Sunday, December 30, 2012

Where have all the trees gone - reading other people's landscapes, or, why does Bolivia look like Wales?

Terracing on Titicaca - but how old are they? When where they abandoned?
Walking on the Isla del Sol on Lake Titicaca – actually floundering around in a futile search for some Inca ruins, there is an uncanny resemblance to ?Cornwall, ?Scotland, ?Ireland. The distant view is of islands and headlands, so much like the west coast of Scotland, or Scilly Isles. The land we walk on is treeless hill plunging down to water. Nearly everything is divided up into little terraced plots for crops, with thick growth of low shrubby indigenous vegetation growing out of the little retaining walls. There were places in Cornwall like this in Cornwall until the mid 20th century, as people grew crops on tiny terraces. I had a very powerful feeling of being somewhere generically Celtic and British Isles west coast, but also of being there back in time. Yet we are on the other side of the world. It was an extraordinary experience.

The little figure is Jo, not a Bolivian peasant lady

I always find myself trying to read the landscape when I'm travelling. It is not always apparent quite what is going on – is this a natural landscape? Or one that's modified by human agency? Or might it be a lot more modified than we think at first possible? Reading the landscape is partly about loving natural and semi-natural landscapes for their own sake, but also about trying to interpret them: their history and what they mean for people locally. The level of biodiversity they support is of passionate interest – like many people, I travel partly in order to see places of natural beauty and biodiversity. Farming in some fashion usually impacts the landscape and the wild flora and fauna it supports. Understanding farming practices and reading their impact on landscapes, now and in the past, is crucial to an understanding of what is going on. It is also vital to help us understand how the landscape might evolve. Anyone concerned with biodiversity needs to have some understanding of farming – agriculture is the main reason why natural landscapes are modified, usually to the detriment of natural biodiversity – indeed I am tempted to say that agriculture is the dominant consumer of the landscape.

So, here I'd like to reflect on my recent travels and ask a few questions, such as: how is the landscape being used? Is it being used productively, how much biodiversity does it support? Why does it look like it does? and finally – Where have all the trees gone? And when?
Travelling by bus from La Paz to Cocacobamba on Lake Titicaca in Bolivia across the altiplano (3500m upwards), I was struck by how much the landscape looked like Scotland or mid-Wales. Come all this way and it looks like Wales! In reading other people's landscapes, it helps to be able to read one's own. The issues are often the same – people have to scratch a living from the land, technologies are similar the world over, so it is not surprising that outcomes are often similar.

This train of thought started with staring out of the bus at bleak hilly landscapes, covered in rough grass, with some attempts at arable farming in the level valley bottom along the road. The first thought is: there are no trees. But then, I see eucalyptus, big healthy eucalyptus. More about this later, but for now, it is obvious that we are not above the tree line and that if eucalyptus can grow so can other trees. Where are the native trees?

Distant view of hills - no sign of terracing, but utterly treeless, so grazed presumably
Immediately in front of above, clearly arable crops in little fields
Looks like fallow, post-harvest, but there is an awful lot of this.
Let's start back home. Much of upland Britain has a similar appearance, of bleak rolling hills, covered in grass/heather/bracken. Lower elevations may conceal woodland, and on the hills (certainly in south and mid Wales) the odd hawthorn tree stands as a reminder that trees can survive. The fact is that upland Britain used to be forested, and is now severely deforested. Our Celtic ancestors made a start, and the Cistercian monks who colonised upland England and Wales finished the job, with their insatiable need for firewood and their flocks of sheep, goats and cattle. The process in Scotland did not involve monks; the deforestation process was completed by the infamous clearances whereby the indigenous people were thrown off the land for the sake of huge herds of sheep and cattle. We tend to think of upland Britain (and the Scottish Highlands) as natural landscapes – they are not, they are arguably ecological disaster areas. Their tree cover lost, they do not hold water well; the overstocking with sheep (subsidised by the EU), prevents the re-establishment of tree cover exacerbates the problem – flooding downstream is a result.
Gorse flowering on moorland, South Wales. The result of historical deforestation.
Keeping sheep is part of the culture in much of Wales and the borders. This, allied to the cachet of supposed quality attached to 'Welsh' lamb means that far more people keep sheep than perhaps should. Sheep are responsible for the ever onward march of bracken; if cattle ranching (as in similar habitat in Scotland) were more popular, then the bracken would be much less of a problem (cattle eat the young shoots and crush it, sheep tiptoe around it). My suspicion that unreflective rural conservatism plays a big part in the ongoing sheep problem is confirmed in occasional discussions I have with a local agronomist – he is appalled by the conservatism of local farmers. Looking at the bigger picture the current practices of Welsh border farming is pretty irrational.

