Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Succulent groundcovers: Plectranthus species

Here are two tough Plectranthus groundcovers that prefer dry conditions.

Plectranthus spicatus typically grows predominantly in the sun on cliff-faces, with fairly shallow soils and high wind exposure. It will cover an embankment very rapidly, and is another plant that will colonise downwards on a tightly-packed retainer wall, albeit more slowly than Crassula multicava (see previous posting). Whereas C.multicava is more likely to spread via the tiny seedlings that form as the flower dries-up, P. spicatus will root from dislodged pieces - which provides the clue to rapid cover, if you have the time to do it manually.

I love its bright green, serrated (dentate) texture. It is very hardy to drought, but gets damaged by fairly light frost (it should recover in Spring, unless the frost is severe). It has a long flowering period (Autumn to early Spring), and the flowers provide curious interest at times, but on the whole it detracts from a particularly spectacular foliage. It handles much more (dry) shade than commonly assumed.

Plectranthus lucidus is typical coastal dune vegetation undergrowth. Mthatha's climate is extremely hot in summer, but with lots of cloud. Wet summers can give the area a very sub-tropical feel (but with much less humidity). A dry summer, as we're currently experiencing, has more of a harsh karoo-like or thicket feel to it, but with much more cloud. Winters are crisp (warm-to-hot at midday; below freezing at dawn), dry and sunny. This Plectranthus does extremely well here under dry shade, and does not mind the fine clays typical of the area. It spreads fairly slowly, and needs protection from frost (solid tree cover will do). It is a delicate plant in size and appearance (tough in practice), with fine texture and bright foliage. It is a great plant for contrasting alternate repetitions. I'm currently using it to some effect with a Crassula species that I received from Ryder Nash of Simply Indigenous. Unfortunately, discussions with botanists and long searches through hundreds of Crassulas have failed to yield a name. I now call it Crassula sp. 'Ryder'. I'll do a separate posting on it.

Succulent groundcovers: Crassula species

I work with several indigenous Crassula species, including the more shrub-like form plants (and great, albeit different, bonsai material) C. ovata and C. arborescens. I personally enjoy the weird leaf form and spectacular flowers of C. perfoliata, and find that C. pellucida combines well with trailing Arctotis species.

However, it is to C. multicava and C. spathulata that I turn for tough Crassula groundcovers in the shade.

Crassula multicava is pictured here underneath Plectranthus ecklonii, during late winter (when the Plectranthus is in poor shape and fairly open). It spread itself, via seeding, down the very hostile retainer wall. It is a relatively moist area, and this Crassula does enjoy some degree of moisture. However, there's a gap as wide as the blade of a knife behind each of those retainer blocks - not much more than dust settles there. Once roots grow away, they should find a bit of soil in the blocks. The aspect is also tricky - north-facing; hot sun most of the day, most of summer; virtually no sun in winter (tall surrounding walls cut the sun). The picture was taken a year after planting the Crassula on top only. It is now 2 years since the picture, and the wall is densely covered - but nutrient deficiency is starting to show, as there's a yellowing of the leaves, particular where the sun is more persistent. I definitely prefer this Crassula in the shade.

Crassula spathulata has a very similar flower, for a much longer period, and at a different time than C. multicava. I do not rate the flower, though, finding that it gives an untidy appearance. This is a Crassula that I prefer for its leaves. It handles hot sun with less scorching, and looks better in dry locations than C.multicava. It has exceptionally beautiful texture and gloss, particularly in the shade. And that is my preferred location: dry shade.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Integrating livestock into nursery operations

My approach to both landscaping and propagation is heavily informed by a 20 year long engagement with the concepts and principles of Permaculture - I like the idea of multi-functional, integrated and intrinsically healthy localised ecosystems. Therefore the integration of livestock into my propagation processes was merely a matter of planning and time, not of debate.

I've finally been able to do just that. The garden - serving as home and motherstock nursery - is surrounded by a hedge of Dovyalis caffra (Kei Apple), and backed (closer to the fence) by a mixture of Acacia tortilis, A. karroo, A. robusta, A. sieberiana, a large diversity of Aloes, Scutia myrtina, Tecoma capensis and Asparagus falcatus. The purpose of this security hedge is 5-fold: specifically it must prevent local youth from raiding my large number of fruit trees (a very practical problem in South Africa's rural villages); generally it must serve the colloquially described purpose of being a 'Stop Nonsense'; it must provide wind protection as well as be a privacy screen; and finally it must create a suitable habitat for chickens, ducks and geese to scratch around underneath or have some protection from the elements. This hedge is now maturing, and serving its multiple purposes. Alongside the hedge is a path, right around the garden, which in turn is separated from the yard as a whole with a tall fence. Immediately adjacent to the fence are a large variety of indigenous trees, shrubs and ground covers - these serve as the propagation mother stock to the landscaping business.

