Tuesday, December 15, 2009


One good thing did came out of all those invasive tree seedlings: my own little bonsai, now about five years old.

Yes, it does look rather pitiful – but then, I have no idea what I am doing. The little bush to the left sprouted from I know not where. Notice the brand-new seedling in the background, the consequence of yet another tree seed falling onto the fertile ground. I decided to let it grow. I envisage having a mini forest in that pot soon.

Other people’s trees

One of the rare things that are more annoying than other people’s children is other people’s trees with branches hanging over your garden. I have one such tree – or rather, my neighbour has it, I only have a few branches that give me lots of work year round. In autumn it is – you’ve guessed it – dead leaves. Buckets and buckets of them to be swept every day or, time permitting, twice a day, packed into plastic bags and disposed of. In spring time it is some fluff – tiny yellowish droplets – that fall all over the place, hogging the plants, burrowing among the stones, covering the paved patio. Again to be swept and scooped into buckets and binned. Then come tiny green seeds that rain down and pop most unpleasantly as I walk over the paved area. It’s even worse when they fall onto the soil, for from each and every one of those seeds sprout at least one – and I suspect even more than one – seedlings, to be plucked out and binned.

I even have the photographic evidence of the plucked out seedlings:

And here are the seeds:

With all that evidence, you would think I’d be able to sue someone. But no one cares, except my sore back that complains every time I bend.

In all honesty, I must say that things used to be even worse. There used to big conifers growing in the neighbouring garden, right next to the wall separating it from my garden.

I like conifers as much as the next person. In fact, I simply love them when I am on the mountain skiing. But as anyone who has had conifers – at least this particular kind of various stuff shedding conifers – knows, they are a nuisance. If you are not collecting needles that fell of them, you are collecting most unseemly little yellow things that resemble worms. Plus, they seldom allowed sunrays into my garden.

After petitions from several gardeners next to my townhouse, who shared my woes with the conifers (they formed a long row), the gardeners from our complex were allowed to go into the next door property and cut them down.

I relish the sun and the absence of needles and wormy things; still, I must confess I miss the conifers. Only this painting I made when they were still blocking the sun and shedding their stuff remains to remind me of them:

I know, sooner or later the obnoxious tree will be cut down too, probably when the next door property is sold for development. I can’t wait, even though it means I’ll be left without the shade and will have to invest into one of those monstrous umbrellas.

Here is the picture of the tree that sheds all those seeds:

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Hail, again

A gardener dreads hail more than anything else. And in Johannesburg a year rarely passes without at least one major hail storm. I still shudder to remember the one that had left many of the leaves of my Philodendron in shreds.

This year’s hail was more merciful. For one, the Philodendron was entirely spared, probably thanks to the neighbouring tree that had grown some huge branches over a part of my garden, which acted as a protection.

As soon as the hail subsided, I went into the garden to assess the damage and to clean it up, but not before I took a few photos.

The hail among pratia flowers

The leaves from the neighbouring tree

After the hail

Daisies live on

Not to worry. Daisies have not been consigned to the dust bin. They have been given a new lease of life as potted plants. The ugly plastic pots are a temporary solution. I plan to re-pot them into two tin buckets that I bought although I have no need for them whatsoever. It only remains to persuade my husband to drill drainage holed in them and the daisies will have a permanent home. I am hoping the mission will be accomplished in the sometime during the forthcoming five-year plan.

Erigeron moves baby geranium

As soon as I planted the erigeron plants, I realised that the baby geranium previously transplanted into the vicinity of the one on the left hand side had to be moved yet again. This will be the third time it is moved from its germinating pot. I do agonise over its future a bit, since I still see no evidence of any roots.

But here’s to my little baby geranium, hoping for the best!

Erigeron replaces daisies

My new erigeron plants are now where daisies used to be. They are still a slip of the bush they will grow into (it the old gardening magazine and the nursery assistant – who is quickly becoming my acquaintance – are to be trusted). But I am content as content can be. They are just right for the spot, or rather the two spots. I gave them the gift of good measure of compost and promise to give them organic fertiliser too.

The new plants look much better in the designated spots than daisies, because they have that light, airy look I was sought to achieve. Their small flowers seem to float above the clump of the leaves.

