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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 Re: Treeferns on the edge - with a tragic twist.

My very first post and I’ve ruffled so many feathers. I apologise, it was not my intention. Firstly, I have nothing against immigrants, I myself am a first generation son of legal immigrants to SA and was an immigrant during the 4 short years I lived in the UK. I know first hand how difficult it can be.
Re-reading my post now I realise that I went off on a tangent and let my pent up anger get the better of me.
I wholeheartedly apologise to David and his team and anyone who may have been offended. I would also like to thank everyone who commented and pm’d me and would like to deal with answers to questions in one fell swoop if I may.

Now that you have the context, I would like to address an issue that came up which was my irresponsible use of water. I am the first to concede that 70 000 Ltr for a 3 head household and 2000m2 stand is irresponsible. But as you will see, context is important.

I am extremely fortunate that I can choose to live in a first world or developing country and can switch between the two practically on a whim, business and family commitments permitting.

Around the 10th of every month, like clockwork, I receive the water and electricity bills for the family house in Europe. The bills list the basic details one would expect as well as handy charts of one’s consumption. One can tell at a glance exactly where every cent is going. It’s typical, first world efficiency that one simply takes for granted.

This is not the case in South Africa where the local municipality supplies both water and electricity. Since the postal services collapse in 2014, one would be lucky to receive maybe three or four monthly bills a year and these would be two to three months late. We have been paying blindly every month for the past 3 years. Only in mid 2017 have we had the option of receiving our bills via email.

Our water meter had not worked in at least 15 years.
Unimaginable in a first world setting.
All that time, we were being billed a provisional monthly water charge which would escalate every financial year on the 1st of April. At the height of the drought in April of 2016, because of the rampant theft of residents brass water meters, someone decided that it was finally time to replace our meter with a new plastic one. Five months later, we received the first metered bill and it was a shocker. 70 000 liters priced at an eye popping £1 300 at the time including sanitation charges. I lodged a dispute. The municipality demanded a spot fee of £ 70 to test the meter. I refused point blank and set to work making sure that firstly there were no underground leaks, secondly we dug around the supply pipes to ensure that our neighbours were not tapping into our supply (Water and electricity theft is rampant and I had been a victim of electricity theft before) Nothing. A week later our electricity supply was switched off. Under duress I paid the next day, implemented extreme water saving measures which are in force to this day and intensified my quest get to the bottom of my astronomical monthly water bills which in spite of all my efforts fluctuated between 40 and 55 000 liters per month at a time that my calculations suggested it be closer to 25 000 based on a output of 26 Ltr / minute. This went on for 5 months and I just paid and paid.


In desperation I looked up the manufactures of our meter to gain a better understanding of the device’s inner workings and I also investigated how municipal water distribution works. After months of effort, I finally found the smoking gun.

Municipalities and utility companies the world over employ both gravity and pressure to get water to the end user.

Our house is located halfway below the crest of a hill.

Our water meters measure the displacement of fluids through it, expressed as m3. Water is a fluid, but for those sleeping in science class… so is air.)

If one happens to flush a toilet, draw water from an auxiliary water tank connected to the mains, if one has a pool or pond with an automatic top up system, or even worse, if one should leave a tap open during an outage, you’re in for a shock.

All these systems allow pressurised air flowing through your pipes to tick over your meter. The further you are from your water tower, the more air will flow through your system. You are paying for “water” and it’s corresponding sanitation charge that you are not consuming. And not only are you are blissfully unaware of it, but no self respecting utility supplier will alert you to this problem.

See youtube examples unfortunately posted after I made my discovery: or

As the howls of protests over outrageously high water and sanitation bills reached a crescendo a year later, the municipality capitulated and finally issued a notice to residents not to open their taps during a water outage. They also offered to credit residents accounts who could prove that the municipality had experienced a water outage in the area at the time in question making it so onerous to obtain those credits that I doubt anyone even bothered. I certainly didn’t.

Now that residents know what not to do during water outages, the municipality recently put out a plea to residents to please open their taps during water outages citing increased incidents of burst pipes due to the hammer effect. I believe the reason is far more cynical and I have now even begun to question whether our outages are not engineered to …… oops, I can’t go into that here.

Why did we open our taps during water outages?

