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Archives for September 15, 2014

Big dreams sometimes make unfortunate failures

Crowd funding sites are full of innovative ideas. Anyone can admit that. Sometimes the ideas are too bizarre to come to fruition, and other times it’s merely poor publicity causing campaigns to meet their doom. Some ideas are plain worthless, and others are perhaps better in theory.

This week a host of projects will be funded, but one local campaign is not so lucky. The Kickstarter project Japanese Garden by John Atchison isn’t necessarily a bad idea. It would greatly enhance the community in Lindon where Atchison had hoped to build it.

The project sought funding to purchase a parcel of land and then hire contractors and landscapers to build the Japanese-themed garden. Two different parcels were selected in Lindon and proposed as possible locations. After purchasing the land, the plan was to acquire trees, plants, install water features and build Japanese structures to make the garden complete.

“Do you remember the garden in the back of Mr. Miyagi’s house in the original “Karate Kid” movie…?” the Kickstarter page asks. “I have visited Japanese gardens and find them very relaxing. The problem with Mr. Miyagi’s is that it is private and nobody gets to see it. I would like to share the experience with all who want to come.”

The project outlines needed materials and addresses potential hurdles with design and and landscaping, acquiring city permits, paving and exterior lights. 

Now here’s where the idea probably came to a screeching halt. Sticker shock. The goal was to raise $1,000,000. Yes, you counted the number of zeros correctly. A hefty price tag like that is likely going to scare away a handful of backers, not to mention the rewards for people not directly in the area are low. While the garden park would surely benefit Utah Valley, it’s not going to impact many people around the world — and a project is going to need more than luck to raise that kind of money just within Utah. Funding on a world-wide site like Kickstarter is tricky like that.

Atchison’s hopes for a Japanese Garden don’t necessarily have to die with the project, however. Maybe someone else in the community or a city will pick up the inspiration and have the resources to carry it out.

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Gazette opinion: Another chapter in Billings Public Library delays

The south side of the new Billings Public Library appeared last week as the skeleton of the old library disappeared.

Demolition work that restarted on Sept. 2 had torn down the four-story brick building by Sept. 12. Work continued at the weekend to remove debris and fill the hole that had been the old building’s basement.

It’s refreshing to see relatively rapid progress on the project that has been repeatedly delayed. At a Billings Public Library board meeting last week, library director Bill Cochran said the contractor expects to finish the south side of the new library yet this fall. That will include the new main entrance on the building’s southeast corner, a courtyard off the community room, a drive-up book drop and sidewalks. Asked when the existing sidewalks on Broadway and North 29th Street will reopen, Cochran said they should be open soon after demolition is complete.

That’s the good news.

June 2015 celebration

The dismaying part is that the parking lot and landscaping won’t be finished until next spring. At last week’s meeting, the board voted to hold a celebration of project completion in June 2015. That’s a year after completion originally was scheduled.

City engineering staff and the project contractor are discussing ideas for making the parking lot usable this winter. The contractor is scheduled to present a proposal in two weeks, according to Cochran.

Gazette news reports and previous editorials have traced errors and omissions that resulted in this long, costly, inconvenient delay.

The City Council last month approved using $404,000 from library reserves to pay unexpected costs of demolition delays and asbestos removal to keep the project moving toward completion.

$1.5 million in extra costs

Cochran estimated last week that total added costs will be around $1.5 million, including about $450,000 that the city would have had to pay if everything had been done right from the beginning. The remaining $1 million represents costs incurred because of a flawed design plan, the lack of timely presentation of the plan to the Department of Environmental Quality, asbestos not being identified before demolition and demolition proceeding to mix asbestos containing materials with the rest of the building debris.

Final figures for those unbudgeted expenses should be available in two weeks, according to Cochran. Then city and various contractor representatives will talk about how to allocate financial responsibility. If they cannot reach agreement, attorneys will have to sort it out, possibly in court.

City Attorney Brent Brooks is involved and the city has retained outside counsel as well, Cochran said.

