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 Treeferns on the edge - with a tragic twist. 
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Joined: Wed Nov 18, 2015 5:38 pm
Posts: 2
Location: Witbank, Mpumalanga, South Africa
Post Treeferns on the edge - with a tragic twist.
Hi, my name is Marco Pereira and I live in Witbank, South Africa and whenever I can, Funchal, Madeira. I have been stalking tree fern enthusiasts on this forum for a few years now and have intended to post something meaningful for some time but never seemed to get around to doing so.

I became besotted with tree ferns around thirty years ago and have been collecting them ever since I planted a Cyathea australis in memory of my late grandmother. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I would plant this fern in the perfect spot as it has absolutely thrived with little or no care whatsoever. It is located close to a north facing bedroom wall ( sunny in the southern hemisphere) near the edge of a goldfish pond and in close proximity to a gutter down spout which means it gets flooded every time it rains in the summer and again whenever the pond is flushed. It has achieved a height of around 7 meters in 29 years. My only regret is that I committed the cardinal sin of planting a slow growing form of miniature ivy nearby, but in my defense, there was no internet then. Now the trunk is covered in the stuff, reducing what is otherwise a magnificent specimen to a rambling ivy eyesore requiring hours of clearing and cleaning.

C.australis who's trunk is covered in messy ivy.
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Fish pond at the edge of which this fern is located.
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The ivy is pretty when used as a creeper among the rocks but boy was it a huge mistake.
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More about treeferns later. First some background…

Witbank is predominantly a coal mining city and is the energy generation capital of the continent with 7 coal fired power stations located within a 75km radius. We are situated in an area called the Highveld at an elevation of 1629 meters above sea level, around 130kms east of Joburg and 104kms from Pretoria. We have a sub tropical highland climate characterised by warm summer days and cooler nights and cold, sometimes sub zero winter nights and gloriously sunny winter days. It rarely gets oppressively hot in the summer but we do have short, sharp winters. We might occasionally experience a 2 day cold snap here or a 2 day heat wave there. In the past 4 or 5 years we have not had more than a total of 10 really cold days per winter season. My sense is that our winters really are becoming warmer. We are around the USDA zone 9b mark with a minimum recorded temperature of -3.7 degrees C recorded in the winter of 2007. To be honest, we really only experience a 9 or 10 week winter, sandwiched between a two week autumn in late May and two week spring in late August. Champagne climate it’s been described as and the perfect environment for a tree fern collection… or so you would think.

In the summer, we experience the most tempestuous, mid afternoon thunderstorms followed by torrential downpours, almost always lasting under an hour. Humans, animals and birds make a dash for the nearest shelter, lest the weather gods should punish us with the most violent of hail storms. Then, as quickly as it all began, the sun comes out of hiding and warms the ground, resulting in an amazingly earthy smell, combining elements of burnt ozone and freshly wet earth. By the end of the afternoon, the uninitiated would not even know we had had rain, unless of course there has been a hail storm in which case everything is white as snow for a day or two.

Witbank in all its glory
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Water is precious, not least because a thieving, incompetent government’s inability to deliver the stuff. South Africa in general is considered a water stressed country. We dread El Ninos ( = severe drought ) and love the welcome but elusive La Nina’s ( = lots of wonderful summer rain resulting in lush vegetation, cheaper fruit, veg and food in general.) Sorry California. The 2015/16 drought absolutely hammered us, and this, coupled with what can only be described as an exploding population and a massive influx of uncontrolled, illegal immigrants from what Donald Trump termed “shithole countries” has overwhelmed every aspect of government service delivery.

This has meant that SA gardeners are undergoing a drastic re-think of what a garden is and how they will garden in future. Thirsty tropical, plants are out, indigenous, drought hardy plants are in. The use of irrigation systems are banned in some towns and cities including ours, as are swimming pool top ups, fish ponds, fountains and can you believe even Jojo tanks intended to mitigate against an increasingly erratic municipal water supply. Rain water harvesting, grey water systems, low flow shower heads, swimming pool covers and short showers are de rigueur.

