Wednesday, 10 October 2012

There be giants here

Only the most intrepid of us – like my dear V – have ventured outside in the rain and wind of the past week. And he did it all for me.

Table two protects those saplings at the back from fiddling hands
I have quite an affair going with growing new plants from cuttings and seeds. But one of my previous cuttings tables (built precariously out of bamboo) simply rotted and collapsed; the other (an old plastic garden table) bowed so dangerously in its brittle centre that it was a miracle it could support even a whiff of plant. 

It had got to the point that most of my cutting pots and seedlings trays were scattered over the ground.

I mused, aloud and often, that my new tables would be really big and long to hold a lot of plants. They’d be made out of something strong and resilient, perhaps treated decking planks. Maybe they’d have a shelf to hold empty pots. All we needed was someone to actually build the thing/s.

Most unhandy

Table one is a beauty. I don’t even notice the slightly splayed legs
After more than a year of musing and keening, V, my most unhandy husband, steps up to the task. First, a big pile of decking is delivered. I fully expect that the pile will lie on the lawn, carving brown ruts into the grass, for a few months. But no, come the weekend, and construction of the first table begins in a respite from the rain.

V works tirelessly. I am called on to assist with holding things in place so he can attach the legs. It’s a very strange business: it involves holding the top at a guesstimate distance from the wall (hopefully the same as the length of the legs). This is probably why the legs splay, ever so slightly. But he adds braces to the legs. So all is well.

Something else is a little odd – this table is about a metre high, at least as wide and pretty long. “It’s for giants,” I declare. “You wanted a big table,” he says. It’s so sweet that I really don’t care, and fortunately, I am tall enough to be able to reach the back at a stretch.

The outer reaches

Now for table two. This time, the handy Lub joins in the task. And before I know it, there’s a massive, really massive, triangular table in the corner, using the posts of the old fence as supports. Now, this table … I can only reach the back of it by walking outside the garden and stretching over the fence. So I lug a few saplings outside to get to the outer reaches – they need to grow quite a bit bigger before they get planted out.

But I don’t care a bit. And I didn’t even mention that the shelves are still to come. These are such special tables, and I wouldn’t change a thing about them.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Today smiles on us

After weeks of foul weather, today smiles on us with sunshine and a cooling breath of wind. That breath is becoming a hot berg wind, though, and the heat is surely a warning that more foul weather is on its way. Nevertheless … the day feels like summer and it reminds me how enormously privileged I am to live here next to the sea.

Treasures from the beach
So by 9am, I have downed tools – work can wait until later – and I’m on the beach, coated in sunscreen, with not another human in sight. The only fellow beach creatures (well, those that I can see anyway) are birds. It is, after all, a Wednesday morning.

I even have a quick dip, although the water is still on the chilly side. Mostly, though, I forage for things like shells, polished sea glass (did you know that the sea glass got that way because it’s been nurtured by the sea and sand for 20 to 30 years?), gnarled driftwood, and smooth rounded stones.

Some of the treasures get carted home, where they sit around the garden looking pretty. Sometimes, shells may have a practical purpose, like edging for a bed or pathway. Broken shells make fabulous mulch, especially in pots.

Some treasures find their way into mobiles
Some treasures and beach-found things become part of a mosaic or a mobile. I’ve just made a big mobile that hangs over a workspace in my office. It’s great inspiration for me when I’m doing something serious. 

Some find their way into mosaics
The flooded rivers – all this rain – brought down heaps of driftwood that has washed onto the beach, and a few pieces have found new life woven into my fence.

Recently, I paid a man called Lub to dig out a stretch of grass for a new bed. He turned out to be so handy that he built a gate – from driftwood – for an awkward spot. I’m thinking of adorning it with a few strings of shells …

My fellow beach creatures today

Thursday, 20 September 2012

An ode to singing souls

Whether it’s a passing touch of the blues or sheer horror that can persist for years, bad times happen to all of us. When I’ve been able to stand back and look at my own bad times with some sort of detachment, I’ve been intrigued trying to understand why some of us lift out of the sadness, sometimes with new momentum, and some seem almost trapped in bleakness.

The most joyful colour of all ... yellow flowers, like this hibiscus in my garden, are R’s favourite
There are plenty of theories, some to do with being a pessimist or an optimist. Also, I’m not suggesting for a second that depression is not a real disease that needs medical treatment.

In a relaxed conversation with my aunt, R, she gifted me (well, that’s how it felt) with a sudden sharp clarity that was so obvious and so crazy that it made complete sense.

