April 2007


Garden &Uncategorized25 Apr 2007 02:42 pm

black-throated canary

Black-throated canary on Eragrostis,
as seen from my office.

Today I looked out of my office window and saw a sight I never expected to see in Johannesburg: bronze mannikins. Just about the tiniest birds in South Africa, these little seed eaters were perched on wild grass stems without even weighing them down. I know some very serious birdwatchers who have never seen a bronze mannikin in Johannesburg. This is just the reason that I have turned the small space outside my office into a patch of bushveld.

At one time, this section of our garden featured kikuyu grass and pom-pom roses. Fortunately the roses were moved before I arrived, so I didn’t have to deal with the guilt of plowing under such pretty flowers. Arthur Mennigke, a.k.a. The Naked Gardener, chose and planted a selection of aloes, acacias, native bulbs and shrubs and wild grasses for the space. My goal was a garden that would require very little water once established, that would feel wild, and would attract birds. He promised bronze mannikins. I didn’t believe him.

In the first year, I was delighted to find black-throated canaries feasting on my wild grasses. These, too, were entirely unexpected, but stayed for weeks and returned again this year. In year two, the mannikins have arrived. Next, Mennigke predicts, I will have blue waxbills. At that stage, I can cancel all further trips to Kruger National Park.

The key drawing cards for these little seedeaters are Eragrostis capensis, or heart-seed lovegrass, and Setaria megaphylla, sometimes called broad-leaved bristle grass or ribbon bristle grass. I won’t pretend that these grasses are particularly beautiful, at least not up close. They tower over my head until they start to bow under the weight of their seed heads. My wife refers to them as “mealie grass.” But imagine the flocks of mannikins, finches, canaries and waxbills that would make Jo’burg their home if more gardeners would restore a patch of the highveld grasslands that once stretched to the horizon.

Global Warming &Uncategorized11 Apr 2007 03:15 pm

My wife called yesterday to say that she was at a shop, confronting a dilemma. She had to choose between a 2100 watt iron and a 1400 watt model. The salesperson told her that the 2100 watt iron was better because it was much more powerful.

I don’t like to make such decisions without thorough research, but I knew that our old iron was ruining clothes and needed to be replaced soon. So I gave her an answer so obviously in keeping with my reputation that she could have saved herself the call: “Buy the one that uses less electricity.”

Still, I worried that in my constant insistence on saving energy I had saddled my household with an underpowered iron that would need hours of extra labour to press out the wrinkles in our laundry. Ha! I checked the base of our current iron. This is an appliance so beloved of my housekeeper that she resisted its replacement even though was damaging clothes. The label read 1100 watts.

This is a constant theme of modern life. The mantra that more powerful must be better has soaked into every purchasing decision, from vacuums to vehicles. One of my best decisions in recent years was to ignore a salesperson’s advice to trade up from a 750 watt pump to a 1100 watt pump for my pool. Thousands of South Africans drive cars capable of driving 200 kilometres per hour on the German autobahns, even as a growing army of camera traps ensures that all of that extra horsepower is wasted. Philips, which made both of my irons, sells 11 models of steam irons in South Africa today, and every one of them boasts a higher wattage than my old iron.

My advice when confronted with the option to trade-up in power is simple. Resist. If the old iron worked just fine, did it really need to be using 90 percent more electricity? Clearly not. Our new 1400 watt iron works so beautifully that my housekeeper has forgotten she ever wanted to keep the old one.