Because of the effects of the unrelenting drought, the ongoing, horrific farm murders and the ANC’s threat of land expropriation without compensation, the number of commercial farmers in South Africa has declined from around 66 000 in 1990 to 25 000 in 2017. This, together with a weakening Rand, has meant that more and more of the diminishing amount of food produced by these fewer farmers is earmarked for export, forcing local consumers to pay outrageous amounts for everything from eggs to avo’s. To counter this, those fortunate enough to have gardens are ripping out useless, established ornamental trees and planting fruit and nut trees like there is no tomorrow. Nurseries are seeing their fruit tree stocks - which would normally last them an entire season - be sold out in the two or three weeks of spring. We are inter-planting carrots, lettuce, spinach, kale and cabbages amongst our daffodils and dahlias.

Our own, almost 100 year old Witbank home and garden is also in the midst of a total rejig. I have been lucky in that I have only had to fell one tree, a messy laurel because it was one of two and it’s roots could potentially damage a revamped, smaller, swimming pool down the line. The pool and accompanying much deeper-than-normal fountain are being designed specifically with rain water capture and storage in mind.

Garden Upheaval
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As I write this, our second largest city, Cape Town is just three and a half months away from what they refer to as day zero, when their taps are due run dry, making them the very first metropolis in this modern age to run out of water. This has been the result of a crippling 3 year drought, serious lack of planning by the so called white man’ s party, the Democratic Alliance (DA) who has governed the city and the province for the last 10 years and predictably, the ANC’s attempts to punish opposition supporters by flatly refusing to assist the local and provincial governments of the Western Cape. It just boggles the mind.

We are fortunate that our climate allows us to grow both temperate and sub tropical fruits and nuts. Everything from apples, low chill cherries, chestnuts and nectarines to star fruit, guavas, mangoes, cherimoyas and at a push, even bananas and papayas which take a beating from the winter frost. I myself have felt compelled to source more and more food and especially fruit from our gardens and am on a fruit tree planting spree. Just a few years ago, any fruit tree other than the obligatory backyard lemon tree was considered seriously uncool. Not anymore.

Treeferns – The struggle for survival

My newfound appreciation of the scarcity of water that I hitherto took for granted has forced me to think about how I will preserve my beloved treefern collection. Whereas in the past our small household was irresponsibly using up to 70 000 liters of water a month, 30 to 40 000 of which was used primarily for watering my treeferns in the summer months, residents are now restricted to a total of less than 20 000 liters per household which really does not go very far. A number of my prized specimens, obtained at great expense such as c. medullaris, c. robusta and c.leichardtiana, amongst others were the first casualties, felled by a serious dislike of my second hand shower water. Obviously I am now more careful about the hygiene products we use and then dilute them as far as possible to further minimise their impact. Water used to rinse cleaning products is never used to water plants. Two or thee times a month I will water the tree ferns with tap water and during the summer they will each enjoy a bucket of 12 liters of rain water after a decent downpour which might be four or five times a month.

Whereas previously most of my ferns were scattered throughout the garden, I have had no choice but to consolidate the collection into four main areas thus ensuring that I can keep an eye on them more easily and most importantly, that I can access them with a bucket whenever our taps are dry which is guaranteed to always be on the hottest days.

One of the consolidated areas turned into a mini tree fern forest at the edge of a circular lawn
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Slightly older pic showing how closely the larger ferns are planted. Not ideal but it's all about survival
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Our record so far has been 5 consecutive days without tap water early in 2017, caused by the country’s only electricity producer Eskom switching off the city’s electricity supply due to non payment. The sudden switch on led to a hammer effect on a water supply pipe as a result of the sudden pumping of water at high pressure on the only bulk water pipe leading from the dam to the water works. Redundancy is just a concept too far.