We cannot overemphasize the importance of protecting taxpayers from bearing the costs of delays. By agreeing to pay for the new library, the citizens of Billings entrusted city leadership to get good value for taxpayer money while delivering the beautiful new library. That promise must be kept.

Meanwhile, the library is open and those of us walking on the 400 block of Broadway finally are enjoying a clear view of the silvery structure that has been a readers’ haven since January.

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Feng Shui leads to better landscaping

Regular readers of this column know that we are hard-headed realists when it comes to landscape design.

“Form follows function” is our guiding principle. “Less is more” is equally important. So is “paint with the big brush first.”

Those are well-known design cliches that help us decide what to do (and not to do) in landscaping. We believe that, if you focus on practical, common-sense solutions, beauty will fall into place almost automatically.

So it might surprise you that, through the years, we’ve adopted many principles and ideas from the ancient oriental discipline of feng shui.

Wikipedia defines feng shui (pronounced “fung shway”) as “a Chinese philosophical system of harmonizing everyone with the surrounding environment. The term feng shui literally translates as ‘wind-water’ in English.”

Feng shui explains “invisible forces” that bind the universe, Earth and humanity together. A goal of feng shui in design is to harness positive life force called qi, (“chi” in English). Feng shui ideas in landscape design help create a peaceful and serene place where positive chi will flow freely.

Historically, feng shui was widely used to decide where and how to place buildings in the most favorable way based on local features such as bodies of water, stars or a compass. For example, feng shui might suggest placing a home on a sunny south-facing slope with a hill behind it for protection from the north wind.

Using feng shui helps balance natural elements such as wood, water, metal, fire and earth in your overall landscape design. In your garden, the five elements of feng shui are represented by various plants and objects.

Earth: soil, rocks, boulders, pottery.

Wood: arbors, planting boxes, benches.

Water: fountains, birdbaths, ponds, waterfalls.

Fire: lights, lanterns, fire pits.

Metal: wind chimes, arbors, planters.

Feng shui gardens must be free of clutter so positive chi can circulate freely. Everything should have a specific purpose and place. Each tree, plant and object is there to balance the five feng shui elements. Disorder, disarray and clutter disrupt the flow of chi and lower the energy level of the area.

Our favorite feng shui concept is focusing your landscape on the main entrance door of your home. We use landscaping to direct attention to the front door, thus “funneling” positive energy into your home.

Feng shui holds that directing attention to the entrance will bring prosperity into your home, and we’ve actually seen it work. Entrances that are hidden from the street, driveway or parking area block chi, depriving the home of positive energy.

Using plants and paving creatively to frame the entrance is just one way to harness the ancient discipline of feng shui to improve your mood and make your home more welcoming. Entering your home should uplift and inspire you with positive energy and should have the same effect on your guests

Just a brief look into feng shui as a design tool will quickly open your eyes to many ways that positive and negative energy can affect your living space.

Steve Boehme and his wife, Marjorie, own GoodSeed Nursery Landscape near Winchester.

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Where the Wild Things Are

“Sometimes you feel like you’re not in the city anymore,” said urban ecologist Jason Munshi-South as we stood at the edge of his Highbridge Park field site in Washington Heights. It was an unusually idyllic August morning in Manhattan—warm but not humid, with the sun glinting off sycamore leaves in the park below us.

A professor at Fordham, Munshi-South studies small mammals in New York City and its surrounding suburbs. That morning, I met him and his graduate students at the corner of Edgecombe Avenue and 167th Street to pick up the 100 small mammal traps they had put out the evening before. The traps were baited with birdseed and designed to close behind the animal—in Munshi-South’s hopes, a white-footed mouse (Peromyscus leucopus)—so that blood, tissue, and other kinds of biological samples could be taken back to the lab for analysis.

Munshi-South is one of countless urban ecologists working to determine how New York City’s highly urbanized infrastructure affects its lesser-known inhabitants, from plant communities on green roofs to plankton living in the Hudson and East rivers.