“I think I have a singing soul,” she said. This is always how it has been for her, she said: she’d always had this deep joy about life. And I felt something smile deep inside me, inside my soul maybe.

Only twice had she not felt her soul sing. The first time was when she went to university for the first time and was desperately homesick: my aunt went to medical school in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Can you imagine how hard that must have been for the young woman at that time? Not only was she heading off on her own to another city, she was also venturing into what was decidedly a man’s profession.


The second time was when her husband of almost 50 years died; that was just over a year ago. Theirs was a fairy-tale marriage. They married soon after meeting each other – they just knew. Every week of their life together, he gave her flowers, usually yellow, her favourite. And as he became more and more ill, he told her that now, in the winter of his life, she was his evergreen.

She went into a very dark place after his death, and even though she would smile at you, as she had always done, there was a sense of great fragility and great despair. This is not something that you “get over”.

I know from the death of my own father in his 50s, very young, that you never get over the loss of someone you love. But eventually, you are able to think about him, and even genuinely smile about him, without feeling that you have been gutted.

R had lost her life partner, a wonderful man who was literally the centre of her life; their three grown daughters also proudly declare that they are always “Daddy’s girls”. I was just one person who began fearing that R would not be able to live with her loss.


And here she was, telling me that she could feel her soul sing again, bubbling up inside her. It brought tears to my eyes and it made me feel immensely happy. I realised that I too have this thing, this singing soul: even when there is immense sadness, the joy will come back. In this clarity, I knew that I had recognised it in my cousins. 

So I tell Vick about it. She responds: “Thank you for telling me this … It is beautiful and brings tears to my eyes too. What a wonderful notion. Grandma (our Mary) definitely had it too. Aren’t we superbly lucky to have come from these exquisite souls? I shall keep this to read forever as it tops up my soul.”

And that’s why I am sharing it with you. If you listen, chances are you’ll hear your soul sing too. I hope you do.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Jewels of the bush

Not long after we moved to East London, I found myself wending my car along a dusty farm track. I was searching for a nursery I’d heard about, one with a great variety of bromeliads, indigenous bulbs and clivia.

Jewel-like clivia flowers in my garden
Suddenly, it was upon me. Two excited and very large dogs herded me to rows of shadecloth-protected tables, groaning under the weight of plants. There, I met a woman called Stella. These plants, all of them, were so clearly her babies.

Stella noticed my awe of her clivias – the adults with their jewel-like flowers and the vast trays of infant plants. So she reached for a clivia’s fat red berry and began gently rubbing away at its skin. 

Slowly, one pearl-like seed emerged, and another and another. “This is how you do it,” she told me, and then handed the seeds to me.

Stella’s seeds and their grandchildren
Clivia nobilis

Stella’s farm nursery, sadly, is closed these days. But since our encounter, I’ve never bought another clivia plant. I’ve grown all of mine from seed, and I’m sure some are the grandchildren of those that came from Stella. And now, in springtime, I can’t keep my hands (or eyes) off my clivias, also known as “bush lillies”. It’s definitely the time for making babies.

Fresh from my foray into seed germination, I see the fruit hanging off the clivia among this spring’s flowers. Thankfully, I don’t battle with growing clivias from seed as I do with other plants (perhaps because these seeds are so big?).

Seeds newly harvested and laid on a sandy medium
A couple of years later, almost ready for planting out
Anyway, the berries I’m looking at now have formed from last year’s flowers, and they are ripe and juicy. I pick a bucketful of them, and they look good enough to eat. You shouldn’t though. They would make you ill. 

Wild abandon

I grow both Clivia miniata and the lesser-known Clivia nobilis. C miniata is more prized in the garden because it is supposedly the most spectacular of the six known varieties, most of which grow wild in the Eastern Cape. But I do like C nobilis, whose flowers droop like pretty pendants. It may be slower growing (or so it is said), but I find that it’s less bothered by the horrible amaryllis worm.
What I should do is separate the seeds of the two varieties so that they can be correctly labelled. I don’t do that, but then I don’t mind the varieties getting mixed up some kind of wild abandon in the garden. Next time.

Labour of love

I find a comfy spot to relax, and I begin opening the fleshy fruit and releasing the seeds from the membranes that keep them together and prevent water from penetrating the seeds (this could cause rot and fungus). It is a labour of love: it has to be because it can’t be rushed. At this point, some people will wash the seeds in a bleach or peroxide solution to prevent any possible fungus infection. I never have; I don’t think Stella did.

