Gorgeous Green House

The Renovation Journey of a 1940’s ‘Traditional’ to 2015 ‘Contemporary, Green & Gorgeous’


Natural Swimming Pool Ticks All The Green Boxes

We started with a traditional sterile pool

We started with a traditional sterile pool

Swimming on the hottest of summer days for many of us is one of life’s greatest pleasures.  What is not so enjoyable is the consequences of exposure to chlorine and other chemicals a traditional pool requires to be ‘healthy’. Sore eyes and itchy skin are experienced by most.  Others suffer more extreme effects such as eczema, rashes, asthma, allergy and breathing problems.

At the commence of the build the pool became a pond.

At the commence of the build the pool became a pond.

Our alternative can be to mimic natural healthy water systems and instead of suffering the toxic effects of chlorine, we are nourishing our skin and hair and experiencing the holistic full sensory benefits of water that is bursting with life and colour, buzzing with dragonflies and other insects and soothing the soul with the tranquillity of a mountain pond or stream.

Design Options

Tilapia added to eat mozzie larvae

If extremely close proximity to swimming, flying and buzzing creatures is not for you, the design of your pool can keep the wildlife at a distance (literally). You can still have a pool with a traditional aesthetic combined with the benefits of the plant filtration process the natural pool provides. Your design is limited only by your imagination!  Re-creations of the rustic old swimming hole are very popular but contemporary designs are equally adaptable.

Our builder was provided very sophisticated drawings detailing the swimming vs planting zones.

Our builder was provided very sophisticated drawings detailing the swimming vs planting zones.

Essentially, whatever the design you need to ensure that the planted area is roughly 50% of your swimming area.  You can integrate the plants into the swimming section, have them alongside or even around the corner!  As long as you install a pump that can move the water the required distance you can create any look you desire.

How does it work?

The planted area also known as the ‘regeneration area’ is responsible for cleaning, filtering and oxygenating the water that passes through it. Native (indigenous) aquatics also consume nutrients that could otherwise create algae bloom.  Animals and insects will be attracted to this area for its plant life, but these in turn will control any pest issues such as mosquitoes from laying their larvae into the water.  Plants are anchored in gravel and this assists with filtration as well.

Regeneration zone in 3 tiers allows for aeration.  Note how little gravel and water is designed for each section.

Regeneration zone in 3 tiers allows for aeration. Note how little gravel and water is designed for each section.


Providing for water circulation is vital. It will clean and oxygenate the water and additionally add to an environment that mosquitoes do not enjoy. Without adequate oxygen, your pool could become stagnant, harbouring odoriferous anaerobic bacteria.

Breakdown commences.  New contemporary shape designed to fit into the boundary of the old

Breakdown commences. New contemporary shape designed to fit into the boundary of the old

Carefully consider your volumes and distances of movement as this will inform the size of the pump you will need.  Visualize how waterfalls or fountains can be introduced into the design as in addition to looking beautiful they sound lovely and can mask the sound of traffic or noisy neighbours.


Ensure that your regeneration zone receives plenty of sunlight.  Most aquatic plants need good quantities to thrive.  The healthier your plants the healthier your water. Your goal should be to achieve crystal clear drinking standard water!

The structure is in. Swimming area foreground, planted section behind

The structure is in. Swimming area foreground, planted section behind

Building Materials

Your options are vast.  People are creating natural pools by simply digging a hole, lining it with bentonite, synthetic material or rubber and then covering the bottom with 10 – 15 cm of gravel.  Not everyone is comfortable with the rustic (but very economical option) so more standard pool materials are also used.  If you can, it is advisable to line the pool the with fiberglass rather than marbelite as it repels algae far more effectively.

Care and Maintenance

No more PH testing and constant addition of chemicals.  But with all things a little care makes them work better.  Position your weir on the side of the pool that the wind normally blows the leaves to.  You can still use a conventional automatic pool cleaner and insert a leaf catcher like the Gator to collect surface debris.

Planted up and close up of on of the three 'waterfalls' in contemporary design.

Planted up and close up of on of the three ‘waterfalls’ in contemporary design.

Some people install a UV filter to assist with killing of algae. It is possible that they may also kill off many beneficial organisms so we have not done so.