The end of the daisies

It is not that I do not like yellow flowers. One of my favourite beauty spots when I drive to work is a lovely green mound with densely planted yellow flowers in the middle. The contrast is most pleasing to the eye.

My dislike of yellow close to me may be rooted in the traumatic experience I had as a young gal. That summer I often wore my favourite bright yellow dress. After a few days I noticed that I displayed an unusually large number of tiny insects on my person. Several more days passed before I connected the insects with the dress. As soon as I realised that they were attracted to its yellow colour, I consigned my dress to the Wardrobe and wore it no more. (Ah, the dramas of my youth! I wonder no one made a movie about them yet.)

Well, yellow of r any other colour, the more I looked at my two daisy bushes the less happy I was with them. They stick out like sore thumbs. I imagined the small whitish –pinkish low growing and spreading bushed in their place, and the latter seem perfect for the position.

I leafed through my old gardening magazines anew and – there it was. The plant I was looking for all the time is not a daisy at all, although it has daisy-like flowers, or rather camomile-like flowers (there it is again – my ever-present love affair with camomiles). The plant I really wanted is called Erigeron karvinskianus. It turned out that I had copied the wrong Latin name.

That’s it. I am off to the nursery. The yellow daisies can go into a pot.

Ah, the regrets and second thought of gardening!

Yellow daisies

Yellow daisies were not my first choice.

As always happens when spring comes, I experienced the urge get a new plant for my garden, even if every nook and corner seems pretty well covered with vegetation.

This spring I settled for daisies. Not just any daisies. I am methodical when it comes to selecting plants for my garden. I studied various gardening magazines and selected a particular daisy with a nice rounded growth and small flowers that seems to range (the picture was rather small) from white to pink. I carefully copied its Latin name to a wider list of plant I had compiled and set off for the closest nursery.

Alas, it turned out that the name I transcribed with such care was a generic name for all daisies: tall growing and low growing, annual and perennial, blue, white, yellow or whatever other colour daisies come in.

The nursery assistant showed me every kind of daisy they had in stock. Not one of them resembled my daisy.
Unable to leave empty handed, I did what I promised myself last year (or was it the year before last?) that I will never do again. I abandoned my original plan and got two daisies with yellow flowers instead.

I was rather satisfied with the two daisies when I planted them out into the ground. True, their habit of growth is rather less than pleasing at the moment, but I look forward to them bushing out into a nice roundest shape (as the nursery assistant said they would).

Tuesday, October 6, 2009


This is the plant that produced the baby jasmine fledglings. I bought it three years ago.

What can I say about my jasmine?

I love its flowers with their heady scent to distraction. In the early spring, I am out in the garden first thing in the morning every day, burrowing my face into the jasmine flowers.

I only wish the flowers would last longer.

This is what my jasmine looked like soon after I transplanted it into my garden:

The supporting stick is still there – I dare not remove it. Here are some more views of my jasmine:

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The fountain

The only ornament in my garden is a cement fountain. I saw the ensemble in a hardware-cum-garden shop and had to have it. I still cannot believe I let the delivery guys drag it over my wood laminate living room floor. Actually, I cannot believe the three or four of them managed to drag it at all. The thing weighs about hundred tons.

The pebble pattern around the fountain was hand-arranged. The area was first covered with garden cloth, then with a layer of river sand, and finally with pebbles. Since then the pattern has been disturbed many times, mainly by me walking over the pebbles, and one anxious afternoon by a visiting toddler who thoroughly enjoyed himself throwing my pebbles around.

I still think the plants – a kind of grass, I believe from New Zealand – were perfect for the spot. Unfortunately, they would not grow the way I wanted them to: flat against the wall, in a fan shape. So they had to be removed.

My next project is to grow a thick veil of jasmine behind the fountain, about half way up the wall. I hope the jasmine will cover the patches of the paint that have peeled off in the meantime, due to moisture from the up-the-hill garden, which now has lawn and plants instead of brick paving. I do not hold it against my up-the-hill neighbours, but I do hold it against the builders who neglected to damp-proof the back yard partition walls.

The jasmine plants that are expected to perform the important function of covering the damaged partition wall are now mere babies:

Friday, October 2, 2009

Building affairs

I am very proud of the stone and cement path I created in the base of the stately staircase (really only three steps - but many other back yards in the complex only feature a sheer drop). This area used to be bare soil which eroded whenever it rained. I trust that by building the path I had saved the staircase from collapse.