Very intensively managed farming around the village of Challa, Isla del Sol, Titicaca.

Back to Bolivia. The terraces on that part of the Isla del Sol, and around Challa, the central village, are intensively cultivated – for crops such as potatoes, oca (an Oxalis with an edible root) and possibly corn. The fact that the little walls are so species rich means that this whole system of farming is surprisingly biodiverse – because it is arable, any animal grazing is highly controlled (i.e the occasional tethered goat). However over most of what we see, things look in a pretty bad way. There are large areas where it is actually quite difficult to see what is going on – there are rather half-hearted patches of crops, occasional grazing areas, and large areas of fallow – it is fairly obvious that everything is being grazed for at least some of the year, apart from the crops. It all looks very poorly managed. I have seen this before, in Brazil and in India.

The sad truth is that a lot of small-scale farming in developing countries is actually pretty bad. There is a lot of politically-correct sounding talk around about how traditional farmers have a whole range of techniques and crops which successfully exploit the environment without damaging it – this is usually the result of occasional examples of good practice being given a lot of publicity. I remember reading about some research the Henry Doubleday Research Association (now Garden Organic) Third World Support Group did in central Ghana in the late 1990s. They found that the knowledge and skill level of the majority of farmers they surveyed very low. So much for all that finely-honed centuries of traditional knowledge.

Overgrazing, the land in front is pretty well stripped bare, the green grass is as short as a golf course.
The brutal truth about many (maybe most) rural areas in developing countries (and in the rich world too to some extent) is that the brightest and most innovative head off for the cities as soon as they can. Back in the countryside, there is usually little to help with innovation or advice (unless there happens to be a small-farms-orientated NGO in the area). Places with government-backed education and advisory services are few and far between – one of the few is Kerala in southern India, and it is worth pointing out that none of what I say applies to Kerala, which is almost Dutch in its intense and precise land management.
There is a saying from the south of France - "grandfather had sheep, father had goats, I have nothing". Goat grazing is the most destructive of all.

There is going to be a very poor yield from these potatoes. More than anything else, it is the time involved in producing poor yields that is the real tyrany in poor farmers' lives. The Green Revolution does not appear to have reached here.

Low quality, unproductive agriculture degrades soil quality, the ability of the land to hold water, and destroys biodiversity. Poor farmers, forced onto marginal land, with few skills or adaptability, cause worse problems than modern intensive arable agriculture, which uses land very efficiently by comparison, reducing pressure on marginal land, which can be left for watersheds, forestry, biodiversity, and maybe some traditional hunting and gathering.

The folks left behind in the countryside usually work hard enough, but with a declining ability to adapt and innovate, the quality of farming and the ability to earn something from the land goes down too. The next stage in the story can be seen in much of Europe, where villages empty and much marginal farmland is abandoned (this has happened in the UK much more than many appreciate). From the point of view of both biodiversity and a healthy landscape this is often a good thing. One result is the onward march of woodland. Not that woodland is always a good thing; in some places open, traditionally-managed upland pasture supports more biodiversity – I'm thinking in particular of limestone pasture in central Europe (very similar to England's South Downs); here well-managed grazing is a very good thing.
Small-scale desertification plus eucalyptus.
In Bolivia, later on, on our walk across the Isla del Sol, we see examples of real land degradation. Overgrazing has led to a process of desertification. Occasionally, amongst the wasteland of bare stony ground and chewed-looking shrubs, someone is bravely trying to grow a few crops. One cannot but admire the hard work and gritty struggle to survive that goes into this. At the same time however, I feel that the sooner people have the economic means to give up this unequal struggle, the better for all concerned: people and environment.