No water for 2 to 3 consecutive days is the norm. It has been this way since 2012. This will happen 3 or 4 times every month as our befuddled municipal officials juggle which suburbs get water when and for how long. They are in this predicament because no one in the last 22 years realised that to supply potable water to an exploding population, one needs to a) control the influx of illegal immigrants, and b) build new water filtration plants timeously. Instead, its decided that councilors, mayor, town managers, department heads and everyone in between has a right to drive souped up versions - with all the trimmings I might add - of the very top of the line luxury German, British and Italian sedans and 4x4’s. In my almost fifty odd years, I have never seen so many fancy cars on our pot hole ridden roads.

Our water purification system originally designed to comfortably supply water to a population of 250 000 is now under serious strain, continuously working at 110% capacity, having to service a population of more than double that. This same scenario is playing itself out in many towns and cities across the length and breadth of the country. And Witbankers should consider themselves lucky. Last year a national plea went out for travelers driving through the town of Boufort West to take along extra bottles of water and drop them off at collection points in town as their taps had completely run dry.

Witbank is in the absurd situation where the city boasts with what until recently was the largest municipal dam in the southern hemisphere - which thankfully the 2017 spring and early summer La Nina has filled to capacity – but only one 1970’s, apartheid era water purification plant. Rampant corruption by city officials has left the municipality with massive debts and no money to pay for new water plants.

Picture of the Witbank dam sluices in 2013 - a La Nina Year
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Supply to a water tower that services a number of sprawling suburbs including our own and ironically also supplies large swathes of households in the townships, is heavily reliant on the generosity of so called “white capitalist pigs” or more recently “white monopoly capital”, or simply Anglo American to you and I, who augment the city’s water supply. Boy did we cheer when those dirty Bell Pottinger Brits got their comeuppance. We don’t feel that way about all Brits by the way, only those who wish us harm. For the uninitiated, here is an outdated BBC clip of the story:
https://youtu.be/2KSHC6UPUgA and https://youtu.be/Hlof7kHRWI0

The picture is even bleaker at national level where Zuma’s ministers and their cronies have raped the ministry of water and sanitation. They love so called “mega projects” as these represent the perfect bribery opportunity. The ministry is billions in debt due to over priced, unfinished or paid for in full and not even started projects and in an effort to try to right themselves they have now even threatened to cut off water supplies to municipalities not paying their water taxes including our very own which predictably is one of the worst offenders. Our city has reacted the only way they know. You guessed it... they have massively increased the price of water to the point where it is almost criminal and then delivered a knockout sanitation charge that is calculated at 60% of one’s water consumption. The drought and water shortages represents an unimaginable bonanza for town and city authorities with all manner of fines, surcharges and levies imposed on residents intended to bolster their coffers, rewarding them handsomely for their inability to deliver a commodity that we are forced to use less of. To compound the situation, bore hole drilling outfits have seen a spike in demand for their services and are now charging more than double to sink a bore hole compared to just four years ago. We are basically on our own. Welcome to the new, improved South Africa.

Treeferns - You have been very patient

I have become a dab hand at transplanting trunked treeferns. Rather than hunting around for new and exciting species, my focus has now turned to simply keeping my collection alive and shrugging my shoulders when a prized specimen decides to give up the ghost.

Transplanting a C.coperii - 3 years in the ground with one of our helpers doing the grunt work. Thank God for that.
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In deciding which plants to water first, I prioritise, the oldest, most established ferns followed by all trunked specimens (of which there are many) and the most difficult to replace such as Cibotium regale and schiedei or C.lunulata and even our own indigenous, but impossible to find C. dregei.

C.dregei being moved to one of the consolidation areas. At this point it had been three years in the ground
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I have used the oldest ferns or those with the largest canopies to provide under story shade for the more delicate or younger plants with a view to possibly moving these if or when our water situation improves.

I have felt compelled to locate my C. Milnei’s much closer together than I would ordinarily have done simply to keep things tight so that all plants can access at least two sources of water if need be i.e. theirs and their neighbour’s. This means I need to periodically trim their fronds in order to prevent them from turning our garden into an impenetrable forest, something I would otherwise be loath to do. I don’t know what the long term effects of this will be, but it can’t be good.