I've introduced 2 batches of chickens. Twenty layers will mature and provide me with eggs for a minimum of 1 year; at which point a second batch will come into production, and the first batch will slowly be culled, in keeping with actual production rate. But more interesting is the introduction of broilers. Fifty broilers get introduced to one of 3 camps every 6 weeks. The camps are mulched heavily with (freely available) sawdust. At 6 weeks, 30 of the broilers are sold off at R60 each in the village where I stay (R20 below the market value). This is a return of R1,800 (for 30 chickens) against total expenditure of R1,700 (for all 50 chickens) on all food, vaccine, heating & lighting (parafine lamps for 3 weeks) and equipments (waterers and feeders), but excluding labour. Labour is a fairly incidental component in the daily routine of one of the nursery employees. The remaining 20 broilers get eaten over a six week period by all on the yard, including the propagation nursery staff. Virtually free protein, if all goes well. The food starts out as the usual broiler starter and finisher mixes, and then graduates to a hormone and medicine free mix of grains, leucaena and lucerne; so that these elements - drenched in every chicken bought in urban supermarkets and restaurants - can largely be eliminated.

But I'm yet to get to the primary reason why I grow chickens. It is to make compost. I have ample access to sawdust about 7km from site (transportation and labour being the only costs); but manure - particularly quality manure - is a major headache. The chickens solve that for me (to be supplemented in due time by rabbit, goat and other manures), and the result is that I can produce 68 cubic metre of compost a year, using both the layers and broilers.

But there are more benefits. The blood, legs, innards and bone (all cooked), form part of my cats' and dogs' diet (in 20 years of breeding and keeping Jack Russels and Golden Retrievers I am yet to have a problem from feeding chicken bones - broiler bones are too soft, and mature chickens' bones simply need to be screened: no thin, sharp bones). The feathers go into special compost mixes for special plants. The hedge gets fertilised from the natural rainfall-driven nutrient leaching process, and the garden as a whole benefits from the selective and planned release of older layers into a garden sub-divided into camps.

The whole process outlined above does have the downside of keeping me locked into a battery system of sorts - endless replacement of day-olds, endless bags of dubious feed. I'd like to move away from pre-mixed broiler feed (and largely feed my layers natural grains and greens). However, the nursery is a commercial concern with intense input needs, and a base requirement for cost efficiency. Modern broilers are large birds within 6 weeks. I'd have to switch to a combination of very hardy local birds, bred out to combinations of both larger (for meat) and smaller, more efficient lines. I'd also have to produce a very substantive part of the diet cost-efficiently on a small space, with delicate management requirements. That's my aim. For now, I've re-introduced livestock into my overall system.

In short, this is illustrative of the Permaculture approach at its best - great multiplicity of benefits, and minimisation of labour; and self-sustainability as goal and eventual reality. It takes time and effort to set-up; once done, its a pretty smooth process. Of course, it doesn't deal with the ethics and morality of a carnivorous diet. As a former fruitarian, I've long come to grips - for myself at least - that I'm part of a species of chimpanzee (the third chimpanzee, Homo sapiens) that have not quite evolved away from meat - yet.

Aliens and the little monster

I didn't like roses. They're overdone; they're soft as aphids; and they require far too much care. Then I learnt to eat rose petals in salads (the old types are much better); found a use for rose hips (in health teas); and saw the most stunning security fence imaginable around high-value fruit farms close to Cape Town (endless lines of rambling roses, completely covering the original razor wire fences, next to the highway).

And really, roses are not that soft. Select for hardiness and plant in a large hole with masses of compost - and you've got pretty carefree rose gardening ahead of you. You only do indigenous? Need an excuse? Make it part of your vegetable garden - not too many vegetables are indigenous anyhow! Besides, they'll draw aphids away from your more valuable veggie crops.

Finally - if you've got a healthy mixed garden and don't use chemicals, you may well see the lovely surprise pictured here: a reed frog!

Wednesday, 04 February 2009

Drainage & natural adaptation - a plant for every niche

This Crassula ovata variation from the Mbashe area (where the very rare and endemic Aloe Reynoldsii grows) illustrates the basic evolutionary principle that where there is a niche, a species will adapt and thrive.

As a landscaper, I initially struggled with the concept of good drainage for water lovers - I mean, how do you expect to provide drainage in a swampy, wet environment? Observing plants in a natural environment quickly brought the answer - just look at plants rooted in gritty, compost loam on a seasonal waterfall. Indeed, there is good drainage - the water is constantly moving over the rocky substrate, and air is being pumped through the root system.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Impatiens flanaganiae

I found these growing on boulder screes amidst (or often dominating) clivias, scadoxis and cycads, in my all-time favourite ravine; a place of rare beauty where I've returned up to 6 times a year for the past 20 years. Dangerous, inaccessible and unknown - its had a persistent pull on me unmatched by any other place of great natural beauty that I've enjoyed. This Impatiens is considered rare; it grows in shade typically on sandstone; has large tubers (used in traditional medicine); and it flowers endlessly through late Spring and Summer.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Shading the precipise

This magnificent shade tree, with its bright-green foliage, is rooted just below the lip of a 100m cliff-face.