Close-up of the seed
Then I lay the pearly seeds onto a bed of quite sandy soil, pushing them down just a little, not to bury them, but more to secure them in the soil. And I will water them regularly.

From experience, I know that it will take a month or two for germination to start. And it is delightful: each seed sends out a tentative green shoot, which then twists itself into the soil. It will take a year or two before they get big enough to plant out into the garden. And it will take three to four years before we start seeing flowers. 

The wait pales into nothing when you’re rewarded with your very own homegrown clivias. I promise.

The flowers offer a vast array of colours

Monday, 10 September 2012

This serious frenzy of making babies

My method for rooting cuttings seems to be fairly successful, even with “difficult” plants, but my attempts to get seeds to grow is another story. V also, with his chilli obsession, tries to grow plants from seeds, but sadly, his success rate is even worse than mine.
A beautiful sight, full of promise
We’ve even passed on some precious chilli seeds, including the naga, to my sister Angela’s gardener, who seems to be able to grow all kinds of things.


Nevertheless, V went a bit crazy ordering seeds from an online  store called Living Seeds. He chose some unusual chillis, like white habanero and “NuMex Twilight”. I joined in the frenzy, and ordered old tomato varieties, including the heirloom brandywine cherry, as well as “Blue Peter” runner beans and “Caserta” marrow.

Angela came visiting in the midst of all of this, and she too got ordering. Strawberry popcorn and multi-coloured corn, among other things, went into the basket. We’ll swop seedlings later – assuming we get lucky enough to get to that stage.

A few days later, we take delivery of lots and lots of fascinating seeds. After we ooh and aah over the stash, we are faced with the obvious reality: now we have no choice but to get this seed business right. And what a serious business it seems to be.

Harass the Plant Guy

This warmer spring weather suggests that it’s a good time to plant seeds. But I suspect that my soil medium choices for germinating seeds are not good ones, so I start by harassing the local nursery person: he calls himself the Plant Guy and he supplies seedlings to nurseries all over East London. I know he knows all about growing seeds.

He explains kindly that for getting seeds to germinate, it’s best to use a milled bark medium, and none of the stuff that I’ve been using (peat moss, potting soil, and so on). A few days later, I collect a mega bag of this medium from the nursery.

Living Seeds also gives good advice on seed germination: it told me, for example, that using seed trays can give you 90% better germination rates than direct sowing. There’s no shortage of trays in my potting area, which nestles in a mostly sheltered and shady spot behind the garden shed.

Fine balance

I’ll be careful with watering: gentle watering that doesn’t dislodge the seeds; not too much (the seeds will “damp off”, drown and rot, in other words) or too little (well, they will shrivel up and die).

Many hours later – how did I land up doing all of this on my own? – trays of seeds buried in the Plant Guy’s mix (at a depth not more than three times the size of the seeds) are neatly placed on the potting table. Their names are written in red permanent marker on labels made from strips of a cut-up ice-cream container.

It’s quite a beautiful sight, I think, full of promise. And I will keep you posted on any success, or lack of it.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

My happy jeans with karma

Today, I am wearing my most beautiful jeans and they are making me feel happy, so happy that I want to dance. Not even the gloomy weather can get me down.

These epic jeans are going places – again
These jeans have a history, a karma, that is precious. Until last week, they belonged to my beloved friend, Kathy. She turned a regular pair of jeans (Lady Wranglers – that’s how old they are) into a work of art by combining layers of gorgeous fabrics, full of colour, texture and pattern, into something unique.

Kathy wore them for years – and yes, she loved to dance in them. They are full of joyful memories, including the whirlwind days of early romance with Phillip, her husband for the past decade. I can picture her – the blonde bombshell in her sexy jeans blowing Phillip away.

When she handed them to me last week, I was bowled over. With a sense of reverence, I attached another strip of fabric to the legs to accommodate my very long legs. Then I chopped off the waist – these jeans settled into the waist in a way that was once high fashion. I know the high-waisted stuff has been edging back, but its not for me.


But I cut off too much and had to sew on a new and lower hip/waist band for some decency. It was a good mistake that enriched the look, and the jeans fit perfectly. My daughter calls it “editing”.

I’m telling you all of this because it backs my conviction that truly beautiful things don’t have to be found in shops: I choose items with karma over the shiny new and soulless anytime. It’s better for the environment, too.

Beautiful things can be discovered anywhere, maybe even lurking in the back of your wardrobe. Often these pleasures – these previously loved things – are patiently waiting for a new life.
  • Treat yourself: check out Kathy’s art here.