Oldest C.milnei 2mtr trunk - planted in the ground in 2003 - transplanted in 2011 - Has a canopy of close to 6mtr in diameter. Spotted the wine yet?
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Close up of C.milnei crown with the obligatory bottle of wine for scale
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Incidentally my Cyathea milnei’s have a much larger canopy than any of my large C. brownii’s, beating them by at least a meter or more in diameter.

Treeferns from spores.

After losing my mom suddenly in 2012, for some reason I turned to propagating tree ferns from spore, something I had attempted but failed at in my teens. I found it quite cathartic. Mark Longley’s http://www.thefernhouse.moonfruit.com website and this forum provided a treasure trove of valuable information.

Sporelings in an old fish tank
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Older fernlings being readied to acclimatise outside
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Even older ferns acclamatising outdoors in wire mesh cage for protection against clumsy dogs
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I have had success with a number of species, most notably the milnei’s which are hard to kill even when very young and in my experience, although they are slower growers, seem to be the most eager to survive to trunk hood, more so than any cooperi.

Cyathea cooperi tomentosissima or whatever it’s called these days has also been a breeze to propagate.

I have all but given up on ever propagating a number of the more delicate species including. medullaris, robusta which together with gigantea I seem to loose as soon as I start separating after the second or third frond stage. C. dealbata and robertsiana are not even worth attempting any more. I would lump C. baileyana which I sowed two and a half years ago in the same category but was over the moon yesterday when I found a sporeling doing rather well, prompting me to finally write my first post. Getting such a young plant to a trunked fern is a long and seemingly impossible slog. I don’t have high hopes for this one and often wonder how these species ever survive in the wild.

I would love to have a go at blechnum cycadifolium, if I could find a source of fresh spore.

Our own Blechnum tabulare seems to be quite a resilient plant once established but it is completely intolerant of root disturbance when young. I find that the only way to get them to survive is to progressively pot up the entire spore pot until one is left with a few large specimens. Invariably the weaklings will fall by the wayside and after 3 or 4 years one should be left with at least a survivor or two to show for all that effort.

Boyed by the recent success of splitting a trunked pair of conjoined C. Brownii’s, I have begun to follow this strategy for more and more delicate species grown from spore. I will let you know how it goes.

In 2013 I obtained spore locally of what was called a Cyathea australis norfolkensis which I have been successful in propagating and have a few newly trunked specimens. The mother plant was an absolute behemoth. To me they look somewhat similar to C. milnei until they get to the trunked stage where their fronds become decidedly more upright compared to c.milnei’s drooping habit.

Late last year I happened upon a so called “real” Cyathea australis. I found it at Fern Haven Nursery on Lynwood Drive in Pretoria east. The nursery established Dr. Chris Myburg is a mecca for tree fern enthusiasts. He personally travelled to Brisbane to source spore of the real C.australis. I have sourced a number of my exotics from him as well as another nursery in Pretoria. Unfortunately due to the water situation and the trend towards smaller stand sizes in more secure, gated communities, he has had no choice but to diversify his business and has now specialised in bromeliads to survive. I could turn those visits into a separate post if anyone is interested.

Second oldest C.australis shortly after being relocated. Many people seem confused about our C.australis. Their growth patterns seem to mimic an australis in that they are around three times slower growing than a cooperi. They are also about a half to a third smaller than C.cooperii but then they display the characteristic round coin shapes on the trunk once the old stipes are removed.
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Most retail nurseries will carry the C.australis and very seldom C.brownii and in the past 3 years or so we have begun to see more and more D.antartica which in our heat are incredibly easy to kill. In my 30 years of hunting around I have never, ever found anything else, not even C.cooperi and not even in the larger nurseries in Joburg or Pretoria. Nursery folk are rather conservative and will only ever stock what they know will survive our winter frosts. One will also never find trunked D.antartica logs in South Africa such as the ones I would drool over at Homebase in North Finchley when I lived in the UK.

Although I have never lost one, I have found moving the C.brownii’s to be the trickiest, requiring many months of intensive care after a move. This specimen was the largest, with a trunk of over 2 metres at the time. Now three years later it has put on another ½ meter of trunk. A huge upheaval like this will set a fern back by a season and should not be attempted unless one is sure to have the time to water, water, water it every day for months on end in order to help it recover, even with a decent root ball. Most Cyatheas will flush 4 times in our Witbank garden, starting in mid August or early September and ending in late May.