In Munshi-South’s case, the star subjects are small mammals and amphibians, namely the white-footed mouse, native to the New York region; the infamous brown rat, Rattus norvegicus, originally from Norway but better known for the home it has made for itself in the New York City subway; and the northern dusky salamander, Desmognathus fuscus, whose population in New York has drastically decreased in the face of habitat fragmentation and reduced water quality.

Through genetic and demographic studies of these focal species, Munshi-South hopes to learn whether the process of urbanization in New York City and its effects on local “wildlife” are comparable to the effects of urbanization in other cities around the world.

That is, are the changes that Munshi-South observes in white-footed mouse genes unique to New York? Or, as he phrases it, “Is there a ‘syndrome’ such that species evolve in the same ways in different cities at the same latitudes?”

New York City is an unexpectedly fascinating field site for Munshi-South and other ecologists. We may think of New York as a concrete jungle on a day-to-day basis, but the truth is that New York can be seen as a complex, ever-evolving ecosystem brimming with biodiversity. We don’t live in a city; we live in a habitat. It’s all just a matter of perspective.

Urban Ecology Defined

According to the World Health Organization, 54 percent of the total global population currently lives in urban areas, and that number is steadily increasing. It’s no wonder the effects of urbanization on plant and animal life are becoming increasingly prevalent in not only the scientific literature, but in everyday life as well.

Compared to its parent field of ecology—which has roots as far back as the ancient Greeks—urban ecology is a relatively young field. Only in the 1970s did a few brave visionaries begin applying concepts from traditional ecological theory to urban landscapes, asking such interdisciplinary questions as: What differentiates an “urban” place from a “nonurban place”? How are green spaces in cities different from green spaces outside of cities? How can we optimize patterns of consumption to reduce environmental degradation?    

Why urban ecology took so long to develop as a formalized discipline is perhaps a matter of semantics—many see “nature” as impossible to study in an urban environment. Michael Levandowsky, who completed graduate degrees at Columbia in the late 1960s and who has done work on marine phytoplankton in the Hudson River estuary, recalls that “back in the ’80s, I had been going to the equator and to the eastern Canadian Arctic and sampling, but people would ask me about the Hudson River and the East River. … And I didn’t have a clue, even though they’re both within walking distance of my lab.”

Thus, Levandowsky is now working alongside scientists at the American Museum of Natural History to conduct genetic analyses on protistan plankton communities in those very waters.

Since the ’80s, an expanding community of ecologists, biologists, and engineers has taken on the vast amount of ecological work left to be done in urban areas like our own. At Columbia and Barnard, several faculty members or one-time affiliates are currently working on ecological projects within New York City. The city is, after all, an ideal field site for students: local, affordable, and relatively under-studied.

Rebecca Calisi, a new biology professor at Barnard, hopes to study the effects of urbanization on the pigeons for which New York City is notorious. Matt Palmer, director of undergraduate studies for the ecology, evolution, and environmental biology department, has partnered with Barnard biology professor Krista McGuire on a citywide study of green roofs. Palmer and Timon McPhearson, assistant professor of ecology at the New School and former Columbia science fellow, are currently studying the efficacy of the city’s MillionTrees initiative, which aims to plant one million trees in New York City by 2017.

Still, the perception of New York City as incongruous with nature seems hard to shake. Myla Aronson, a plant ecologist at Rutgers University who studies invasive species and biodiversity in the New York metropolitan area, explains that people “think of [cities] as concrete jungles, but they’re actually surprisingly diverse.”

In her most recent work, Aronson collaborated with urban ecologists all over the world to assess whether cities lack biodiversity. The answer was clear. “We found that 20 percent of the world’s birds are found in only 54 cities. … And 5 percent of plant species were found in these cities, but there’s a lot more plant species than there are bird species.”

To provide some perspective on those statistics, in the mid-2000s, Columbia’s Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center estimated that only 2.7 percent of land surface in the world was classified as urban development—and geographers took issue with that number as an overestimation. In other words, Aronson’s work supports the idea that an unexpectedly substantial proportion of the world’s biodiversity can be found in cities.

