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Turning over a new leaf

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Imagine a time when plants no longer need watering - saving time, effort, money and water reserves. That time is now

If you believe the hype, water (one of the very staples of life) is in such short supply that it will soon be a source of global conflict.Never mind that seveneights of the earth's surface is covered in the stuff.What better selling point, then, for a landscape company - an agency that supplies trees and plants to many of the hottest and potentially most barren and desolate places in the world - that its landscaping requirements will not require any precious water resources. While Charlie Dimmock's hydroponic vegetation does away with the need for soil-based cultivation and relies completely on water immersion, plants that require neither soil nor water have obvious added benefits.

Replica, fabricated and preserved trees are the answer. Not the lurid, lime-green plastic fir trees that grace suburban living rooms at Christmas, but a whole new generation of ultra-realistic models, virtually indistinguishable from the real thing.

For a long time, fake greenery has been liberally strewn around planters in many thousands of shopping malls, corporate atria and pizzeria franchises around the world.

Mercifully, though, the design and manufacture of artificial plants has improved over the intervening years, from the early days of hi-gloss rhododendron bushes with clip-on heads.

Now close inspection of the best quality replicas, by eye, touch or even smell, can fool the proxy gardener in us all. We may all watch Alan Titchmarsh makeover shows but few of us would know how to spell antirrhinum, let alone recognise one at close quarters.

Preserved Trees International (PTI) of Oceanside, California, has more than 12 years' experience in tailoring lavish artificial foliage to suit a client's requirements. It claims 'if it can't be found in nature we will create it'. It will either replicate nature or exercise a bit more artistic licence, creating plants 'from the unbelievably authentic to the incredibly outlandish'. If you want a palm tree with a readymade seductive curve or a bamboo with a giant diameter, a landscape designer/ specifier can now avoid the non-compliant ad hoc-ism of natural growth and get exactly the shape, girth, colour and appearance desired.

From palm trees to willow, cedar, magnolia, olive trees and pine, depending on how much you have to spend, manageable forests of exacting topiary can be created to suit the particular environment of the site. And even though these trees are not cheap, the cost of husbandry, care and maintenance is effectively eliminated, thus removing a significant amount of expenditure from the overall annual budget. Artificial trees, after all, are not blighted by greenfly, acidic or alkaline soils, sun orientation, weather or the need for regular pruning. Root damage is a thing of the past, as is expensive irrigation and drainage service provision.

Furthermore, more imaginative (and less care-dependent) lighting can be incorporated without fear of damage to the vegetation.

Variegated There are three basic specification models to choose from: replica trees, fabricated trees and preserved trees.

Replica trees come in many shapes and sizes and are generally made from real wood 'stems' and branches with silk leaves. Fabricated trees are made from steel or uPVC stem cores, which are wrapped with real bark or moulds from real tree trunks. The fabricated trunk's exterior layer is made from a wood-based compound modelled on actual tree bark. Preserved trees, the top-of-the-range specification, are real trees with foliage that has been partially immersed in a water-based, non-toxic, fire-retardant dye compound, which is gradually absorbed into the tree's cellular structure. The solution effectively mummifies the tree while preserving its natural touch and appearance.

Working with architects and landscape designers to assess the best possible replicated tree type and genus for particular settings, PTI usually allows two to 10 weeks from confirmation of the order to manufacture completion, depending on the size, range, complexity and amount in the order. Similarly, manufacture costs vary between £380 and £1,500 a metre, although shipping charges are extra.

Admittedly, some trees in PTI's portfolio are a bit of an acquired taste, like the 'custom-created' line, which includes such rare cubist treats as boxes decorated with leaf patterns atop realistic tree trunks to create what the firm calls a 'whimsical fancy'.

However, the pledge that it can manufacture to any requirement - with or without 'botanically-correct foliage' - is a great advantage over traditional 'natural' landscape suppliers.

Email dennis@treescapes. com

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