The plants will at times need thinning out and excessive decaying material should be removed.  Overall though, once your system is established you will discover that you  have far more time to enjoy your mini wetland rather than work it.  If you live in the Northern hemisphere you do not need to drain the pool in Autumn.  Except for topping up now and then, you’ll fill the pool only once.

Selecting Plants

Be sure to choose plants suited to your climate. Your best bet is to obtain your plants from a native (indigenous) plant supplier as they will fare best. Try and get as much diversity of species as you are able as different plants offer different cleaning and filtration properties. Be sure to include submergent plants such as for their high oxygen output.

Finished result.  A beautiful green and healthy place for us to play and relax for years to come.

Finished result. A beautiful green and healthy place for us to play and relax for years to come.

Diversity of species will also attract diversity of wildlife for you to enjoy.

My pool is in Durban, South Africa and these are the species I have managed to source so far:

Cotula nigelifolia


Ethulia conyzoides subsp. Kraussii .

Ludwigia adsendens

Ludwigia stolanefora

Crinum campanulatum

Ethulia conyzoides subsp. Cypes

Floscopa scandens

Berula  erecta

Isolepsis Live Wire Grass Seeds


Carex acutiformis

Plectranthus mirabilis

Zantedeshia aethiopica


Dissotis princeps

Mentha longifolia

Now we are just waiting for Spring when the water will be warm enough to jump into.  In the meantime we are already enjoying the plants and the wildlife and are amazed out how clear the water is in just a few short weeks since we planted.


Green Roof Dream Actualized

Pic courtesy Geoff Nichols

Pic courtesy Geoff Nichols

Imagine our cities with birds and butterflies flitting from building to building. Imagine views from tall buildings that include roof tops full of plants, rich with life and colour and the sound of birdsong and insects. This is starting to happening all over the planet. People are seeking alternatives to the alienating and sterile world of concrete, without moving to the countryside.  Roof gardens provide all of this and much, much more!

I have dreamed of creating my own green roof for so long it hardly seems real that it is now in.  This post is about the benefits of green roofs and quite a detailed ‘How To’ guide for those who wish to do the same. Early inspiration came from the Green Roof Pilot Project (GRPP) at eThekwini which is testing various options that provide healthier urban environments.  This project among others has shown that these living roofs (as they are also called) naturally increase biodiversity and are aesthetically beautiful, but there are numerous other good reasons to seriously consider installing one:dog house roof garden

  • They insulate the house, reducing the amount of cooling and heating required
  • They lower the amount of storm water run-off
  • Improve air quality through the reduction of air borne pollutants, including harmful carbon monoxide.
  • They absorb chemicals and heavy metals from rainwater
  • There are positive climate change impacts via absorption of carbon dioxide and the release of oxygen during photosynthesis.
  • They help insulate for sound
  • They reduce maintenance cost of roofs and increase its lifespan by two to three times.
  • Can assist in the alleviation of food security issues.
  • Provide fire resistance
  • Offer electromagnetic insulation.

There are broadly two options for installation.  One way to go is planting in trays.  I have used the direct method which involves placing the shallow amount of growing medium on top of various protective and drainage layers which I will show step by step.

Before you start though it is imperative to ensure a structural engineer has confirmed that your roof can take the extra load (or if you are building from scratch engineer into the design).

Layer 1:  Waterproofing

Layer 1: Waterproofing

We began by installing a serious waterproofing product called ExtruBit ® .  This stuff looks a bit like wet suit material is flexible and really tough. A company called Bertrade did the installation which involved heat sealing the overlap areas. No mean feat in Durban’s hot and humid February.

The next three layers provide the drainage and help ensure the soil won’t get into the full bores.  Pula Water supplied their amazing drainage mats (Flow-Cell ®) which are sandwiched by geotextile. This was a cinch to install, somewhat reminiscent of playing with Lego as you are rewarded with a very satisfying click as each mat slots into the other!  In addition to ensuring the water will drain

Layers 2 & 3: Geotextile (white) then Flow Cell mats.  Layer 4 on top is Geotextile

Layers 2 & 3: Geotextile (white) then Flow Cell mats.

away they are designed to do so slowly so plants have time to drink.

You are now ready for your soil mix.  My soil has come out of the ground being dug for the water harvesting tank. Not very nutritious so I have mixed it half/half with pine bark compost from Grovida.