Unlike the precision of arable farming, where a long-term decision not to cultivate means that at least some natural plant community gets to survive, loose grazing can be incredibly destructive. This can be appreciated by the Welsh hills and the Scottish Highlands, where stocking levels of sheep/deer are too high to allow for regeneration of trees, and where the idea of the regeneration of woodland is actually an alien one. It happens on a vast scale across many environments which are too marginal for arable farming. In Kyrgyzstan in the summer, we came across some areas where a little grazing was clearly beneficial to biodiversity, keeping areas within woodland open, so allowing for a diversity of habitats. There were some areas where there was clearly massive overgrazing, so erosion was beginning to occur – apparently there is very little regulation of grazing here. The irony of overgrazing is that the pastoralists who rely on their herds are destroying their own futures. Their reason behind such overgrazing lurking in the background, is the demand of growing populations, and wealthier populations, for meat. One big reason why I don't eat meat.
Woman working, hand weeding potatoes. Picturesque peasant but who wants to swap places with her?
Back to the question which puzzled me between on the bus ride across the Bolivian altiplano. Where are the trees? It is clearly below the tree line because of the eucalyptus. There was a related question in my mind, which was raised by Robert Peel, an Englishman who gave an interesting lecture on gardening in Argentina at the Royal Horticultural Society library a couple of years ago – the pampas supports trees, but why are there no trees there naturally, or indeed were there at the time of the Spanish conquest? No Argentinian colleague seems to know why?

Before I pitch in with a possible answer, I should point out the one feature of the altiplano hills which did not remind me of Wales or Scotland. The fact that many of the hills, far from any existing settlement, and often very high up (4000m plus), clearly had the remains of terracing, so clearly huge areas once had intensively managed arable crops. Nowadays these are only seen being actively cultivated around the villages. It looks as if this area must once have supported a population far far more numerous and denser than today.

The answer is not that they are all living in La Paz or El Alto (see my previous travel blog), or for that matter Miami (Latino-Central in the USA). I am now going to suggest that you read 1491 by Charles Mann who has written extensively on the pre-Columbian Americas and indeed very sensibly about modern agriculture. Any American reading this blog, in particular should read this. Bascially Mann's thesis is that:
  • before 1491 (the year of the Encounter, when Columbus landed) the Americas were densely populated with cultures who farmed/gardened/managed landscapes on an epic scale
  • the only comparable cultures in the Old World which could rival them in the efficiency and intensivity of their agriculture were those of China and South-East Asia
  • after 1491 their numbers were decimated by diseases inadvertently introduced by Europeans – as much as 95% death rate!
  • as a consequence, what we see looking at many American landscapes, are places denuded of their population.

Buddleia coriacea
 Perhaps this explains the empty treeless landscapes. Not only had there been several millenia of very active management, which is a polite way of saying that pre-Columbian farmers engaged in massive deforestation, but also that since the holocaust of 1491, intensive arable has been replaced by extensive grazing, so eliminating native tree species over vast distances.
Of the original species you do see very few. Two stand out: Buddleia coriacea, which has very attractive upright-swept branches with very dark evergreen leaves and Polylepis tarapacana, which has leaves which clearly point it to being in the Rose family; it actually grows higher than any other woody plant (5000m+); it has amazingly stringy cinnamon-coloured bark. Both are short, wiry and scrubby. Indeed a great deal of the woody plant species of the areas we have visited in South America seems to have this character (see previous blog – Tango at La Pasionaria). These are not species which have any economic value beyond (I imagine rather slow-growing) firewood. So, no wonder that there is little economic incentive to preserve let alone grow them, AND no wonder everyone plants eucalyptus.
It is frightening how little grows beneath Eucalyptus
Eucalyptus are everwhere. We saw vast numbers in coastal Uruguay, and there are patches all over the Bolivian altiplano areas we visited, and again on the hills lower down where we are now. It is almost sinister, and alarming, how totally the native woody plant flora has just vanished, to be replaced by this alien species.
However, eucalyptus produces good timber (unlike many locally native species) and very good firewood. Its presence will reduce the plundering of the remaining local forests; if I were a local farmer, I would plant it.
There is considerable debate about whether the Ozzie import causes environmental damage, e.g. by taking too much water out of the ground. I'll leave you with two opinions, one from Kenya and one from Ethiopia.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Overwhelmed by plantlife in Amazonia

Amazonia is overwhelming. We went five hours by boat (a modified dug-out canoe) north of Rurrenabaque in Bolivia - the knowledge that this is only a tiny fleck of journey on the map emphasizes the sheer vastness of the region. We stayed several nights at Chalalan,
a project run by a local indigenous community, with personal guides for steamy treks into the rainforest.
One of the great things about the place is the lake, piranha-infested, but safe to swim in. Few things more wonderful than sinking into bathtub-warm water surrounded by luscious tropical vegetation. The other good thing is some elevation - Amazonia is actually the largest area of near-to-dead-flat in the world and here you are at the very edge, so there are some good views over the top of it.

