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.
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