The problem is that the first lot of water following after an outage will almost always be dirty, sometimes even muddy forcing one to flush the system endlessly before one can use it. This water needs to be kept well away from bathrooms or one will be scrubbing for hours only to repeat the exercise a few days later. I normally water our veggie and strawberry patch now for 30 minutes with this water, even after an all night rain event such as we experienced last night. This water easily accounts for up to 3500 ltr per month.

This was one of our dogs water bowls when we tried to top it up this morning after an all day water outage yesterday.



South Africans are spoilt for choice when it comes to drought hardy plants. There is no need for Mexican desert style xeriscape here unless you are that way inclined. Only my fern collection, vegetables and occasionally our fruit trees are watered with any regularity, everything else has to rely on rain water alone or has to be showing clear signs of stress. The revamped garden features structured veggie beds, smaller kikuyu lawns, wider walkways, a greater number of palms and canopy plants and more, no-water, drought hardy plants such as our sun loving Aptenia cordifolia ground cover that smothers everything in its path but whose flowers attract pollinators, tough as nails Strelitzias reginae, trunked nicolai and the painfully slow growing juncea.


Because the garden hosts so many species of birds, commercial fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides are banned. I prefer to use exclusion methods to protect fruit and very rarely, benign, home made, kitchen concoctions for everything else. The Aptenia trimmings make a powerful liquid fertilizer when allowed to rot in a large bucket of water. This and our home made compost have been the only amendments added to our sandy soil for the past two decades at least. We have very few pest problems.

Being located in an established suburb, surrounded by 20mtr high jacaranda street trees, our gardens are visited by around 30 species of birds of which at least 10 regularly nest in our garden some of whom are attracted to the number of nest boxes and of course the constant availability of fresh water. These keep up the pressure on destructive insects. Developing fruit needs to be bagged timeously to prevent fruit fly damage and we share unreachable fruit with frugivorous birds such as mouse birds, barbets, and the adorable little Cape white-eyes.

Sunflowers allowed to grow in the wild garden for the masked and buffalo weavers.


Some of the more notable bird species to grace our garden include:

• The dainty Cape white-eye
• African Paradise-flycatcher
• Cape robin-chat
• Red-headed finch
• Cape wag tails
• Buffalo weavers
• The rambunctious Pin-Tailed Whydah
• Fiscal Shrike who are mobbed by every small bird around, especially during the nesting season.
• Bokmakierie or Piet-my-vrou, who seem utterly confused when our African greys repeat their calls
• The resident Southern masked weavers who swiftly decapitate every red or orange flower in sight hence very little red in the garden despite my best efforts. I don’t know what it is but they can not stand the canna and red dalhias in flower. Observing them build their intricate, upside down nests is mesmerizing. Being lucky enough to catch them in the act of furiously ripping one apart that has been rejected by a prospective female is a rare treat indeed.
• The flamboyant Southern red bishop weaver
• The white breasted cape canaries who's song is just sublime, the delicate red billed waxbills and bronze mannikins for whom we maintain a small corner of the garden completely wild and also sow bird seed in the spring so they can feast on small, fresh seeds and millets. It’s wonderful to see the parents with youngsters in tow in mid summer dotting about from tree to tree.
• Crested Barbet
• Black-Eyed Bulbul
• Black-collared barbet
• Southern double-collared sunbird
• Finally, the iconic Hadada ibis who roost in the 20 meter high jacarandas trees, waking you up in the morning with the most annoying screams but who make up for it by scouring the garden every morning and afternoon making short work of snails, slugs and other creepy crawlies. They will also decimate any gold fish collection so ideally ponds need to be deep enough to provide a quick getaway.


Establishing a canopy

We have a small collection of established palms which include arcontophoenix cunimhaniana who can take our frosts but struggle in our sun when young, 10-12 meter high, 45 year old male phoenix reclinatas, a few Syagrus romanzoffiana’s, two of which I grew from seed around 15 years ago, feral phoenix canariensis which grow like weeds, popping up everywhere, phoenix roebelenii, and washingtonias including a few feral trees that I will need to dispatch at some point – it’s always heart breaking having to kill off palms, but we just don’t have the space. After years of begging and pleading, with date farmers, far, far away to no avail, I decided to simply to grow phoenix dactylifera from seed. I will need to think very carefully where to plant them because if they are anything like their canariensis cousins, moving them will set them back by at least 2 years.