This ingenious structure, worthy of pyramid builders, is designed to hide (at least partially) the hose and the bags of potting soil and compost.

The bricks that went into building the wall originally formed paths among the ground cover plants. However, I soon realised that they did not present a very pleasant scene and removed them as soon as the ground cover spread to fill in the spaces. Many of the stones visible on this image were removed too – for one can have too much of the good thing!

The stone affair continues

When I visited St. Petersburg, Russia, our tour guide told us she loved her city best after a good rain, because that is when the colours of the buildings stand out in all their beauty.  I was doubtful at the time, because for me rain is a big no-no. However, whenever I observe the brilliant colours of the stones in my garden during the watering times I have to admit to myself that our guide had a point.

Here they are, stones of my garden photographed when wet to intensify their colours. In order of appearance, they are: rhino stones; river pebbles; hippo stones; red pebbles from a shop (I think they were called diamond pebbles); tiger eye stones; and pebbles dug from my garden:

The variety of stones is not always intentional. Every time I do the nursery rounds with the intention of buying stones they have something different on offer. The only stones always to be found in Johannesburg nurseries are the white ones, which I avoid as much as I can, though I have purchased a few bags out of despair, because there was nothing else on offer.

When I started digging around my garden in order to add compost to the clay soil, I unearthed several large stones. They are now above ground:

The pebbles pictured below travelled with me from across half the globe. They were stolen from a beach in Montenegro; some of those beaches have the most beautiful pebbles in the world.

The origins of this lovely stone – pride of my garden - are shrouded in mystery. It was a gift, one of the most beautiful I ever received.

The affair of the stone

My lasting affair with stones started out of necessity. As soon as I rolled my sleeves and plunged into gardening, I found out about benefits of composting. Naturally wanting only the best for my garden (providing the best was not expensive), I composted the flower beds liberally.

Alas, then it rained. Now, it almost never merely rains in Johannesburg. It usually pours. Our whole complex is on a steep slope, and my portion of it is no exception. Consequently, my garden gets not only the rainfall due to it, but also the rainfall intended for my neighbours up the hill from me. To make matters worse, our first up-the-hill neighbour used to have his whole backyard paved with bricks. Since bricks do not absorb water, the full force of the rolling current would descend right into my backyard, rushing over the steps in a magnificent waterfall.

I watched the downpour from my window, horrified. Buckets and buckets of the newly laid compost and soil were stripped from my flower beds. When the rain stopped I went out to survey the damage. The roots of several plants stood sadly exposed. I collected handfuls of soil and compost that had collected at the bottom of the garden and did my best to cover them. Then I heard someone next door and down the slope from me sweeping in what I imagined was an irritated manner. I peeked through the gate and, sure enough, my neighbour’s patio was black with the soil and compost that came from my flower beds.

That’s how I started collecting stones. They were introduced into the garden for purely practical reasons, to prevent the soil from the flower beds from being washed away. But the necessity soon grew into a passion for stones.

I bought sacks and sacks of stones and pebbles. I brought pebbles from overseas holidays, the way other people bring souvenirs. I hauled boulders for kilometres back to the car when on outings in the bush. Once I stopped in the middle of the road to pick up a nice round stone that lay nearby, looking abandoned.

My first stone works were rather crude. The grey rocks in image number two were donated by a friend who dug them out of her garden. The tree trunk was acquired on the side of the highway. I happened to see workers cutting up a tree trunk and thought – that would look nice in my garden! And it did, until it rotted away. The stone in the centre of picture number three is the one I salvaged.

The second time around the result was more pleasing. I found those beautiful bluish pebbles in a garden shop – once, and then they had them no more.

The same area looks even better with the peace-in-the-house filling in the available space, with the smaller circle of white pebbles removed and the bigger one being hidden by the growing azalea. The white pebbles – the most common kind in the garden shops – are my least favourite.

Peace-in-the house tends to spread and has to be trimmed regularly. If not, it would cover the stones. This plant doesn’t mind that there is not soil. Somehow it manages to bring its own soil with it.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Then and now: covering the ground

When I got serious about gardening, at first I wanted what every self-respecting gardener wants: a beautiful, lush, soft lawn, the one that gives you sheer pleasure to sink your toes in.