Monday, 3 September 2012

In search of the lemonwoods

Up. The thin path winds through the forest, up and up the mountain. And we keep going. V and I are searching for the grove of lemonwood trees that we’ve heard about. We’re not even sure that we are on the right path. But it doesn’t matter. Long ago, or so it seems, we settled into enjoying the journey.

The old man of the forest
The journey is taking us past the great-granddaddies of knobwood (Zanthoxylum) trees. These specimens are so magnificent that they make me catch my breath. Their thick embossed trunks stretch upwards to the light, taller than I’ve ever seen them. Likewise, the cabbage trees (Kiepersols): these are tall, slender creatures, their heads gracefully bobbing out of the forest. The yellowwoods are tallest of all.

Carpets of crocosmia

In the lower layers, there in the carpets of orange crocosmia and between the protrusions of twisted wood, are the juvenile trees. At the very top of the mountain – this must be the top – we thrill as we pick our steps across a spring running over a bed of smooth rocks.

And in the stillness of the forest – even the birds are silent – we are, most humbly, tiny specks of being in a big, big picture.

We’re wandering along the footpaths of the Xholora forest outside the little town of Stutterheim in the Amatola Mountains. We’ve found the most delightful escape: it is named, most appropriately, the Shire. We do expect to see hobbits any time.

Sea of grass

The guest chalets – there are four of them – are spaced across a sea of grassland, and their shape reminds me of boats. Or caravans. Or temples. Whatever they are, these cocoons of wood are beautiful feats of engineering, with curved walls and even curved glass.

Cocoon of wood and glass
As a child, I played on these forest roads
We’d never considered Stutterheim for a weekend getaway in the past. But it is a true pleasure, offering real peace and quiet within 80km of East London. And accommodation here is still pretty affordable.

Yesterday, we strolled along a forest dirt road, just around the next corner, and the next, until we’d walked for hours. And I remembered playing on just such a road in the Stutterheim forests when I was a small child and my grandmother Mary painted pictures of trees. Perhaps she painted that tree, or that one.

We never did find the lemonwoods (at least, I don’t think we did). We found a lot more.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Go native

Down here in South Africa, especially along the coast, we seem to have a perpetual fixation with palm trees. I know, I know … we’re trying to evoke a sense of being on a tropical island. Or something.

Choose me ... the knobwood tree
But it’s old fashioned and inappropriate in this world where the imperative is taking care of our environment. A big part of that is planting indigenous, especially when it comes to the really big stuff trees.

Think Durban beachfront: it’s literally coated with palm trees. They started dying at some stage. You have to wonder why the effort of planning and spending public money didn’t go into planting something indigenous, like our lovely milkwoods, red or white (Mimusops, Sideroxylon inerme).

We are so fortunate to live in a nature reserve next to the sea, but I am disturbed that somebody took it upon themselves to plant an exotic fan palm in a public space here. It is dying, thank goodness. But still. I assume this person has not seen a veld fire (wild fire) – they have swept through the reserve from time to time – nor a burning palm. Their high oil content turns them into torches. I’d say that is a hazard in a nature reserve.

Or me ... the cabbage tree
Very few palms are indigenous to South Africa, and even those tend to have very localised growing areas. They include the Kosi Bay palm (Raphia australis), wild date palm (Phoenix reclinata), Pondoland coconut palm (Jubeaopsis caffra), and the Ilala palm (Hyphaene coriacea).

Beautiful locals

There are so many beautiful local alternatives to palm trees that it makes your mind boggle. The cabbage tree (Kiepersol) is one of my favourites. I have several in my garden. The bushbuck love to eat it too.

Or me ... the allophyllus
The deciduous knobwood (Zanthoxylum) is fascinating. They make gorgeous neat trees that soon establish little groves. When you crush their leaves, they delight with a whiff of lemon.

This part of the Eastern Cape is home to magnificent coral trees (Erythrina), also deciduous. Collecting bowls and bowls of shiny red lucky beans that drop from these trees are part of my childhood memories.

The allophyllus, now sporting handsome red berries, thrives on this part of the coast. And the wild olive (Olea europaea sbsp Africana) stands up admirably to the sea winds; I know because I killed a string of trees by exposing them to the wind before I happened on this pretty thing.

The white stinkwood (Celtis Africana) grows well down here. In my Irene, Pretoria, garden, it was one of my favourites. Even the stunning fever tree (Acacia xanthophloea) grows here – I had a beauty in my suburban East London garden – but it grows naturally much further north than here.

These are just a few of the possibilities that I can think of offhand. With such a wealth of native trees, why would one ever choose the exotic?
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