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.
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