Instead, I had patches of what even I could see were different varieties of grass:

I did everything possible to transform my mangy lawn. I watered it. I spread the fertilizer over it. I watered it again. When the gardeners employed by the complex were too tardy to mown it, I applied scissors to the blades that had grown too long.

I will not go into all the details. Suffice it to say that I spent hours pulling out those horrible thick tendrils of the kikuyu grass, like I heard it should be done, and then had nightmares about them; that I scattered many a seed over bald patches and watered them daily; that I was even known to carefully pull out the blades that had sprouted where they were not meant to sprout (in the flower beds) and transplant them where they were meant to grow (into the lawn).

Nothing helped. Everybody said that it was because the garden was not getting enough sun. I though it was because the complex gardeners did not do a very good job on my lawn, leaving the grass to grow too long and mowing it too short when they finally got round to it. I was even contemplating buying my own lawn mower, but several practical reasons stood in my way. Most importantly, I had nowhere to keep the contraption: my garden is too small for a shed, and there is no place for it inside the house.

I devised a way out: pave half the existing lawn and then concentrate my efforts on the remaining half. It would naturally follow that the results would be at least twice as good, right?

Wrong. I wisely left it to the professionals to create about three by four metres big patio. After they did their thing, I started working on the second half. I scattered some more seeds. I laid out the brick path in order to distract the eye from the still bald patches:

Then I noticed a dark green, rough and scraggy looking growth, a kind of weedy grass, in one corner of my garden. I pulled it out, and it spread. That was what made up my mind. The lawn had to go.

A variety of ground covers was to replace it, and a half-circle to the right of the brick path was to be covered with pebbles and stones (in order to cut down the watering times).

I approached the task methodically. I dug out all the remaining grass and hauled it away. Then I discovered that beneath a thin layer of very poor clay soil there was a ton of rubble left over from when the complex was built (no wonder the grass had refused to grow). So I dug some more, removed the rubble and quite a few stones, bought several bags of top soil and compost, laid out a brick path anew, spread out the soil and compost, covered it and waited for spring.

During the several months that followed I avoided going into the garden. It presented a bleak picture indeed:

At the end of August that year I set off to get the ground covers. I did a bit of research and knew that I wanted only low growing ones of different hues, to achieve a variegated look. I knew that peace-in-the house, which grows profusely in between the plants positioned against the south facing wall, would not do because it would wilt in the sunnier positions. So I chose pratia for its cheerful small blue flowers, penny royal for its scent, and another ground cover whose name I forgot, with light green leaves.

This is what the garden looked like with the newly planted ground cover plants (the maple tree in the centre of the pebbles has been moved since):

Three or four years on, the same area looks like this:

I can say that the Irish moss, the penny royal and the pratia proved to be real prizes, though, of course, they refused to contain themselves to the places I reserved for them; pratia soon overtook much of the Irish moss realm. But that was the least of my troubles. I can live with pratia taking over.

A bigger nuisance is the bright green ground cover whose name I forgot. It wilts in the heat of the summer. Even worse, it spreads like mad, or rather, it jumps – I find it five of more metres from where it was originally planted, growing between the Irish moss and pratia and overtaking them… To compound the problem, there is clover everywhere.

Most of the days you’ll find my on all fours trying the pluck out the two intruders without hurting the legitimate ground cover plants. Mission impossible, of course.

Ah, the never-ending battles a gardener has to fight!

Here are the close ups of the four kinds of ground cover plants I used in the central area: the pratia, Irish moss, penny royal and the no-name invasive one interwoven with clover (the yellow flowers are from the clover):

And this is peace-in-the-house, which grows in shady areas among the flower beds:

My architectural plant

Every garden needs to have one. My architectural plant is from the philodendron family, the split-leaf variety, probably Philodendron bipinnatifidum or Philodendron selloum (the two look exactly the same to me).

My philodendron is where it is today – right across the living room door - by pure chance. Or rather, as a consequence of a good Samaritan act on my part.

I acquired this plant by taking care of it when no one else would and then claiming it for my own.