Soil coming up on the conveyer

Soil coming up on the conveyer

In addition I have added bags of organic accelerator, agricultural lime and 2:3:2. Over and above general dispersal of the above, each largish plant hole received a handful of the extras to give a nutritional boost.Before we talk the about the most exciting bit which is obviously the plants I have to share with you the less interesting but vitally important info on how to deal with your full bores. This is the area you roof garden will ‘fall’ to (i.e. slope down to) and it is crucial that you have sufficient drainage or your garden will fill up and swim over the edge of it.  To help slow down the process in the event of heavy rain this is what you can do:

1.  Cut or drill holes/grooves into a section of pipe that is the diameter of your full  bore an height of your garden

1. Cut or drill holes/grooves into a section of pipe that is the diameter of your full bore and height of your garden.  Thanks Geoff!

1.  Source pipe the diameter of your fullbore and cut to height of soil

2. Position directly over full bore

2.  Surround the pipe with aprox. 500mm width of gravel encased by bidum

3. Surround the pipe with aprox. 500mm width of gravel encased by bidum

3.  Cover with rock

4. Cover with rocks

4. Plant around as you wish

5. Plant around as you wish

Choose your plant species carefully.  It goes without saying your locally indigenous/native plants must be selected and these should be water wise and heat tolerant. Plants that grow in cracks and crevices are ideal.  Bear in mind that the soil is shallow and will dry out quickly.  Plants should (in the main) also be low growing and wind resistant.  Ideally they should also be self seeding to replace themselves when stressed by heat and water fluctuations.

They beauty of using the correct plants means that after they have been established irrigation is seldom required.  Plan to utilize at least one of the many water harvesting options.  Gutters and grey water re-cycling are easily installed. (Detailed posts to follow).

Ecstatic me planting at last!

Ecstatic me planting at last!

For those of you in Durban South Africa here is a list of plants that will do well:

Aellanthus parvifolius, Aptenia cordifolia, Aloe maculata, Aloe cooperii, Bulbine abyssinica, Bulbine natalensis, Cissus quadrangularis, Cissus fragilis, Crassula multicava, 
Crassula hirta, Crassula ovata, Crassula obovata, Crassula perofliat, Crassula vaginata, Aloe rborescens, Aloe rupestris, Aloe thraskii, Aloe van belanii, Cotyledon orbiculata,Delosperma rogers   Hibisucs calphyllus, Kalanchoe thyrsiflora, Nymphoides thunbergiana, Portulacarai afra, Stafpelia ginantea, Vernonia capensis
Aloe van belanii, Crassula, Euphorbia, Venonia capensis

Aloe van belanii, Crassula, Euphorbia, Venonia capensis

more gorgeous hardy indigenous treasures.

Gorgeous hardy indigenous treasures.

I know this garden will give us much joy in the years to come.  I hope you’ve been inspired!

Small pond  awaiting planting to attract the kingfishers

Small pond awaiting planting to attract the kingfishers

What we will look like in a few months time (Pic Courtesy Geoff Nichols)

What we will look like in a few months time (Pic Courtesy Geoff Nichols)

P.S.  I know many of you are desperate for the post on the Vertical Garden.  The scaffolding is still in front of it and the minute it’s down I’ll be able to show you it in all its early splendor.  Here is a little glimpse of what is flowering at the moment.

Streptocarpus sp

Streptocarpus sp

Useful Reference:  Etekwini Guidelines Document


Vermiculture: gardener’s gold

I have developed quite an emotional attachment to my worms.  For good reason, they are truly amazing and greatly underappreciated creatures.

Gardeners Gold.  the result of vermiculture is the Rolls Royce of compost

Gardeners Gold. the result of vermiculture is the Rolls Royce of compost

If you haven’t yet discovered the joy of worm farming I urge you to give it a go. For the yet to be initiated:

Vermicompost is the product or process of composting using various worms, usually red wigglers, white worms, and other earthworms to create a heterogeneous mixture of decomposing vegetable or food waste, bedding materials, and vermicast. Wikipedia

Earthworms aerate, till and fertilize the soil, breaking down organic waste into plant-available forms, improving the soil structure and nutrient and water-holding qualities of soil.  darwin quoteCurrent farming practices that use chemical fertilizers, pesticides and over-tillage of the soil kills earthworms and other beneficial organisms, leading to poor soil fertility, loss of soil structure and soil erosion. At the same time, rotting organic waste dumped in landfills is polluting our underground water supply and releasing vast amounts of greenhouse gases which contribute to global warming.