Helen Forgione, senior project manager for the Natural Areas Conservancy, agrees that urban nature is still under-acknowledged by the public. “I think it depends a lot on who you’re interacting with. In my New York City science and ecology bubble, everybody has a really good understanding of how rich the natural areas are within New York City and how unique they are,” she says. “But, for instance, when I talk with family members or friends in New York City, everyone always says, ‘Oh yeah, Central Park!’ They don’t know that there is so much out there, and the diversity of it, and the importance and the vitality of these natural places in the city.”

What differentiates an “urban” place from a “nonurban place”? How are green spaces in cities different from green spaces outside of cities? How can we optimize patterns of consumption to reduce environmental degradation?  

Natural Incentives

Of the 30,000 acres of land managed by the New York City Parks Department, 10,000 can be considered “natural areas.” As Forgione defines them, natural areas consist of “forests, freshwater wetlands, salt marshes, and grasslands where predominantly ecological processes are what maintain the status of the area,” as opposed to landscaping or gardening. And as important and vital as we know these landscapes to be—for storm and climate change resilience, health benefits, and recreational enjoyment by New Yorkers—scientists believe they are still underutilized.  

For example, McGuire’s work on the microbial communities of green roofs is primarily guided by her interest in green roofs as novel ecological communities. They are, she explains, “kind of like a ‘Mars habitat’: They’re really dry, they’re exposed to high UV, high winds.” However, her project is also framed by the idea that microbes can provide enormously valuable—and still untapped—services to the ecosystem.

“We’re trying to do interdisciplinary work with engineers, with climate scientists, with social scientists and biologists, to try and figure out how we can optimize green infrastructure,” McGuire says.

For McGuire, green infrastructure can be found in unlikely places. The Barnard professor is most interested in green spaces surrounding New York City’s combined sewer overflow system, an outdated but still-popular sewer system that is used in large cities all over America.

As was described to me by several of the scientists I interviewed, the CSO system in New York City works like this: On flushing the toilet, raw sewage is shuttled along an underground piping system to one of 14 water treatment plants throughout the five boroughs. There, the water is treated so that it is clean enough to be released into the waterways surrounding the New York City metropolitan area. However, if there’s a sufficiently strong precipitation event (in some areas, only an inch of precipitation qualifies as sufficiently strong), the water level in the sewer system rises, causing raw sewage to mix with stormwater. This muck flows out from 494 permitted outfalls in the city—directly into the Harlem, Bronx, Hudson, and East rivers, among other waterways. Obviously, this is an unfortunate situation, and it’s one that McGuire thinks microbes could help fix.

“It’s actually cheaper to build green infrastructure to deal with the problem than to redo the piping system,” which would be prohibitively expensive, she says. “What the green infrastructure does is it captures the precipitation, and the water then is taken up by the plants and recycled back into the atmosphere through transpiration. If you can decrease the amount of precipitation that goes into the stormwater overflow system, then you can actually minimize how much raw sewage mixed with stormwater is deposited into the waterways.”

However, all microbial communities are not created equal. McGuire’s current mission is to find the combination of microbes that would best mitigate the problems of the city’s CSO by maximizing the amount of precipitation captured.

In a related project, McGuire hopes to work out whether a specific microbial community might enable green roofs to most efficiently self-sustain, so that fertilizers need not be added to the system after the initial creation of the roof.

“If you have a microbial community that’s really efficient at decomposing in the specific climatic conditions—the harsh conditions of a green roof—can we make that a self-sustaining system so that we don’t need to put phosphorus and nitrogenous fertilizers in?” When you put fertilizers in and it rains too much, she explains, “then you’re defeating the purpose because you’re actually adding nutrient loading to the stormwater that we’re trying to minimize.”