 Rainforest is disorientating. It is apparently chaotic, and almost everything is the identical shade of dark green. And there are virtually no flowers. An occasional genus can be recognized, or family, but much is just endless variations on rather nondescript leaves. This is actually secondary rainforest (in recovery from selective logging in the 1990s) so there is a lot more growth at ground level than you would expect in virgin forest.
 This, I could tell, was a Chamaedorea palm, lots of us have them growing at home in a dark corner, so quite easy to identify. After a while you just resign yourself to not really not knowing what anything is, and look at the bigger patterns instead. Guides have the odd name, but there would actually be very few people out there who could identify most of what we were looking at. Guides can be quite good on medicinal uses, or local names, but they tell us nothing about the plant that we can fit into any conceptual framework.
 I was very taken with a number of climbing fern species - climbing by means of aerial roots on stems. I have never seen this before, quite good potential for indoor living walls I should think.
 This looks like a Marantaceae of some kind, oddly familiar, possibly as a house plant, one of those forest-floor creepers, evolved to live in shade.
 And this a mini-peperomia, a genus quite well exploited for houseplants.
 Who knows what this is? A climber which hugs the stem of the tree it climbs up so tightly, it can't surely breathe!
 One way of dealing with the sense of being overwhelmed is just to look at the layering of plants and the visual appeal. The edge of the lake was a good place to do this, as it is the only place where light gets right down to ground level. It's a way of appreciating the variety of shape and texture of tropical foliage, and how this might be used in designing tropical environments.

There are various conservation projects in Bolivia, but the lack of knowledge of, or interest in the country's incredible biodiversity (18,000 higher plant species) is truly shocking. There is no proper botanical gardens in the entire country and very few botanists. There is next to no knowledge of species distribution across most of the country, so 'hot-spots' are poorly understood. The most exciting areas for plants are the 'jungas', cloud forest habitats where continuous rain and cool temperatures allow plants to flourish in incredible densities. These are the areas which are favoured for growing coca, so are under considerable threat.

My first experience of rainforest was a long time ago, in Brazil. I'm still glad I started there, in the mata atlantica rainforest around Rio. There it is so hilly you can spend a lot of time looking directly into the canopy of relatively short trees, a great way of appreciating the really interesting stuff in these habitats: the epiphytes. The national parks of Tijuca, Itatiaia and Serra dos Orgaos were very accessible and a great place to learn to appreciate these environments.

The next episode in the world's first soap opera for gardeners - Dig, Plant and Bitch, is now up and running. Check it out.: 6 - The (wrong kind of) Garden Party
Nurseryman James Treasby has a repeat visit from a mysterious new customer, gardener Johnny Dalton is in the balmy surroundings of Mere Castle’s south-facing borders recovering from what could have been a disastrous falling-out with his employers. Meanwhile, rival gardeners Petunia and Wayne Martin are planning their own, artistic intervention for the start of their open gardens season while continuing to deal with the fall-out from their previous gardener. Johnny’s troubles are not over though, as his dealings with several of the village’s less salubrious characters are about to be exposed, as the completion of the Japanese Garden restoration is celebrated with an impromptu party.

Monday, December 24, 2012


No gardening this post, but instead our impressions of traveling in Bolivia.
 Which we are truly enjoying. Traveling between places is difficult, as the geography is so extreme, but once somewhere, truly a place to sit back and enjoy - one of the most colourful, idiosyncratic and interesting places we have ever been. With Evo Morales as radical president, there is the feeling of a cultural renaissance.
 First impressions are not always good.....

We (Jo and I) get our only sight, and that only a very brief glimpse, of the Andes, as we land at La Paz. Visiting in the rainy season means that the scenery remains concealed. The view is dominated by El Alto, which is actually where most people in the LP conurbation live – one of those vast third world sprawls. It's no slum, nor favela, but a proper settlement (1m+) although very spontaneous in character. Like most third world cities, at ground level it looks like a version of hell, if hell is somewhere where no-one has any visual sense. Depressing, especially for a confirmed believer in progress, that so many traditional poor people's housing looks attractive, but the reinforced concrete and brick look of modern poverty not only looks awful, but seems the same the world over. Except that El Alto actually does look worse – the reason being that 90% of the buildings look unfinished. As we discover, unfinished buildings seem to be the curse of Boliva. 