Strelitzia Nicolii and phoenix reclinata. I like to trim the dead leaves once a year or so - Overdue here.


Because I wanted an almost instant canopy, and did not want to fork out hideous amounts for more syagrus, I decided to move young, trunked 4 to 5 meter high strelitzia nicolai instead, repositioning them throughout the garden. Doing so requires serious effort but the end result is worth it. As long as they have even the tiniest bit of root still attached and no root ball, they can be moved and re establish themselves quite successfully if placed under intensive care for around a month or so.


Strelitzia nicolai roots just before transplanting

Canna indica are used along some perimeter walls for screening as are young cherimoyas (Annona cherimola) who’s soft, floppy branches will help impede any intruder. It ‘s delicious, camouflaged fruit requires no protection and is so unusual here it that it is the only perimeter fruit not to be stolen by my neighbours.


Spring, summer and autum colour is provided by the wonderfully cheerful but sneakily invasive Madagascar periwinkle, Catharanthus roseus which requires full sun, a yearly winter prune, no dead heading and no watering. It is listed as National Environmental Management Biodiversity Act (NEMBA) Catergory 1b on our invasives list, requiring it to be controlled or removed. It is a prolific self seeder in the summer and seems to prefer growing in cracks and cranies rather than in clear ground. Once established, it will not allow itself to be transplanted and it flowers so heavily that I have to fight my conscience whenever I have to remove a little one from among brick or stone paving. I am baffled as to why it’s listed so high up on the invasives list as its so easy to control in our garden. Just rip them up in the winter and that’s it, job done. This plant, in its myriad of colours is like a playful, fluffy, blue eyed, poodle puppy wagging it’s body and tail at you knowing full well that it’s been naughty but you simply cannot get yourself to scold it.

SA legislation requires home owners to rip out or declare listed invasive species prior to the sale of a property. ... hus-roseus


The expensive Agave attenuata and yucca elephantipes provide architectural interest. Stick them in the ground, water it once and forget. If you intend planting the attenuata near water, they will love for it. I would advise that they be positioned about a half a meter back from the rim of the pond and be allowed to grow into the space otherwise you will be digging them up in no time to do this anyway.

Backup Security

The anti social Yucca rigida are planted strategically both inside and outside the property to discourage any would be intruders and internal perimeter paths have been re-routed to ensure they are given a wide berth. Readers of this forum will know that this plant is not to be messed with and delivers a serious bite, not easily forgotten. In my opinion, this is the only good reason to have these plants in one’s garden and they, together with the prickliest of agaves are used extensively in this application throughout our suburbs.


Ground covers

Our indigenous Gazania rigens once established can survive on rain water alone but will reward you with masses of yellow flowers if you water it once or twice a month. They are great edging plants but unfortunately will allow themselves to become smothered by anything even mildly aggressive, so require constant defending.


I maintain a small patch of our indigenous dymondia margaretae which are related to the gazanias, doing my bit to conserve them. Like some Californians before me, I discovered that they are not really a suitable lawn replacement, requiring constant weeding and unlike the kikuyu which can survive on rain water alone, in our climate the dymondia must be kept constantly hydrated which defeats the purpose. The die back that everyone is so confused about, it’s no fungus, it’s simply heat stress.


A number of varieties of potatoes as well as sweet potatoes are used throughout the garden as a ground cover and watered only until they become established and when stressed thereafter. We normally plant our potatoes starting in the cold month of July and again in January which allows us to harvest twice in a season. Sweet potatoes take longer and we have progressively given over more and more space to them. We harvest them in sections as and when required.


In the spring, gem squash and various melons are planted wherever there are gaps. Edible volunteers be they cherry tomatoes, melons, potatoes, corn, cape goose berries, tamarillos etc are rewarded with the occasional hand watering and either left in situ or moved if possible.

Volunteer Cape Gooseberry

Previously lawned nature strips have been ripped out and planted with ivy instead requiring only a quick quarterly edging, an annual trimming and no watering. At an extra 250 square meters, I would have loved to plant sweet potatoes here but as the recession bites, too many gardeners have been attacked while tending their nature strips.
I have two small collections of echeverias which have to be covered in bird proof cages during the lean months or the resident family of mouse birds will devour the lot within a few hours, eating them down to the stork.