McPhearson is also in search of the optimal species to enhance the city ecosystem’s resilience. Already made harsh by heavy metal contamination, New York’s soil is likely to become even more inhospitable to trees as the effects of climate change continue to manifest. But we need trees—having a “closed canopy” is key for carbon and water storage, as well as urban cooling. Without urban cooling, the city runs a greater risk of becoming an urban heat island—a phenomenon in which a high concentration of buildings causes city temperatures to be higher on average than those of nearby rural areas (widely studied by Columbia’s own Stuart Gaffin)—perhaps the reason why the city feels so unbearably hot in the summer.

McPhearson and Palmer co-lead the ecological study associated with the MillionTrees project. The $400 million initiative is funded by PlaNYC (New York’s “sustainability and resiliency blueprint”) and the New York Restoration Project. “We’re trying to understand which species will make it, which species won’t, which ones are most adapted to different kinds of conditions,” McPhearson says. With this knowledge, McPhearson hopes to advise members of the Parks Department who are actively planting trees throughout the city.

“One of the things we’ve found is that the soils are highly variable around New York City,” he says. “The history of the place turns out to matter a lot for the ecology … the history of the development of a particular park, especially where the soils came from, matters a lot for how the plants and trees are responding to planting.”

Overall, McPhearson says young oaks can tolerate high heat, soil compaction, and other factors that can normally cause stress for young tree seedlings.

But, as in any compelling study, the answers McPhearson has found thus far have only provoked more questions. For example, “What about climate change impacts both on young and older trees?” The oaks, he laments, may be good in the establishment phase, but “large trees that have huge canopies that are providing all these benefits are more susceptible to high winds than the young ones because they catch and hold the wind like a sail.”

All of these considerations tie into one overarching theme of the conversation I had with McPhearson: The interface between design and ecology has never had so much potential as it does in the context of urban ecology research happening right now in New York City.

“It makes it complicated to think long-term and, to me, it showcases the importance of long-term planning in the design process,” he says. “It’s not just true for a building withstanding a storm surge, but also true for trees withstanding other effects of climate change.”

Green Equity?

Beyond the MillionTrees project, McPhearson sees the opportunity to integrate design and ecology in much of his own work regarding vacant lots. As noted in one of McPhearson’s research articles, “In NYC, the Department of Finance defines a vacant lot as a parcel of land ‘on which no lawful structure exists and which is not otherwise being used for any purpose for which it may lawfully be used.’” While some vacant lots are quickly absorbed for community use—parks and gardens for example—McPhearson has found that not all vacant lots fulfill their potential to benefit their residents.

“It’s hard to find a new place to put in some green infrastructure that can help meet some of these objectives for health, or objectives for resilience to climate change, or objectives for ecosystem services,” McPhearson says. “But vacant lots provide an opportunity because … they’re this way of providing better access to green space for people that have the highest need, which would be low-income minorities.”  

McPhearson’s work on vacant lots speaks to the often-interdisciplinary nature of ecological work conducted in New York. Because human influence on areas under study here is unavoidable, more scientists seem to be thinking about the socioeconomic implications of improving green spaces in cities than ecologists working in traditional, nonurban settings.

Indeed, Forgione notes that the Natural Areas Conservancy identifies social justice as one of its explicit goals: “The Natural Areas Conservancy exists to restore and conserve green and blue spaces of New York City in order to enhance the lives of all New Yorkers.” And while she is managing the ecological side of the Natural Area Conservancy’s assessment of natural areas, a team from the U.S. Forest Service is simultaneously conducting a more social assessment of natural areas and parks, looking into who uses them most and least.

Working out of the Urban Field Station in Fort Totten, Queens, the social assessment team is asking questions about how people use green spaces in New York and how best to integrate that information with knowledge about the health of natural areas emerging from the ecological study.

“One thing about our mission for Natural Areas Conservancy is that it’s not as focused on a single park or a single neighborhood or a single constituency,” Forgione says. “There’s one of these natural areas accessible to just about any neighborhood and certainly any borough, so that that speaks to an equity. We want to improve these places and conserve and preserve for all the New Yorkers that are near them.”

Beyond increasing infrastructural resiliency, expanding green spaces—even on very small scales—is known to have health benefits. “When looking out your window, you see a park, or you can even see a single tree, or a little patch of green—even that can provide stress relief and mental health benefits,” McPhearson says.

