Landscape architect takes his work on the road

One man in South Africa has turned his car into a moving greenhouse.
Reuben Roberts uses all available space in his Toyota Corolla to grow plants. Andrea Willmore for The National
Reuben Roberts uses all available space in his Toyota Corolla to grow plants. Andrea Willmore for The National

As a landscape architect by profession, I am more interested in plants than cars. I could explain to you in great detail the differences between a pogonia and a petunia, but show me a row of different vehicles side by side and I couldn't tell a Lada from a Lamborghini. As far as I was concerned, plants and flora that beautify the environment couldn't be further from those smog-belching gas guzzlers.

But then I met up with a bunch of old friends at a party in Cape Town recently and got into a strange conversation with someone about a mutual friend, Reuben Roberts.

"Have you seen Reu's car?" asked the friend, leaning over cheekily.

"Of course I have. Isn't he still driving that old, rusty, Toyota with the roof racks and the doors that don't lock?"

"Yes, but when did you last see it?"

"Last week."

"So what did you think of the garden?"

Well that's something I didn't expect to hear. Despite being his neighbour, I didn't know about Roberts's foray into melding mechanical and botanical. He was at the party so I asked him to show me the car and accompanying greenery.

With a wicked little laugh, the 30-something botanist led me down the garden path and through the gate. Parked down the road was his familiar little white runabout.

Cagily I leaned in for a closer look. The beast lay peaceful, windows partially wound down and steamed up, condensation dripping down the inside. Roberts opened the door on the driver's side and leaned over to open the passenger's door - necessary since it didn't open from the outside. I peered in.

And there, on the parcel shelf above the rear passenger seat, laid out in a luscious, thick pile, five leaves to the square centimetre, lay a magnificent living carpet, a ground cover in full spring bloom, bursting with bright magenta blossoms. Around the plant bed, a white, snaky piece of conduit chased its tail, a sneaky ruse employed to elegantly encircle the thin layer of soil.

But that wasn't all; in the front, nestled down between the two seats above the ashtray was a small, loopy, leggy, long-leafed character with elegant, elongated flowers.

As well, balanced on the dashboard lay a bonsai garden, replete with symbolic rock and quartz chips for miniature pattern raking; below that, in the crevice traditionally reserved for a tissue box or a map, cascaded yet another small plant.

Could this be the world's first car garden? The ceiling may have been held together with staples but the commitment to Roberts's vegetation was undeniable. But instead of an attempt at offsetting the car's carbon footprint, the in-car garden had more logistical origins.

"I have a really tiny garden at home - I turn everything into a bonsai as it is - and I was getting tired of juggling shelving and stacking pot plants to try to cram everything in," explained Roberts as he carefully watered the plants. "It was autumn, I needed somewhere to keep the succulents dry for when the winter rains started, and it all just fell into place.

"Also, I noticed my dashboard was cracking, so it was good way to cover that up. Fortunately, it's an old car, so it's easier to have some fun with it when it doesn't matter too much if there's a bit of a water leak or gravel gets loose on the seats.

"My garden at home is unfortunately still just as crammed as before despite the loss of the ones now on permanent safari."

I could only wonder what a passenger sitting opposite this potential safety hazard anchored precariously into a thin layer of soil would feel. But when questioned about the possibility of having a prickly plant grafted to her frontal lobe in a sudden stop, his girlfriend laughed uproariously. I had a feeling the two were closer in mindset than I thought.

Far from just throwing in any old plants, Roberts was careful in his selections for his Toyota.

"The indigenous South African plants don't do as well in the heat; when it reaches 50° Celsius in the summer months it tends to boil the plants, so I opted to use South American plants that do surprisingly well," Roberts explained.

Perhaps, in a certain way, Roberts's car is the most "green" on the road; its plants help scrub the air of the same CO2 that comes right from the exhaust pipe in the back. It's a revolutionary hybrid that, in my opinion, might be an attractive selling feature for environmentally conscious buyers of new cars.

As an added bonus, it's extremely attractive in the springtime and there is never a need to buy an air freshener.

To mark Earth Week, The National directs its focus on the environment with Green Issues, highlighting the need for education and attention to the needs of our planet.

Published: April 15, 2011 04:00 AM


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