Gorgeous Green House

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

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Bee Keeping and the Perils of Wax Moth

Peter, our apiarist

Peter, our apiarist

Bees worldwide are under threat with colonies collapsing on a frightening scale. The main culprit that has emerged is a new type of insecticide, a neurological toxin that affects information processing in the bee’s brain.  After a while they can’t navigate home.  Foraging bees die before they can get back to feed the babies or they pass it onto the babies and queen.

Einstein pointed out:

“If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live.”

Bountiful harvest

Bountiful harvest

DSC00538There is a strong possibility that if we don’t change our agri-industry practices that use these insecticides, our urban bees may be the only the survivors. It will be the urban bee keepers who will be called on to re-populate our rural/agricultural areas when we are forced to return to earth friendly farming methods.

Bees-keeping is fun and the harvest of course a wonderful treat.  It can also be a good source of income as our son has experienced.

When we moved to the Gorgeous Green House there was no question of the bees not coming with us.  Not an easy task to transport.  The process has to be done at night as the swarm are out foraging during day and it would be rather cruel to take away their home before their return.

Lugging Hive up the Hill

Lugging Hive up the Hill

...and along the path

…and along the path

Our experience of bee keeping (other than the odd sting)  up until a few weeks ago had all been fairly uneventful.  We had been encouraged to add a second hive.  To our dismay we noticed that one hive suddenly had no activity.  On inspection we discovered the dreaded wax moth.

Wax moth

Wax moth

Wax moth larvae

Wax moth larvae

As you can see they have completely obliterated the brood and the adults have departed with all the honey they could carry.  Apparently swarms are vulnerable when they are still small as stronger colonies will evict the moth larvae. It seems it is also very important to make sure there are no additional access points other than the main entrance.

Another unwanted visitor:  millipede

Another unwanted visitor: millipede

Cacoon's and all sorts of nasties

Cocoon’s and all sorts of nasties

When we pulled out all the frames we discovered a few other unwanted visitors like this millipede.  There were also cockroaches that scuttled off before having their picture taken.

Frames into fire pit.

Frames into fire pit.

Goodbye wax moth

Goodbye wax moth

We did go into a bit of a panic. Mostly out of concern for the other hive and thought best to destroy all the frames so into the fire pit they went.  We have learned subsequently that this was an overreaction and all we needed to do was tie them up in black bags and let bake in sun for  a few days.  Alternatively, if you have a large freezer they can go in there.

We are not daunted by this small set back however.  And please don’t let this put you off if you are considering bee keeping.  The rewards are well worth the effort and we’ve learned a bit along the way.  Its the old story, prevention is better than cure, so we will be plugging up our entrances and taking more care in the future.



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!


Avaaz Helps Create Breathing Space for Our Bees

Bees worldwide are under threat.  Bee colonies are collapsing on a frightening scale. The main culprit that has emerged is a new type of insecticide which is a neurological toxin that affects information processing in the bee’s brain.  After a while they can’t navigate home.  Foraging bees die before they can get back to feed the babies or they pass it onto the babies and queen.  In SA we are now using these toxic insecticides even though they have been banned in Germany, France and England.

Bees pollinate two-thirds of all our food.  Their contribution to the SA citrus industry alone accounts for 1.6 million rand in value.  When scientists noticed that silently, they were dying at a terrifying rate, Avaaz swung in to action, and kept on swinging until they won. This week’s victory is the result of two years of flooding ministers with messages, organizing media-grabbing protests with beekeepers, funding opinion polls and much, much more.

As Einstein pointed out:

“If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live.”

Bernie, the huge inflatable bee, helps deliver the 2.6m strong petition to Brussels

Some good news.  Avaaz’s activism has convinced the politicians in Europe to ban these lethal insecticides.  Vanessa Amaral-Rogers from the specialist conservation organisation Buglife, says:“It was a close vote, but thanks to a massive mobilisation by Avaaz members, beekeepers, and others, we won! I have no doubt that the floods of phone calls and emails to ministers, the actions in London, Brussels and Cologne, and the giant petition with 2.6 million signers made this result possible. Thank you Avaaz, and everyone who worked so hard to save bees!”

However, the EU ban is only in place for 2 years pending further review. In South Africa and across the world there’s lots of work to do to ensure sound science guides our farming and environmental policies. 

PS: Let’s keep this going — chip in to ensure we can launch rapid-fire, multi-tactic campaigns on the issues we all care about: https://secure.avaaz.org/en/bees_victory/?boAYgab&v=24668


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. .


Concrete Log Idiocy!

I was watching a gardening programme on TV last night and the presenter was showing viewers how to make their own concrete logs.

Now I ask you with tears in my eyes why on earth would anyone want a concrete log in their garden? We were encouraged to get hold of a log, cover it in silicone which becomes the mould that you then press onto a concrete ‘sausage’ to aproximate a log.  The result was not very effective.

So lets unpack this.  One starts with a real log and and uses it to make something that looks sort of the same – but not really


one could, with that same log:

Log beginning to rot and growing moss

allow nature to take its course so beautiful mosses and fungi can grow.

Termites feasting

Termites and other insects can then begin to devour the log and birds and other wildlife will be attracted into your garden to feast on them.

Black Collared Barbet

Olive Woodpecker

If you are very lucky (but only if you absolutely  NEVER use pesticides) you may even encourage these gorgeous chameleons into your garden.

Black Headed Dwarf chameleon

I know I will have arrived as a  gardener when my garden’s health and vibrancy creates a home for these delicate and highly endangered creatures.

Or then again – I can put something that sort of looks like log… sorry, can’t even finish that sentence!

mmm…wonder how much the concrete company paid for that insert?