A very unhappy C.brownii. The largest specimen we have moved to date with a 2mtr trunk. First planted in the ground in 2003 and photo taken about two days after it was transplanted in late winter 2014. It can be seen on the circular consolidated area picture above where it is now the largest fern with a trunk of over 2.5mtr and a total height of around 4 mtr.
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One of my favourites, a Cibotium regale sandwiched between a C.cooperii and my largest C.milnei with a guava tree to protect it from the summer sun. I have yet to attempt to move Cibotium's. I have an adorable schiedei that is becoming a little unruly. Any advice?
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I have rambled on and on, I hope you have enjoyed reading about my tree fern journey.

By the way are my 1000px width pics to large? What is the preferred size. I don't like PostImage's T&C's so I host on one of my own servers.


Mon Jan 22, 2018 11:15 pm
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Joined: Wed Oct 31, 2007 5:52 pm
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Location: Hayward- S.F. Bay area Ca.
Post Re: Treeferns on the edge - with a tragic twist.
The NYTimes had an article about Johannesburg down to its last 20% of water in it's main source. About 90 days worth. They have no plans for after that I saw in the story. Pray.
The ivy should be pulled off the trunk,whats in the ground dug out with a maddock. What's left then sprayed with Roundup type weed killers. The ivy in the ground might really be helping the plants as they provide cover from water evaporation and really keep soil moisture at an even level
You might remove from the trunk and make a 3' clear way from the ferns. Some edging to remind you the ivy is encroaching again.

Best of luck..Water is on our minds in California all the time.


Tue Jan 23, 2018 12:38 am
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Post Re: Treeferns on the edge - with a tragic twist.
This thread is unacceptable.

It is full of horticultural interest and some wonderful plants, but we do not host this kind of intemperate, intolerant political rant on GOTE. I have written to the poster, telling him in very blunt terms that if we ever see anything of this nature from him again, I will terminate his membership without notice.

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Tue Jan 23, 2018 1:07 am
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Post Re: Treeferns on the edge - with a tragic twist.
David Matzdorf wrote:
This thread is unacceptable.

It is full of horticultural interest and some wonderful plants, but we do not host this kind of intemperate, intolerant political rant on GOTE. I have written to the poster, telling him in very blunt terms that if we ever see anything of this nature from him again, I will terminate his membership without notice.


Yeah, I skimmed past that David. Better you tell him anyway's.


Tue Jan 23, 2018 2:43 am
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Post Re: Treeferns on the edge - with a tragic twist.
David Matzdorf wrote:
This thread is unacceptable.

It is full of horticultural interest and some wonderful plants, but we do not host this kind of intemperate, intolerant political rant on GOTE. I have written to the poster, telling him in very blunt terms that if we ever see anything of this nature from him again, I will terminate his membership without notice.



Hi David, while fully accepting your decisions and right to lay down terms of use, I have to say the original post is extremely interesting and the author seems to me to be merely expressing extreme frustration at the ongoing situation which has lead to the current need for extreme water conservation measures. I know politics and religion etc are the big things to avoid on forums, but hearing this stuff occaisonally perhaps helps those of us in more stable democracies to be vigilant to prevent these issues spreading. I think anyone in any country who sees entire cities on the brink of running out of water has the right to be at least a bit disgruntled.

On the bright side widespread water conservation measures and more home grown fruit and vegetables is a good thing for everyone. I have often felt that ethics in gardening is underappreciated. There is danger in affluent societies in arid regions who garden as if they are in a high rainfall area. Parts of the Middle East, rich suburbs in Southern California and parts of NW Africa immediately spring to mind. Ethical water use is likely to become a very big global issue in the near future.

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Tue Jan 23, 2018 6:38 am
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Post Re: Treeferns on the edge - with a tragic twist.
The post is, as I said, full of horticultural interest and in many ways a valuable contribution to the forum, which is why it is still here, despite the contentious narrative. I'm not proposing to remove it, as long as we can all stay away from the political arguments associated with water conservation.

