I VALUE MY GARDEN

I am in awe of beautiful gardens with carefully landscaped paths leading through various ‘rooms’, some of which may have a water feature or a focus on flowers in a particular palette of colours. In these water-wise days there are also gardens featuring aloes, cacti and a wide variety of succulents. I read about gardeners bringing in truckloads of soil, or even hiring earth-moving equipment to reshape the landscape; of bringing in – or removing – large rocks; and of installing elaborate irrigation systems. I see diagrams of gardening plans to be followed throughout the year. Gardens like these featured in magazines always look beautiful.  In my garden a mixture of indigenous flower seeds – such as these African daisies and cosmos – scattered in a bed bring me joy.

While most visitors enthuse over my ‘wild’ garden, others openly declare it to be ‘messy’ and ‘overgrown’. Some express an itch to cut down the trees – many of which we planted decades ago – and to prune the hedges. This is understandable for my garden tends to be ‘wildly creative’ rather than ordered into shape. For example, I let the canary creeper grow and flower where it pleases before trimming it back so that the weight of it won’t break other plants.

There are many practical reasons for this: the garden is too large for me to manage in an orderly fashion on my own; we are – and have several times before – experiencing a prolonged drought and so there is no water with which to maintain lush flower beds and a prolifically productive vegetable garden; and, until I retired a few years ago, I was seldom home for long enough to mow the lawn, never mind prune, weed, dig and plant. This is a section of what I call the ‘secret garden’, where nature takes it course.

I have always valued my garden for what it is: a place for solitude and relaxation if I need it, and a haven for birds – such as the Village Weaver below – as well as insects and any other creatures that require a home within our suburb. Over the years I have recorded 107 different species of birds seen either in or from our garden; have come across several snakes, a variety of butterflies, spiders and moths; observed bats, beetles, praying mantids, lizards and geckos; there have been swarms of bees, several frogs and toads, mole rats, a mongoose and even a couple of tortoises. We once even found a terrapin in our swimming pool – and still don’t know how it got there.

It is easy to tell why I value my garden for its tranquillity and its diversity. Never has this been truer than since the arrival of COVID-19 and the hard lock-down that came in its wake. For over three decades I have watched the garden evolve from a gravel and cactus ‘desert’ to a forest of trees and shrubs; from a hot and shade less place to a haven of shade and dappled sunlight’; from a habitat birds would rather fly over to one where many have chosen to nest and to seek food for their offspring.

Thanks to all of these visitors, I value my garden for the bird song that begins before sunrise to the haunting sounds of the Fiery-necked Nightjars late at night. I have enjoyed seeing an Olive Thrush pulling up a long earthworm from a crack in the old kitchen steps; watching a Fork-tailed Drongo swooping down to catch a caterpillar unearthed while I am weeding; observing a flock of Cape White-eyes splashing about in the bird bath; and have thrilled to the light touch of a Common Fiscal as it perches on my hand or foot to receive a tiny offering of food.

I garden for peace. I garden for the therapeutic quality of my hands connecting with the soil. I garden for the excitement of watching bright yellow flowers taking on the form of a butternut or a gem squash; for the joy of transplanting seedlings that have sprouted in the compost; and for the pleasure of finding self-seeded flowers or herbs growing in a place of their own choosing.

My sentiments about gardening echo those of the essayist and poet, Joseph Addison (1672-1719), who has been quoted as saying I value my garden more for being full of blackbirds than of cherries, and very frankly give them fruit for their songs.

CLIVIAS SIGNAL SPRING

I first ‘met’ clivias whilst rock climbing in KwaZulu-Natal when I was a student. The bright blooms nodding from ledges on the cliffs and peeping out from shady spots in the natural forest areas we walked through were always a pleasure to see. It was to be decades later, however, that I truly began to appreciate these beautiful indigenous lilies. This was when we moved to our home in the Eastern Cape and I discovered a bounty: the base of the Cape Fig is surrounded by clivia plants!