Earthworms eat organic waste and give us healthy soil and organic fertilizer in return. The knock on effect is healthy plant growth and food that is significantly more nutritious and delicious.  Farming/gardening without man-made chemicals enables us to avoid poisoning our soil, environment and bodies. This perfect partnership is easy and fun to develop on a smaller scale at home.

There are numerous commercial systems available but you really don’t need a hi-tech operation to get started so go with what your budget allows or make your own.  My

Worm Farm. Simple design.  Effective.

Worm Farm. Simple design. Effective.

son has designed this ingenious system which enables us to maintain the health of the farm and easily harvest the ‘gardener’s gold’.  These simple re-cycled plastic boxes are divided by a section that has holes cut into it.  One side of the box is filled with food until full.  At this point we begin filling the other side leaving the first side to break down further.  As the food disappears the worms will move into the food rich section leaving behind the easy to harvest worm castings which contain up to 100-million microbes per gram – up to 20 times more than ordinary soil!  Added to your garden, these microbes continue to break down organic matter into plant-available forms, thereby enabling plant roots to take up nutrients that would otherwise have stayed bound in the soil. These beneficial organisms also suppress the growth of pathogens, which means healthy soil and healthy plants.  In addition to harvesting the castings we catch the worm wee (leachate) which drips through a hole in the base. It makes a wonderfully nutritious tea when mixed with water.  Tea for plants that is :-).

Rat nibbled aeration patch

Rat nibbled aeration patch

My farms, however, we getting a bit to much attention from other wildlife in the garden.  I realised that the aeration patches had been gnawed through and at least one rat was feasting on my red wrigglers.  I’m all for ‘the cycle of life’ etc. but realised my population was taking to much of a knock.  It was time for some maintenance and harvesting anyway so I got stuck in.  The old aeration patches

Air vent repaired with rat proof metal mesh

Air vent repaired with rat proof metal mesh

were replaced with wired mesh, the harvestable sides were harvested, the worm filled sides set aside and the whole box was given a good clean.  Worms were returned with a note on top to advise other family members to now only feed on the one side (yes it is necessary in my family!). Worms are now safe from predators and I have buckets of gold to mix into my veggies boxes.

repaired and restored

repaired and restored

P.S.  I know many of you are very anxious to see images of the incredible vertical garden.  I ask you to bear with me a little longer.  The scaffolding will be coming down soon and then you will get a much better sense of this exciting project.  If you can’t wait to get started on your own VG but need some help, get hold of the plant wizard James Halle on james@halle.co.za.  

Beautiful organic harvest grown in gardeners gold fed soil

Beautiful organic harvest grown in gardeners gold fed soil

 When presented with the concept of resilience in relation to garden practices words like sustainable, hard-wearing (as in strong) and healthy came to mind.  All of these words describe any vibrant eco-system.  The opportunity for the gardener is then to take our lessons from nature if we want gardens that will thrive without too much intervention.  It is no coincidence that nature just goes about her business (if not interfered with) in a sustainable and resilient way. These are some of the lessons I’ve learned on my gardening journey:

SOIL HEALTH Easy to make Leaf cage

During autumn nature provides her most important harvest:  fallen leaves.  This is the perfect cycle of replenishment to the soil and the provision of nourishment for all life in the ecosystem; yet we sweep up this abundant gift into plastic bags and send it off to land fill.  Come spring we drive to the garden center and buy compost in more plastic bags.  Mulching is vital for soil health and the quality of store-bought compost is not the same as that of its natural counterpart.  Worse still is the application of chemical fertilizer.  Over time it throws out the natural balance of minerals and nutrients and impacts on microbial and other life.  So get mulching and with all your excess leaves, lawn clippings etc. then start composting to improve your soil health. Next investigate the fascinating world of vermiculture (worm farming).  These little creatures can take your soil health even further.


Applying chemical pesticides is at best a short-term solution.  It might kill the insect that you believe is destroying your plant but which has, in fact, been providing an important service.   I’ve seen Cussonia spicata and Erythrina lysistemon infested with the most fascinating caterpillars, devouring every available leaf  and yet the plant emerges stronger and more beautiful than before. (Don’t forget that a caterpillar is also a moth or a butterfly and who doesn’t want those lovelies in their garden!).  Bear in mind that a poisoned insect often poisons other wildlife who feed on it and so on up the food chain. If you are desperate to remove insects, do some research on organic alternatives.