As with much of Latin America, murals are very popular and often political.
The drive down into La Paz is spectacular, but alarming. The core of the city lies some 500m below El Alto's 4000m, and is like many Spanish colonial cities, a mix of old and new. The backdrop though is of the newer city, a growth of (mostly unfinished) brick which spreads up, right up to the lip of the valley. Blink and you might imagine that this is a Middle Eastern, or African, city of mud brick. Every surface is covered apart from a few slopes with the inevitable eucalyptus (more in a blog about that later) and every now and again the most extraordinary patch of badlands where building is impossible. It is as if a mad USAID programme had distributed chunks of some spectacular area of south-west USA national park around the city, so that the inhabitants can marvel at the wonders of geology from the windows of their unfinished houses.

La Paz has its inevitable travellers area, a barrio of security to which one can retreat. The similarity with similar places in India and Nepal is so close, shop after shop selling a similar range of clothes, artworks, textiles, jewellery, toys, souvenirs, anything remotely 'artisanal'. Most of it is actually very good, and it is also incredibly colourful. Bolivian sensibilities rate bright as beautiful and bright pink as most beautiful of all, so another similarity with India. But, again as with India, I just wonder at the economics of all this; so many practically identical shops selling almost identical stuff; ok, it is the low season, and customers are actually quite thin on the ground, but even if the streets were heaving with gringo travellers, I find it hard to believe everyone can make a living. As for the sheer boredom of running one of these shops, it must be torture. Especially since it is not in the Bolivian way to do what happens in Rajasthan and charge out and grab every potential customer. After a couple of days we discover that various entrances are in fact entrances to courtyards (mostly of old colonial buildings) each one of which is home to another 4 or 5 shop – it is like a nightmare of mall-madness, where every way you go leads to further retail outlets, all identical.

La Paz is clean, and feels very safe – in the manner of Spanish-speaking countries, there is a bewildering array of police (apart from Buenos Aires, where the murder rate has just gone up dramatically – draw your own conclusions, lovers of law-and-order and job-creation-policing). Apparently, as part of an anti-corruption drive, they are not allowed to patrol separately. Consequently, they hang around in gangs, chatting, ignoring their surroundings. Then there are the zebra-patrols, who I suspect from their theatrical behaviour are not police, but perhaps students or school leavers, but you cannot get any idea, because all you see are zebra suits, with only a glimpse of a face poking out of the open mouth. They hang around in a gang around major road crossings, to ensure safe crossing of pedestrians, with much gesticulating and waving of black and white flags.
The zebra patrols are an example of the kind of low cost imaginative attitude to transport issues in which South American countries are global innovators.
A war memorial which neither forgives nor forgets - the country lost its coast to Chile in c1905.

 The buses of LP are another example. I would guess that 80% of all vehicles on the road are buses of some kind: micro buses, mini buses and nano buses. The system is clearly official (each one has a route number), but I suspect that private enterprise provides everything else. Each one has its destinations on pieces of card stuck to the inside of the windscreen, sometimes to the extent of seriously inhibiting driver visibility, and an assistant (usually someone who should be at school) shouting the destinations from the side door. It is an incredibly dense network ('fine-textured' to use the language of ecology) and appears to do a very good job. It is a squash inside, but cheap – you pay the driver as you exit. I haven't looked, but I bet there is an app for the system.

In terms of public services – La Paz must be the best place we have ever seen for the frequency of public toilets.

An odd mix of the developed and developing world, which I suppose, is increasingly typical World-class museums on streets with third-world holes and disintegrating pavements. Suited executives brushing shoulders with peasants. A country whose 'informal economy' (street traders) hides a large part of its GDP. The figure you inevitably focus on is the chola women – indigenous or mestizo women who wear that extraordinary dress: short brightly-coloured, and often satin-look multi-layer skirts, woolly tights (whatever the weather) fringed shawls and hats – with about half wearing the bowler hat which the London gent stopped wearing decades ago. As we discover in one of the city's excellent museums, this is the look which elite women adopted in the 1920s. For some reason it was taken up by country women, so that today it a core part of the culture. Another part of the costume is the multi-colour square of fabric on the back, which may contain a baby, shopping and merchandise, a gas canister, or in one case, a potted rose bush. Many of these women sit all day on the street, with a small patch of items for sale in front of them, a baby (usually a grandchild we reckon, and sometimes in a cardboard box) and something else to keep them busy (knitting, crocheting, or parcelling up more merchandise). It is the bowler hat which looks so incongruous, especially as it appears to be perched on top of the head. It often features a needle and thread tucked into the hat band, sometimes along with a small knife or other useful tool. When it rains, the bowler is protected with a black plastic bag.