And while the extent of these benefits is unknown, more health professionals and ecologists are attempting to quantify the reduction in health care costs that may be possible through green initiatives. “My hunch is that when we slowly work out the value of urban ecosystems to health, the actual monetary value of that will be enormous,” McPhearson says. According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, over 80 percent of Americans live in urban areas. Given this, “the potential to influence human health through urban greening, or other kinds of ways to make cities greener and more livable, is vast, and we’re potentially talking about many billions of dollars,” he adds.

The ability of even small-scale greening ventures to improve the lives of many is one of the attributes that draws McPhearson to vacant lots. “They tend to occur in areas where people have low income and are minorities, places where also, if you map these out, are hot spots of various health issues, whether it’s asthma or obesity or whatever it happens to be.”

Likewise, Aronson—the plant ecologist at Rutgers—feels there are ethical reasons for conserving urban nature, particularly native biodiversity.   

“There’s this perception that cities are homogenized, or all the same, all across the world—that we share the same flora, that we share the same birds, that we share the same everything. And we really don’t,” she says. “Cities do maintain the unique biotic heritage of where they are in the world, and that’s important.”

Future Challenges

New York’s hard-working ecologists, engineers, foresters, architects, designers, volunteers, and public servants make it look easy, but negotiating ecological change in our fair city is not without its challenges.

Perhaps first and foremost among these obstacles is inertia in public opinion. Despite 30-odd years of study and management, New York continues to be popularly portrayed as devoid of nature. As Forgione pointed out, when people are asked to think of green space in New York, they typically think only of Central Park, bypassing the wealth of natural areas and parks dispersed throughout the city.

This limited awareness is exactly why urban ecologists need the U.S. Forest Service’s social assessment, which will be wrapping up in October. An essential next step, says Forgione, will be “understanding how people think about natural areas and how we can more effectively get the information that’s needed to New Yorkers so that they can get out there and enjoy these places.” He continues, “That’s really the future of how these places will persist is by people stewarding these places and understanding more about them.”

Citywide ecological knowledge-enhancement initiatives are being aided by public outreach—from science journalism to citizen science projects—that appeal to the New York layman. For example, in 2012, David Maddox, an ecologist and entrepreneur, founded a virtual magazine, the Nature of Cities, which seeks to publicize urban ecological issues related to sustainability and urban nature. Eric Sanderson, a senior conservation ecologist at the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, has pioneered a Web application—Manahatta 2409—that allows users to visualize New York City as it was when the first European settlers arrived, as well as what it might look like 200 years from now.

It remains to be seen whether infrastructural and environmental limitations will prove more limiting to urban ecology’s potential than public ignorance. While interactions between science and design represent an unprecedented capacity for innovation in the city, such ventures have never been implemented, and they may prove unwieldy in practice. Further, complications of climate change are likely to escalate in ways that make improving the systems we have for resisting storms, dealing with waste, and promoting health even more difficult.

However, these intellectual challenges need not be cause for discouragement. As McPhearson says, “To really understand what’s going on in any place, you actually have to know how all these things are working together, which is very challenging, but for me very exciting. I think that’s one of the most exciting things we can be trying to figure out, is dealing with the complexity as it exists, and to deal with the complexity without trying to simplify it, and without trying to necessarily compartmentalize it.”

The many future projects enumerated by these scientists—from McGuire’s aim to discover the urban-adapted microbes with the most efficient decomposing abilities to Aronson’s goal of assessing biodiversity in cities all over the world—indicate that while environmental degradation in the city may be grave, there are practical strides we can take, and are taking, to ameliorate it.

One of the first steps is recognizing that New York City may be a jungle, but it is not just made of concrete. Rather, nature can be found in the most unexpected places, if only we learn to look for it.

“Cities aren’t designed for biodiversity, they’re designed for people. Only recently have we actually started to think about biodiversity and nature in cities, and started to plan for biodiversity,” Aronson says. “But what’s exciting is that although cities aren’t traditionally designed for nature, we’re still preserving a lot of nature in them.”