Caterpillars and ants also belong

Caterpillars and ants also belong

The most fun I’ve had gardening is copying what occurs naturally.  I’ve done this on a largish scale at my conservancy (converting sugar cane into four biospheres) and on a tiny scale in my 1 500sq my town garden.  What I have learned is that bio-diversity = healthy.  Monoculture requires a lot more maintenance (intervention) and is therefore less resilient. Even surrounded with neighbours paved yards one is able to create, even in the tiniest garden a beautiful haven filled with birds, butterflies, gorgeous colour, cool tranquil spaces, movement, energy, sound and joy. I would recommend developing your garden with these plant groupings in order of priority:

Tranquility under the trees

Tranquility under the trees

Woodland section:  Trees enhance even very small gardens giving us somewhere cool to escape the heat of summer and our homes are more comfortable without excessive direct light.  When researching species, look for trees/shrubs that don’t grow to great heights and give you great ROI.  By that I mean look for trees that attract birds and butterflies and have an appearance that you like i.e. great value in one plant!  Don’t worry about planting them close together, in the forest they have to compete for light so they will make their own way.  Think about which side of the garden you want the shade and plant accordingly.  Bear in mind that some trees are deciduous (good for leaves) but you may lose the shade you want on your veranda in winter.  Most importantly though, if resilience is what you are after, plant locally indigenous as they will need no attention once they are established.  Once you’ve got your trees in think about your understory.  These plants will need to change over time as the shade area increases.  Once again, take a walk through your closest nature reserve and see what is growing happily.  If it is attractive looking there is a very good chance it will be available to buy.

Alternative plants to lawn

Alternative plants to lawn

Grassland section:  Large expanses of lawn are much overrated. The argument for soccer and cricket falls short in most urban gardens as they are generally too small.  Lawn requires more water, fertilizer, weed and insect treatment (and labour) than other parts of the garden. Grass is also mono culture and as far as attracting wildlife to your garden it has little to redeem it.  Why not create a natural grassland habitat?  There are so many gorgeous grasses that attract seed eating birds and an abundance of flowers, aloes, bulbs, small shrubs etc that are a visual delight and will provide hours of entertainment because of the wildlife they attract.

Tiny pond attracts mega wildlife

Tiny pond attracts mega wildlife

Wetland Section:  Ok, the term Wetland may be pushing it for a small garden, but even the tiniest of gardens can support a small pond. They bring a wonderful element to a garden and require very little work.  Even a large plastic tub filled with some water plants (e.g. Cyperus prolifer, Nymphaea nouchali, Nymphoides indica, Zantedeschia aethiopica) works.  My pond is about 1.5 X 1 M and attracts multitudes of dragonflies, and birds including Woolly necked storks!  If you’ve got plants in the water you don’t need to fuss with pumps and the like, the plants keep the water clean for you.  You can even add some fish.  My indigenous tilapia have been going for years in my tiny pond.  

Veggie garden:  On a macro environmental scale, agriculture (monoculture) presents a huge threat to the

Plant some veggies for the planet and your own resilience

Plant some veggies for the planet and your own resilience

environment and therefore the capacity for resilience of all life.  If we all carved out a small space (even if it’s just a sunny windowsill) to grow some food we would be making a contribution to the resilience of the planet as a whole!

Happy Gardening!


Why Removing Exotic/Alien Trees Doesn’t Have to be Painful

In South Africa we have a long history of importing trees. Many came to us by accident and I expect many immigrants wanted reminders of home and planted what was familiar in their adopted country. Many very common exotic and alien trees are quite pretty and so prolific that many people are not aware they are not South African.

It could feel unnecessary or even cruel to remove a beautiful large specimen of say, a Jacaranda, Hibiscus or Frangipani so what would justify it?

  1. Because exotic plants fall outside of their natural environment they often have to be pampered with extra water, fertilizer or sadly sometimes pesticides.