They look jolly, but the Chola women are even more reserved than most Bolivians, to the point of being impassive. Travelling, there are often situations, where the exotic foreigner buying something ordinary or somehow engaging with people outside the standard tourist interaction sparks an interest, or amusement. Not here. It is all absolutely deadpan. In this way, it is the total opposite of India – not once have we been accosted by anything like India's “hello, what country you coming from, what is your good name, how much money you earn”. Jo is frustrated by not even being able to get the babies to smile.
Stuff to festoon your car with during car blessing ceremonies at Copacobana, in which priests pour champagne over your vehicle (no doubt for a fee). 
Thanks to Jo for some of the pictures.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Salta Province - Argentina's California?

Neomarica caerulea
Argentina's northern provinces of Salta and Jujuy are very different to the rest of the country. The north-west ('El Norte') seem to be an up-and-coming place, the sort of place you move to to get away from the rat race, or be a hippy, or plant a vineyard, and generally live the good life. A bit like West Coast USA. The geography has similarities too, mountain ranges which go north-south means that climate changes dramatically in short spaces, in this case from 'jungas' - cloud forest, where trees drip with epiphytes, through 'chaco' (scrub) to cactusy desert. It's warm without being humid, and there is plentiful irrigation water, so it's a good place to be comfortable and to garden.

Shannon Iturrieta and Laura Smolko at Paisajismo Nativo entertained me for an afternoon with a hike into some cloud forest above their home in San Lorenzo, outside Salta. They are landscape and garden designers who are trying to use locally native plants as well as non-natives (such as the Neomarica above, which is a Brazilian species). They have a little nursery where they grow trees, shrubs, perennials and grasses from seed and other propagating material found in the region.

This is Puya mirabilis, a surprise for those of us who thought all Puya  were enormous and terrifyingly spiky. A good plant for garden detail.
Trismeria trifoliata
The fern above is very unusual, unique in fact amongst ferns for the way its fronds are arranged, so it looks oddly lily like. Can grow to 2m apparently. Plant Delights in NC appear to sell it. As for the Oncidium orchid - these grow wild in the woods above San Lorenzo. We rescued a few from a fallen tree, one of the luxuries of living in this part of the world is being able to just stick these wonderful plants up on a tree branch in the knowledge that the weather will look after them.

Veronica Saguier is a pioneer garden designer in the area. She used to teach at the John Brookes garden school in Buenos Aires. Her own garden very much reflects the strong spatial sense one might expect from a JB graduate. There are plenty of familiar plants but quite a few unfamiliar ones as well. Veronica too has a small nursery area where she grows locally-native plants unavailable commercially.

One of the nice things about Veronica's garden is the way that it is not too tidy, with odd seedlings appearing in the paving. She is also letting Tillandsia (air plant) bromeliads take root in the rough plaster of the house walls, and even let a self-sown Bignonia climber begin to grow up the house wall too. Over-maintenance is one of the curses of gardens in countries where it is possible to employ staff relatively cheaply, linked to a strong cultural presumption that a garden has to be 'tidy'. Veronica is clearly trying to break this.

Self-seeding Nasella tenuifolia grass and Erigeron karvinskianus.
Some nice interplanting, or pehaps I should say, letting plants find their own places to grow. Here a small polygonum species and an agave.

Here, more plant intermingling: Persicaria amplexicaule and Neomarica caerulea. I asked about how the persicaria does, as in the US Midwest where it suffers terribly from fungal diseases in the humid summers. Not here apparently - summer air is dry here, so providing very healthy growing conditions.It can be cold here, when a cold air mass descends from the Andes, down to -9C for short periods. Clearly not enough to kill bromeliads, orchids and other sub-tropical species.

Finally, a really good grass, we saw a lot of, Lamprothyrsus hieronymi. But only on wet cliffs, never anywhere else, so often along a roadside, where there was an embankment cut in. According to Shannon though, it is very adaptable in cultivation - taking some shade or full sun and various soil types. According to the Plant Finder, it is in cultivation in Britain, but I have never seen it. Anyone grown it?