About thirteen years ago the boss of a small company where I worked at the time bought the potted philodendron from one of those guys who do the rounds of offices offering plants. The pot and the plant somehow ended up on balcony that over time became the dusty storeroom for empty boxes, faulty motherboards, obsolete modems and similar items. Once I ventured out there and noticed the plant with yellowing leaves, the soil completely dried out (the balcony was covered and the plant did not even get any rainfall). I got several bottles, filled them with water and started watering the pot. Soon the leaves became green again.

Four years on, when the company moved to premises that did not feature a balcony, the plant was to be left behind. Instead, I got our driver to take it to my house in the company bakki. For a while it remained in the pot. I don’t have a photo from that period; only a pastel drawing executed by me:

A year or two passed, and the well-watered Philodendron bipinnatifidum (or Philodendron selloum) acquired string roots – strong enough to break the relatively small plastic pot. (I have since seen the roots of the same genus of philodendron break through a large brick structure.) So it became necessary to transplant it into the ground, the task I completed with my own hands. Since I was not able to dig a hole deep enough, I fashioned a small hill around it.

I thought it looked rather grand, though from today's perspective I realise my architectural plant was actually scrawny:

The philodendron got moved – or rather, pushed towards the wall – one more time, to make place for the paved patio. And there it remains, looking quite striking.

My philodendron’s lower leaves regularly turn yellow and sag, which tells me it is time to cut them off (I do not know if all of its cousins behave like that). It also regularly brings forth new leaves at the top. That way, the trunk becomes taller and taller, and the leaves get renewed – a big boon in Johannesburg climate, where every so often hail comes down to mercilessly tear the mature leaves.

This photograph clearly bears evidence of the lean years, with the trunk remaining thin in one place due to general neglect of the plant:

Couple of years ago the philodendron started flowering – producing strange, almost obscene-looking rods that in time rot and fall away, oozing some syrupy substance.

Then and now: the flower beds

I don't have any pictures of how the garden used to look like before I started meddling with it four or five years ago. In that time, the small patch of land that I call my own went through several transformations.

This is how the right hand side with the long row of agapanthus plants used to look like back in 2006:This is the same area today:

Yes, all the agapanthus is gone, disposed off, thrown away. I do not regret doing away with it, for it did not suit the character of the garden I was designing. As a rule, however, it is better to leave a specimen or two of the plant you fall out of love with, just in case.

Moving toward the centre, this is the 2006 view:

It features the newly-planted jasmine and pink azalea. Smack in the middle is my biggest gardening failure to date: the unfortunate gardenia. The first and second year it was so-so, even bearing several short-lived blooms. Then disaster set in. The leaves went yellow. They fell off. The next spring they reappeared - only for the same vicious cycle to be repeated.

I was desperate. I borrowed from the local library books that had something about gardenias in them. I searched the internet. I implemented every advice I could find. More watering. Less watering. Specific feeds. Iron. Magnesium. I even - yes, several people on gardenia forums said it worked for them - scattered polenta (bought specifically for the purpose) around my gardenia. Nothing helped. In the end I threw in my towel and cut the gardenia down.

That area now presents this view (except for the two yellow daisies plants in the foreground, which have been displaced three days after being planted):

For a long time, the gardenia spot was left empty; only last year I planted there bushes with bright green to golden yellow leaves, called Duranta "Sheena's Gold". To the right of jasmine and behind pink azalea is camellia - more about it anon, for I never get tired of photographing its beautiful flowers.

This was the sight that I used to see when I looked to the left as I entered the back yard from the living room:

While today I am greeted with this sight:

That's what I call my "green corner", because it is made up entirely of foliage plants: fern and cat's tails in the background, chicken-and-hens in the foreground, and behind them barely visible little bush which bears red berries and which refuses to grow bigger (as promised).

Do notice the stone work that has replaced the bare ground.

And what about the hydrangea bush that is there no more? Yes, I do regret having disposed of it. But that beauty was insatiable as far as watering is concerned. I could not keep up with its demands. The beautiful flowers it bore once a year were too short-lived to make the toil worth while. Still, I do miss it. Here is the gone hydrangea again, in all its glory, as it used to be:

In case you wondered what happened to the big leaved but scrawny plant from the 2006 photo, it is still there, but moved to the left, and it is much bigger now. More about it in the next instalment.