    Professional Tree Fellers

  2. Plants categorised as aliens go in the opposite direction. They are so comfortable in their new environment they multiply exponentially, crowding out indigenous flora, sucking up water and nutrients from the soil and reducing our biodiversity.
  3. Exotic/alien trees may offer some food to some bird species but they will never fulfill all the requirements for feeding, breeding, resting and nesting that our indigenous species do.

    Ficus natalensis provides all the nesting Hadida’s family’s needs in the bottom of our Gorgeous Green House Garden

  4. Most of our other wildlife rely on our indigenous (native)  flora for survival. Some are so fussy that only specific species will do.  As aliens march onward crowding out indigenous plants all the life in the eco system in reduced.
  5. Indigenous trees once established need no further watering or fertilizing.  Perfect for the lazy gardener!
  6. The joy that creating a natural wildlife habitat, rather than a garden planted just for its appearance, is an experience that our whole selves resonate with. It helps us remember that we too are just creatures in this amazingly complex and beautiful world.

Burchellia bubalina, fantastic indigenous tree for birds and moths. As beautiful as any exotic!

Ring barking process

Mushroom growth less than a month after felling.

Perhaps you’ve been thinking about taking the plunge to convert to or add more indigenous but are a bit overwhelmed by the idea of removal and wonder where to start.  You could consider ring barking which will kill the tree off slowly and in the process provide a larder full of insects for birds and other wildlife to enjoy (and you to watch!).

Alternatively get in the professionals.  They charge more to remove the stump but I think it’s unnecessary.  Stumps don’t take long to become covered in fungi and mushrooms and rot away.

Sawdust for the Gorgeous Green House compost heap

One more tip:  when choosing your tree feller ask if they will chip your wood and as a bonus you also acquire a mountain of organic matter to add to your compost heap (and prevent it from going to  landfill :-)).

Once you’ve cleared space in your garden you now have the fun of selecting the replacements!  I’ve got a list of my favourites for a Durban coastal garden.  I’ve put them in a table describing size, fruit, flowers, wild life attracting properties, and what butterflies they may be hosts for.  I am delighted  to share.  Just write a comment and I will mail it to you. 

My best tip:  get yourself a copy of Bring Nature Back To Your Garden by Charles and Julia Botha.  If you want to get closer to nature this fantastic handbook, written without pretension and much humour will be a wise investment!

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Lose the Lawn!

In 2007 NASA identified grass production as the number one agricultural group in the US at a staggering 23 million acres.  The second-place cultivated crop was corn at seven million.   I couldn’t find any equivalent figures for South Africa but I do know that we love our lawns and I wonder why.

Lawn requires more water, fertilizer and weed and insect treatment (and work) than other parts of the garden. Grass is also mono culture and as far as attracting wildlife to your garden it has little to redeem it.  Using chemical fertilizers and pesticides have a horrible environmental impact.

Hibiscus praetuertus

Why not consider converting some of your lawn to a veggie garden or to planting more indigenous (native) bird and other wildlife attracting plants in your garden? Using your lawn as a small rug in the garden and not the carpet will change the way the space looks, feels and impacts on your local ecology. In addition you will save money on your water and fertilizer bill.  It will be a safe for children and pets and your will have a reduced dependence on lawn mowers and their maintenance.  Think also of the time saved!

At my Gorgeous Green House there isn’t a massive amount of lawn, but more than I want and I immediately need to create beds to propagate plants for the roof and vertical gardens. Digging up lawn is backbreaking work and you never seem to get all the roots out.  This is an old permaculture technique that works a treat and really is the easiest and greenest way to lose the lawn.

Well watered cardboard. Thanks Vusani

1.  Layer down some cardboard (you can also use newspaper). Water it to soggyness. This layer kills the grass and weeds by blocking sunlight, adds nutrients to the soil as weed matter quickly decays beneath the barrier, and increases the mechanical stability of the growing medium.

2. Add an approximate 10 cm thick layer of compost.

3.  Add some further woody and leafy matter, wood chips etc. If you have access to manure, fantastic!  These layers are now encouraging favourable soil microbial activity and worms and enhancing soil structure

Additional mulch

4.  Continue to keep moist

5.  In a few months the layers will have disintegrated and you are now ready for planting.

Rich, grass free soil ready for planting

Your plants will get a fantastic start often leading to improved resistance to pests and diseases and your garden will always be filled with the sounds of nature, bees, birds and butterflies. .