For more about my current South America trip see Gardening Gone Wild.

The latest episode of my gardening soap opera - Dig, Plant and Bitch, is now up. See the Amazon Noel Kingsbury page for more details. 
The (wrong kind of) Garden PartyNurseryman James Treasby has a repeat visit from a mysterious new customer, gardener Johnny Dalton is in the balmy surroundings of Mere Castle’s south-facing borders recovering from what could have been a disastrous falling-out with his employers. Meanwhile, rival gardeners Petunia and Wayne Martin are planning their own, artistic intervention for the start of their open gardens season while continuing to deal with the fall-out from their previous gardener. Johnny’s troubles are not over though, as his dealings with several of the village’s less salubrious characters are about to be exposed, as the completion of the Japanese Garden restoration is celebrated with an impromptu party.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Uruguay gardening

Trachelospermum jasminoides is one of the classic Argentinian/Uruguayan plants, it clearly flourishes here, but then its east Asian home has a similar climate to the area around the Rio de la Plata - hot and sticky summers. After a while though you get a bit fed up with seeing it again and again and again. The range of plants in nurseries here is very limited - the subject coming up again and again. Agapanthus are the kind of ur-plant for landscaping - I teased local colleagues by asking them to list all the varieties available - five I think was the highest; the RHS Plant Finder (UK) lists an incredible 566!

There are a lot of little neighbourhood nurseries, of the kind which we have sadly lost in the UK. Many of them are very good, but again, the same old familiar faces. I met one enterprising nurseryman (Vivero Pilar, outside Buenos Aires, AR) who had imported some plants from the USA and from Brazil, to propagate. Given how there is something of a gardening boom here, this situation must surely change.

The climate here is a good one for growing - if you choose the right plants that is! Hot humid summers with plentiful rain, and cool summers, just touching freezing - so it is a very long growing season.

The trouble is that a lot of the plants that nurseries sell aren't really suited to the climate -the plant selection is based on what might work in Spain or Italy. Maybe this is part of the Argentine condition, to be ever looking over the seas to Europe. (Let's not take this too far, I am a European on a lecture tour!). Lavenders for example rot in the humidity, lasting about two years. In some ways there is a real similarity with the hot humid summers of the American Midwest, with a similar problem with fungal etc, diseases. However what grows well, grows very well. There are so many plants that would thrive here. One group which everyone says does well, and which offer so much, are Salvia, any of the Mexican species for example, and Argentina has several natives. There is the well-known S.guarantica, and one which I had never seen before S. procurrens, which runs by means of stems rooting in, like a strawberry. 
There are so many fantastic plants in the wild here, just waiting to be developed commercially. Amalia and I found a striking scarlet perennial, which obviously ran underground amongst rocks on her uncle's property, just south of the Brazilian border. We had no idea what it was, but the leaves looked strangely familiar. I broke one in half and out came white sap, so my intuition said "Apocynaceae". Later on we checked online, and ID'd it as Mandevillea coccinea. In the conservatory at home we have a 20 year old Mandevillea splendens in the conservatory, so no wonder the leaves looked so familiar.
Amalia's uncle, Martin Braun, is preserving this fascinating habitat, a rocky island of biodiversity in a vast plain where everything is given over to grassland for feeding cattle. Cattle are now (I read somewhere) the dominant biomass on the planet. They are very inefficient converters of plant protein to meat. A big reason why I don't eat them!

Colonia del Sacramento is a rather pretty little place in Uruguay, with an interesting line in planting up and otherwise making artistic use of elderly cars.

What North Americans call the 'hellstrip' between pavement/sidewalk and road. Someone has planted up what really does thrive here, a selection of mostly tropicals, very densely, so every space taken. There is a tree as well, planted up with epiphytes. The only time i have seen this done before is in Singapore, by local government. At a rough guess there were twenty species here, in about six metres , but there could be more.

A cactus pokes up from amongst the rest of the greenery. Some cacti grow as part of many well-watered forest habitats, and cope with summer humidity better than we might think.

This is actually from later on, when we got to Bolivia, the convent of Santa Teresa, in Potosí, Bolivia. A garden at 4000m.

Read more about my trip to South America below and on Gardening gone Wild.