Spend time in your garden
The colder months give gardeners the chance to sit back and plan ahead. We show you how to create an ecofriendly garden, and recommend a few great alternatives to grass.
Garden with nature
Traditional gardening isn’t necessarily “green”. A massive lawn, sterile plants and constantly “tidying up” disturb the ecosystem and eradicate beneficial insects. It also requires a lot of water and maintenance.
Dr Johan Wentzel of Wildflower Nursery at Hartbeespoortdam knows how to work in harmony with nature. He started his career as a geophysicist but when he and his wife, Annette, opened the nursery in 2004, he was able to realise his life-long passion for indigenous plants.
“We want to inspire other people to feel as excited as we are about indigenous plants,” says Johan. “Our location means we focus on plants that occur in the grasslands.”
They currently grow approximately 650 species, including grasses, bulbs, perennials, shrubs, succulents and trees, chosen specifically for their adaptability to a garden environment. Where does the concept of a “beautiful” garden come from? “Traditional gardening has its roots in Europe – 300 years ago,” says Johan. “The unfortunate Europeans had limited access to a variety of indigenous plants, so they welcomed any type of plant, from any corner of the globe, with open arms. The emphasis was – and still is – on beautiful blooms, and many plants were improved to create even bigger and more beautiful flowers. Ironically, many of the mother plants come from South Africa: well-known examples are agapanthus, gladioli, bush lilies and geraniums. Why is it important to create a more environmentally friendly garden? “Flowers and plants are part of a greater whole that keeps the ecosystem sustainable. Attractive blooms are pollinated by insects and birds, which, in turn, are juicy morsels for larger species. Plenty of animals make their nests in the garden and many inhabitants live underground, where they help turn dead leaves into compost. Their tunnels ensure that rainwater can soak into the soil properly.”
In a water-scarce country like South Africa, the only garden that will survive is the garden filled with local indigenous plants, Johan says. Of course such a garden also requires less maintenance. “The plants won’t necessarily look their best but they certainly won’t die. It’s very satisfying to sit on your stoep and be able to enjoy looking at more than just pretty flowers. And we’re also doing nature a favour.”
What are the basic principles of environmentally friendly gardening? Johan recommends using plants suited to your area:
1 Observe what grows naturally in your environment. Select plants that have adapted to the rainfall pattern and group plants with similar water requirements together. This way you create smaller habitats within your garden where certain insects, birds or animals will feel at home.
2 Take the soil type into account. It’s much easier to adjust plants to the soil type than the other way round. It’s also important to “build” soil with a good layer of mulch every now and then instead of tilling it, which breaks up the structure. “The hadedas and earthworms do a good enough job!”
3 Frost is an important consideration when it comes to climate. When the climate is mild (as is currently the case in Gauteng), frost-sensitive plants can probably survive for a few years, but when a year with black frost comes along, you’d have to start all over again.
4 Most plants require specific growing conditions, which we call their habitat. For example, when sun-loving plants are planted in the shade, they’ll be more vulnerable to disease.
Does that mean you’d have to pull everything out and start again?
Not at all, says Johan. Small changes can make a huge difference.
“First replace the thirsty plants with waterwise plants, one by one. Then you can slowly replace sterile plants (most hybrids are sterile) with plants that attract butterflies and birds. Next, increase the variety of plants. Say there’s one area covered with a single plant variety, plant other plants in between. Be kind and place a bird bath in a spot where feathered visitors will feel safe enough to sit and take a sip of water.
“You also have permission to stop working so hard – allow fallen leaves to stay where they are to nourish the soil, as well as offer a hiding place for insects, frogs and geckos. Only prune plants when it’s absolutely necessary, and water your garden as little as possible.”
Johan believes the biggest challenge is to adopt an African perspective. “Imitate nature so that your garden becomes an extension of your environment, a place where birds, geckos, worms and butterflies feel welcome. So many ecological challenges face us these days, but I believe we can solve these problem one garden at a time.”
CONTACT wildflowernursery.co.za 082 801 1741 >
MAIN PHOTO, ABOVE The giant pineapple lily (Eucomis pallidiflora) forms an attractive focal point among Cape thatching reeds. INSET Dr Johan Wentzel
ABOVE Chocolate bells (Trichodesma physaloides). BOTTOM, LEFT The paintbrush lily (Scadoxus puniceus) and the white arum lily (Zantedeschia aethiopica)