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.

The gardening gene

I firmly believe that we all carry a gardening gene. The proclivity to garden is rooted deep in us and is situated somewhere between the desire to be liked, admired even, and the desire to order and embellish our surroundings.

I resisted what I now recognise as an intrinsic trait for as long as I could. After all, I never had hands-on experience with things that grow. Except for a very short spell, and even then it was only to fetch growing things because the adults ordered me to go and fetch them.

When I was five or six, my family lived in a flat in a two-storey building. Across the road was an undeveloped patch of land. With or without the permission of the municipal authorities, the people in the neighbourhood decided that it was a shame to let all that land lie unutilised, divided it into small plots and stated growing vegetables there. It so transpired that we, children – little me among them – were often sent across the road (very seldom used by cars) to fetch tomatoes, spring onions and other stuff for our mothers to make the lunch with.

I remember reluctantly walking away from the serious business of playing some game with my mates when my mother’s voice, coming through the open window, rose to a dangerous pitch and, head hung down in mute rebellion, set off under the summer sun over the scorching hot asphalt and into the dry soil of our plot to pluck some tomatoes and spring onions. Even though seething with resentment at the time, I can still remember the heady scent of the warm ripe tomatoes and the more pungent one of spring onions.

Ever since then, I my only encounter with growing things was when my parents went away and I was left in charge of watering the house plants. Even that stopped when I moved to my own flat (no pots for me, thank you).

Then I moved to Johannesburg and, after changing several flats, landed in a townhouse with a small back yard, a mere handkerchief ten metres long by four metres wide. The previous owners were tenants who did not do much with the yard. It had a so-called lawn running that took up all the space except for a narrow flower-bed that ran the length of the south facing wall and contained three bushed of day lilies, two clumps of agapanthus. And yes – a wonderful climber that covered the whole (very high) wall.

It was a pleasure to look at that green, living wall every time I woke up, but further than that I rarely even ventured into the back yard for a whole first year, except occasionally for a braai.

Then the powers to be (the trustees of our complex) decided to have the walls re-painted, and as a consequence I lost my climber. Just like that. One day it was there, the next day it was gone, cut down in order to allow the workers to paint the wall.

Disgusted, I stopped looking at my backyard. Then came spring and something in me pushed me to go out and buy a hose, a shovel, and several plants.
I planned to make the back yard just a little more appealing, but one I got started – there was no ending it. A garden is not a project that you complete and then sit back and enjoy it. It is a never ending work in progress.

You’ll never find a true gardener just sitting in the garden. You find her walking around and doing things: bending to pluck out a weed, pruning overgrown plants and dead-heading the spent flowers… When she’s not doing any of that, she is plotting. About whether to move this or that. Or whether to introduce this or that novelty. Or whether to depose of this or that, be it a plant or a garden decoration. As soon as something is moved or introduced or disposed with, the whole picture of the garden is affected and everything has to be adapted to the new order.

And so it goes on.