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Monroe family reaches out to comfort others

Metro-east news

St. Clair County doctors urged to monitor prescriptions to curb heroin abuse

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Nkandla landscaping cost R16m

Jeff Wicks, The Witness

Durban – Architect Minenhle Makhanya built a garden fit for a king – eventually spending more than R16m on landscaping at President Jacob Zuma‘s home.

This has emerged from reams of official Department of Public Works (DPW) documents made public in pursuit of Zuma’s personal architect Makhanya.

Designing a garden fit for Zuma blossomed out of control.

Indigenous plants

Landscaping the grounds of the Zuma family’s sprawling Nkandla compound rose exponentially, with contractors importing protected indigenous trees and plants from across the country.

In its completion phase, the plush presidential pad now looks part of the natural bush hillscape.

The embattled architect has been slapped with the mammoth R155m bill for his alleged inflation of the cost of the compound.

The documents were filed in response to Makhanya’s intention to oppose the lawsuit, which came after months of mounting political and public pressure.

The flourishing cost of carefully designed indigenous gardens, manicured lawns and lush swathes of rehabilitated veld has been a point of focus in the graft-busting Specialised Investigating Unit’s report into the upgrades at the president’s compound.

Costs split

According to DPW cost-allocation documents from 2011, over R16m had been set aside for landscaping of the president’s home.

The bill was to be split between the public and private purse of the first citizen, although it is unclear how much of this bill has been settled.

Bonelena Construction and Moneymine CC scored big with the landscaping contract – the bulk of the business shared between the two.

Both companies were identified in Public Protector Thuli Madonsela‘s report into the upgrade of the homestead titled Secure in Comfort.

They found their way into the spotlight for unduly benefiting from inflated fees.

According to the documents submitted by landscape architects, large tracts of land had to be redesigned because of “new security measures”.

Cycads, fully grown trees

“The overall finished landscape is natural veld, enhanced with shrubs and trees and is not a manicured landscape,” the papers read. Among the enhancements are 12 protected cycads, which were brought in complete with tracking tags and papers for the landscaping project at a cost of R5 500 each.

Fully grown trees at R7 500 each were also shipped to the rural hamlet and strategically placed for “secrecy”. The total cost for trees came to R1.6m.

No expense was spared in the establishment of feature gardens and ambience; with a proposed spend of hundreds of thousands of rands for recessed lighting which would “enhance the estate”.

One of the feature gardens made of up indigenous succulents and shrubs, set in front of the military-run clinic, came with a price tag of R30 000.

Rehabilitation of surrounding land disturbed during construction of the homestead cost almost R2.5m.

Attempts by The Witness to contact Bonelena Construction and Moneymine CC were unsuccessful.

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Minnetrista to host rain garden workshop

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Water-wise fall planting

How to tackle fall planting in Southern California during the third straight year of drought and the diminishing likelihood of El Niño storms this winter? At the very least, Los Angeles gardening experts agree that planting in the fall is water-wise as new plants require less irrigation due to the cooler weather and will be well established by next summer. Here, we share their tips for fall:

Yvonne Savio
Master Gardener volunteer training program coordinator for Los Angeles County’s University of California Cooperative Extension, Alhambra

Landscapes and plants in drought: Finding the best options for your garden

Fall is a wonderful time to plant because air temperatures are cooling. Plants are less stressed. Soil temperatures are still warm, so root systems establish well, and water applied to the garden stays within plant root zones for much longer than during hot weather. We need to water less often.

In terms of edibles, all of the usual suspects will provide food through our cool weather: beets, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, chard, Chinese cabbage, collards, kales, kohlrabi, leek, lettuce, mustard, onions, peas, radish and spinach.

For herbs, try plants such as borage, chives, cilantro, dill, garlic, lavender, lemon verbena, lovage, marjoram, oregano, parsley, rosemary, sage, savory, sorrel and thyme.

