance, which I don't see happening in the long term. And besides I'm not sure how well the walls will stand up to stormy waves battering them anyway?

The finished Umhlanga Promenade should be an asset to the entire area when completed, and already people are using it. I was surprised to see how many families, walkers and runners were using it - even in its unfinished state in the middle of winter. I guess the glorious sunshine didn't hurt though?
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