If we start going there, the thread will be locked.

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Tue Jan 23, 2018 9:33 am
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Post Re: Treeferns on the edge - with a tragic twist.
Well the gentleman certainly loves his Tree ferns but with all the issues with lack of water I would certainly look towards a more Xeric garden. :D

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Tue Jan 23, 2018 3:38 pm
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Post Re: Treeferns on the edge - with a tragic twist.
Hi Marcop,

Personally, plants are my 'safe space' and one of my escapes in life. Politics have played a part in the plants I like to grow too, but in a very different way to your situation. I like to push such things aside and simply enjoy my garden / plants for what they are without such distractions and think David's response to your rather contentious post is fair.

I hope you can continue to post here. You clearly have a love of horticulture with a great deal of knowledge about your plants. As Andy Martin has just said, perhaps now is a good time to move towards more drought tolerant planting?

It's interesting that I have tended to think of 'Growing on the Edge' as purely relating to temperature. But there is no reason why it cannot relate to any environmental factor that pushes a plant's comfort zone, be it heat, drought, wet, light levels etc.

And on a different note, I really love the look of your Agave attenuata hanging over your pond. I'd like to recreate that look here sometime. Ponds and Agave are not a combination that I have seen often, but in your case, it really works.

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Tue Jan 23, 2018 7:56 pm
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Post Re: Treeferns on the edge - with a tragic twist.
Interesting first post I enjoyed reading the horticutural side of it very much and you have some fabulous specimens growing in your garden.
Love the effort you are putting into growing from spore not always that easy to get successful results kudos to you so far.

I do however agree there is a little to much of a political rant in the thread which is a pity as this would have been a top post.
As administrators we know what will cause offence to others and a post can kick off quite quickly.
Global warming and cats are the normal topics but you have added a few more possibles in your thread.


Tue Jan 23, 2018 8:19 pm
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Post Re: Treeferns on the edge - with a tragic twist.
Well,I cant speak for mega California gardens..but my interest in exotics is just not much of a footprint on ecology..no damage. Also,the cost of water soon levels the playing field. Besides,its well known in California that 80% of our freshwater is used by industry. As somebody said- if every garden looked like the tan sands in Iraq,the drought would still be as bad.
Think positive. Last year was way above normal,this year at normal and adding after a late start. A good Mango year :wink:


Tue Jan 23, 2018 8:37 pm
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Post Re: Treeferns on the edge - with a tragic twist.
Welkom marcop, It is of course very frustrating when you are without water, I can share your worries, here with us the water in a dry hot summer period also on ristrict, I have a groundwater well beaten so now I always have enough water for my tree ferns, but with you it is more complicated :roll:
I hope you keep them alive...

Eduard.

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Tue Jan 23, 2018 8:50 pm
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Post Re: Treeferns on the edge - with a tragic twist.
That's a very nice garden with some outstanding tree ferns.

What are the agave-looking plants by the pond?


Tue Jan 23, 2018 9:07 pm
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Post Re: Treeferns on the edge - with a tragic twist.
Romain wrote:
That's a very nice garden with some outstanding tree ferns.

What are the agave-looking plants by the pond?


Agave attenuata.

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Tue Jan 23, 2018 10:28 pm
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Post Re: Treeferns on the edge - with a tragic twist.
Back to plants: I have learned too,C.brownii hates being dug up and moved. Even when put in a large tub and never allowed to go dry,its not sent out a single normal leaf since I dug it up.
So,that's two of us warning the world- When it comes to planting one? Make sure it will stay there.

I hate to ask- but I've never seen a C.australis that didn't have a nice stiped trunk. I mean there is one here in Hayward 60 years old and as I recall have the stipes still covering almost to the base.


Wed Jan 24, 2018 1:19 am
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Post Re: Treeferns on the edge - with a tragic twist.
KeithL wrote:
Agave attenuata.


Thanks, Keith.


Wed Jan 24, 2018 6:32 am
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