These glossy green strap-like leaves didn’t mean much to me at first – until they bloomed and I was enchanted by the vivid orange flowers that brightened what I call my ‘secret garden’. This is an area I have deliberately left undisturbed so it has a thick layer of mulch from the trees – ideal for clivias – which birds such as thrushes and robins like turning over to find insects. To see the buds appear is a sure sign that the travails of winter are about to be left behind.

Although these plants originate riverine forests and shady woodland areas on the eastern side of South Africa – from the Eastern Cape through to Mpumalanga –  they are such popular plants that they occur in private and public gardens all over the country. They prefer growing in shady conditions, which makes them a boon in terms of brightening up shaded areas in a garden where not much else will grow – and they are remarkably resistant to local weather conditions. That they continue to thrive in our current drought conditions is a testament to their toughness!

I enjoy their dark green leaves, their pretty flowers and – in autumn – the dark green berry-like seeds turn bright red, providing another splash of colour.

Under ideal conditions (which includes more or less leaving them alone if they are happy) clivias multiply and need to be thinned out every couple of years. I moved some plants to grace our garden path, which has become a more shaded area as the various trees we planted have matured.

Once the clivias bloom, we can be certain that spring has arrived!

 

AUTUMN SEEDS

Autumn is traditionally a time for the ripening of seeds, ready for the winter sleep and the germination expected in spring. While there are a variety of seeds in our garden at the moment, here are three of them.

Some of the wild bird seed that was missed by the birds sprouted and I left the plants to grow. This is the seed-head is of one part of the mixture.

Dandelion seeds are irresistible and are all over the garden.

These densely packed clivia seeds will eventually ripen to a beautiful red.

SHADES OF BROWN

So, we are still waiting for spring rain to save our garden from the brink of death. This is what it looks like at the moment:

The front lawn has not received water for months. Fortunately it consists of indigenous grass and so should bounce back and recover quickly once the rains come.

This should be a flower bed. What was growing in there died months ago and it isn’t worth planting anything there until the first rains arrive. Our current water restrictions do not allow for watering plants.

Following the natural course of the seasons, these Acacia pods have ripened and turned brown. The seeds provide food for a variety of birds.

There is a thick layer of brown (and yellow) leaf litter in what I used to call my ‘Secret Garden’. It is hardly secret anymore as there is no cover left in the form of shrubs, creepers and foliage from trees. Several of the older bushes growing there have died.

All is not lost though for these clivias have come into bloom next to the garden path. They provide cheering, beautiful colour as well as hope for better conditions to come.

A DOZEN INDIGENOUS FLOWERING PLANTS IN MY GARDEN

When we arrived in the Eastern Cape, our garden contained the remnants of a considerable collection of exotic cacti, roses on their last legs, and a number of other exotic shrubs which did not survive the subsequent years of drought and severe water restrictions. How fortunate we were to meet someone who actually wanted to swop the cacti for several aloe species she had growing aplenty on her nearby farm!

Those early drought years drummed home the value of planting indigenous trees and shrubs. Not only have these reduced the traffic noise from the main road into town, they provide glorious deep shade during our hot summers and are a haven for a variety of bird species. The wondrous aspect of indigenous plants is that they survive drought and high winds, are low maintenance and provide the right kind of sustenance for birds and insects in the garden.

These are some of the indigenous bounty that brighten our garden at different times of the year:

Aloes

I have read that these are the perfect plants for our sunburnt country. They are marvellous the way they provide bright splashes of colour in the veld during the otherwise drab-looking winter months. Several species grow in our garden and they all attract bees, wasps, beetles, sunbirds, Blackheaded Orioles, weavers, Blackeyed Bulbuls. Mousebirds, Streakyheaded Canaries and Redwinged Starlings.

Buddleia salviifolia

buddleia

The heavy clusters of purple flowers exude a lovely lilac-like fragrance and attract a variety of butterflies – hence it is also known as the Butterfly Bush – as well as bees, Cape White-eyes, Blackeyed Bulbuls, Cape Robins and the Barthroated Apalis. The shrub has attractive grey-green leaves reminiscent of the culinary sage. This plant is named after the Rev. Adam Buddle (1660 – 1715), an English amateur botanist and vicar of Farnham in Essex.