The likes of bragmancias, dalhias, salvias, indigenous dietes, agapanthus, clivias and tough Mediterranean culinary and medicinal herbs and shrubs all thrive on rain water alone.

Treefern consolidation areas.

All treeferns are planted in hollow depressions designed to retain as much water around their root zones as possible. After three years of two to three times a week watering, the ground must be saturated by now. The entire area is also mulched, attracting neighbourhood thrushes and cape robin chats (our resident songbirds birds) on the lookout for their next snack. In the early morning, while our two dogs are still snoozing, the area is also heavily patrolled by small familes of hadada ibis who can be seen frequently ripping out earthworms as they work the area. Being large birds (think large slender chicken) they need a runway to take off so avoid this area during the day, lest they be pinned down by the dogs.


This consolidation area which I have dubbed our treefern forest also serves to screen our back yard from our nosey neighbours. Large treeferns are planted three deep and interplanted with smaller or younger treeferns, then whatever will thrive on rain water alone planted in between, most notably our indigenous mini agapanthus and clivias. The idea being to keep planting sparse and low enabling me to spot problems timeously. (Note feral Phoenix canariensis which will need to be removed at some time)



Largest C.brownii with Xico the mongrel for scale. Temporary urbanite path here is now being replaced and widened

Cyathea baileyana sown Sept 2015

Coining on trunks

With regards to the lack of stipes on C.australis, the only thing I can think of is the harsh South African sun that obliterates everything in its path. If you look carefully, the C.milnei also has areas on its trunk that are bare and show the coining. This fern receives early to mid morning sun on its trunk, with the shaded section closest to its crown still protected by the old stipes. Our sun is also the reason one never sees wooden outdoor decks or wood framed houses in this country. I doubt they would last beyond their 3rd season. It is no coincidence that the first houses built in Johannesburg, our own city and elsewhere that are still standing, are either all stone or clad in corrugated steel.

It would be interesting to hear from Australian readers whether they experience the same phenomenon.

Finally, I leave you with an article about the water crisis, this time in the Eastern Cape ... residents/

Tue Jan 30, 2018 9:35 pm
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Joined: Sat Mar 29, 2008 1:42 pm
Posts: 1523
Location: Cornwall
Post Re: Treeferns on the edge - with a tragic twist.
I live in an area of high water bills, it does not effect me directly as we have our own supply (I never water the garden anyway - although there are times when I wish it was necessary!) There have been over the years several news stories of water users here being charged huge sums of money to pay off water meter readings and in most cases like you these have turned out to be caused by air. It effects people most at particular points in the system, and there is something they can put into the pipe work before the meter that automatically bleeds air from the system. Might be worth investigating?

Charlie, Growing climbers in Cornwall

Wed Jan 31, 2018 11:23 am
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Joined: Wed Oct 31, 2007 5:52 pm
Posts: 7761
Location: Hayward- S.F. Bay area Ca.
Post Re: Treeferns on the edge - with a tragic twist.
It looks like you are well into tropical Africa and not so much part of the dry south African climate plants that we borrow from in California. You must be used to plentiful water...and I can see whats going on in South Africa is hard to take. California stood on the precipice just a over a year ago.
You might have to let ( most) the tree ferns go. What else do you use? Even palms need much less water. Then,you have the fantastic xeric South African plants at your fingertips.

Wed Jan 31, 2018 8:31 pm
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Joined: Tue Sep 05, 2017 7:28 pm
Posts: 8
Location: Budapest, Hungary
Post Re: Treeferns on the edge - with a tragic twist.
"but impossible to find C. dregei"

Here are 2 nursery in South Africa:

Do they still work?


Wed Feb 07, 2018 2:20 pm

Joined: Tue Nov 06, 2007 4:06 am
Posts: 588
Location: Waimarama NZ
Post Re: Treeferns on the edge - with a tragic twist.
I've never seen solitary S. nicolai before, I like the look! Maybe I'll start seperating mine and pruning them to be solitary. Any good time of year to do it?

Waimarama NZ
Oceanic temperate climate

Thu Feb 08, 2018 5:23 am
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