Fall annuals could include alyssum, calendula, candytuft, coreopsis, gazania, hollyhocks, honesty, nasturtiums, California poppies and sweet peas.

Lili Singer
Horticulturist, garden writer, and director of special projects and adult education at the Theodore Payne Foundation, Sun Valley

lRelated Roses don't need to be sacrificed to drought; teach them to be tough
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This fall, I’ll be planting two of my favorite California natives: Santa Cruz Island buckwheat, a petite gray-leafed shrub with clusters of pink, good-bug-attracting flowers; and Eve Case coffeeberry, a shade-loving shrub that is a larval food plant of the pale swallowtail butterfly. For spring color, I’ll sow seed for native annual wildflowers, including Chinese houses, bird’s eye gilia and baby blue eyes. A few South African succulents and bulbs will also make their way into the garden.

To help conserve water, cover the soil between new transplants with a 3- to 4-inch layer of organic matter (leaves and bark) or gravel or decorative rock. No mulch should ever touch the trunk, stem or crown of a plant.

No plant is drought tolerant at planting, except a succulent. New transplants — like young children — need regular attention for the first year or two, as well as deep, thorough watering, whenever the top 3 to 4 inches of soil are dry.

Cassy Aoyagi
President, FormLA Landscaping Inc., Tujunga, and president, Theodore Payne Foundation

Fall is my favorite time, because natives especially show their appreciation of the cooler,shorter days.

Since rebates for lawn removal are the hot ticket, I’ll start with a fantastic plant to replace your thirsty lawn: Carex pansa (Dune Sedge) is one of the most versatile native grasses that we use. It can tolerate full sun and 50% shade as well as 50-80% less water. Its rich green and glossy blades emulate a traditional turf.

For color there are two nice plants I’d opt for: monkey flower and butterweed. Monkey flowers have just come out of their summer dormancy and are the first and fastest to respond to cooler days and will immediately burst into blooms. The dark green foliage can be accompanied by yellow, red or orange flowers, which makes a riot of color when mixed together.

Butterweed, planted in clusters together or mixed with perennials, has handsome silvery wispy leaves with contrasting and striking yellow daisy flowers. It tends to bloom on and off year round, but again is one of the first fall surprises coming out of a stressful, dry summer.

Edible options are important too. My go-to for fall is white sage, a plant that has numerous uses, including decoration (cut flowers) and cooking. After a summer of withstanding serious drought conditions, it spawns beautiful, silvery new growth toward the beginning of fall.

Judy Horton
Landscape designer at Judy M. Horton Garden Design, Los Angeles

When advising clients, I review high water use, and then look at short-and long-term solutions. Typical areas of high water use are the lawn, rose gardens, summer vegetables, and cut flower gardens. If we haven’t already eliminated or reduced our lawns, that is the place to start.

In my own garden only my sycamore tree is suffering. With no rain for a few years my soil is dry as dust 12 to 16 inches down. In April I realized that 30% of the tree, including my favorite low swoopy branch, was dead. Since then, soaker hoses have been deep watering it once a month. My mantra has always been that trees are the most important plants in any garden. Others can be replaced. But mature trees, in our lifetimes, are irreplaceable.

Some of my low water favorites for Southern California gardens include California poppies, agapanthus, clivia, peppermint-scented geranium, self-seeding nasturtiums and Corsican hellebore, an evergreen perennial.

Frank McDonough
Botanical information consultant, Los Angeles County Arboretum Botanic Garden, Arcadia

I really like minimalist landscaping using river-rock swales running through decomposed granite.

Planted sparingly but for dramatic appeal, I like to plant agave, dasylirion, phormium and aloes of different colors and heights. I also like to see clumped succulents like aeoniums, sedums, crassulas and kalanchoes.

Spotted here and there it’s nice to see Canary Island natives such as sea lavendar and gold coin daisy and even some dwarf bougainvillea.

The nice thing about landscaping this way is that by paying attention to texture and leaf color you don’t have to rely on flowering for visual impact.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times

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