Canary creeper (Senecio tamoides)

canary creeper

The masses of golden yellow flowers with deeply fringed petals make this climber a very popular garden plant. When we were living in both Pietermaritzburg and Mmabatho we actually paid what seemed like a fortune for plants from the nursery. It is indigenous to the Eastern Cape, however, and so – once the flowering season is over – I end up pulling it off trees and tossing bundles of it on the compost heap! The flowers have an aromatic scent that also attracts bees, butterflies, weavers, Cape White-eyes, mousebirds and the Barthroated Apalis.

Cape Chestnut (Calodendrum capense)

cape chestnut

[kalos means beautiful, and dendron tree in Greek, capense is Latin for from the Cape]

This sub-tropical tree is truly beautiful to look at even when it is not in flower – the shape of the tree is marvellous. They take several years to establish themselves before producing their characteristic curly, pink-spotted-lavender flowers from November to January. The blooms are especially attractive to butterflies.

Cape Honeysuckle (Tecoma capensis)

cape honeysuckle

This vigorous growing scrambling shrub is another that we used to buy from nurseries until we found ourselves inundated with it in our Eastern Cape garden – turn your back on it and it can take over! It is popular as a hedge plant in this town. I am not into such fine and regular pruning but have to cut back masses of it throughout the year. Its bright tubular red-orange flowers appear erratically and are attractive to bees, butterflies, sunbirds, weavers, Streakyheaded Canaries, Blackheaded Orioles, Blackeyed Bulbuls, Redwinged Starlings as well as mousebirds.

Clivia

clivia

These beautiful flowers are a genus of monocot flowering plants from the Amaryllidacae flowers. They occur naturally in forested areas and so prefer to grow in shade or semi-shade. I have grown some from seed but also transplant the seedlings that cluster around the large clumps. Clivias were named after Lady Charlotte Florentina Clive, Duchess of Northumberland, who was the granddaughter of Robert Clive, better known as Clive of India.

Crossberry (Grewia occidentalis)

crossberry

I wrote about Crossberries in a recent blog (see 15 November). Suffice it to say they are coming into bloom now and are looking beautiful in the garden.

Dais cotonifolia

Dais cotonifolia

The clusters of starry pink flowers have given this tree the common name of Pom-pom tree. They lose their leaves briefly at the end of winter, but are wonderful to have in the garden when covered in blossoms. These trees are special to me for their first blooms used to herald the arrival of my late mother for her annual visit over the Christmas period. Be warned: turn your back on the seedlings and you will have a forest of them on your hands – I have!

Erythrina caffra

Erythrina caffra

This is one of several Coral trees that grow in this country. I often mention the Erythrina trees in my blog as we have three enormous ones growing in our back garden which have housed the nests of Hadeda Ibises, Olive Thrushes, Laughing Doves and Greater Double-collared Sunbirds over the years. These trees are alive with birds throughout the year and provide a sunny perch for African Green Pigeons too. Not only are the scarlet flowers beautiful to look at, but so are the scarlet seeds that fall to the ground and burst from the black pods.

Mesembryanthenum

mesembryanthenum

There are a number of these fleshy plants bearing bright flowers – all self-sown. Here they are commonly known by their Afrikaans name, vygies, probably because it is less of a mouthful.

Plumbago (Plumbago auriculata)

plumbago

These beautiful blue flowers are very attractive to butterflies. The plant needs regular pruning to keep it in check. It is another wonderful indigenous plant that requires little attention and rewards one with masses of flowers in season.

Spekboom (Portulacaria afra)

spekboom

This bush is native to the Eastern Cape and forms an important part of the diet of elephants in the Addo Elephant National Park, for example. We have seen swathes of it being replanted in the Great Fish Rover Reserve and elsewhere because of its ability to capture carbon and to restore natural ecosystems. Its capacity to offset harmful carbon emissions is comparable to that of moist, subtropical forests. It is drought-resistant and produces delicate pink flowers.