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.

SOUTHERN MASKED WEAVER

While they are commonly seen throughout southern Africa, Southern Masked Weavers (Ploceus velatus) have taken some years to become regular visitors to our garden. They are no strangers to this blog for during the past year or two they appear to have become the dominant weaver – outranking the Village Weavers that used to outnumber them by far. They are easily distinguished from Village Weaver by being slightly smaller and have a plain, rather than a blotchy, back.

Depending on the weather, their breeding season usually runs from September to January, although the peak of the season is in summer. During this time, breeding males sport a black face mask with a narrow black band on the forehead above the bill. During the non-breeding season they adopt a more drab appearance, akin to the females, other than the retention of their red eyes. Note their short, strong, conical bill.

The shape of its bill is eminently suited to it being mainly a seed-eater. They eat seeds both from the bird-feeders and from the ground. I have also observed them foraging through leaves and branches as well as fighting each other – and other birds – over any scraps of food I place on the tray. These birds have bent and broken the stems of the cosmos flowers – in search of insects or nectar?

When we had rain and I was able to grow African Marigolds, I would often see some of the Southern Masked Weavers ripping the petals apart.

Now is the time when the lovely orange blossoms of the Cape Honeysuckle come into bloom and the weavers waste no time in biting off the tubular flowers at the base to get at the nectar. They do the same to the Weeping Boer-bean, which is also blooming now. When our Erythrina caffra trees are in bloom, they join with a wide variety of birds doing much the same.

Lastly, these birds are not slow when it comes to feasting on the termites and flying ants that regularly appear in the garden!

THE FINER DETAILS

From the magnificence of the trees around us to a closer look in the garden. Cosmos flowers have been delighting us for months. They keep re-seeding themselves and so the bed has been a mass of pink, white and a combination of these colours. The flowers are so prolific that one actually has to look closely to see the seed heads.

The Pompon trees were among the first to put out leaves at the start of spring and it has been delightful to watch their skeletal branches getting lost in the thick foliage, leaving only the dried reminders of the flowers from last season.

Recent rain has encouraged the buds to swell, to allow glimpses of pink to show, and now these trees are covered with beautiful pink blossoms that will need to be showcased on their own. Pink is cheerful – and we are enjoying a lot of it at the moment. Pale blue is also welcome and so are the plumbago flowers that are starting to make their presence felt next to our pool and along the garden path.

A GLIMPSE OF MY GARDEN

Walk up the front garden path with me for a glimpse of our recently greened-up garden.

Next to the front door is a self-sown Zizyphus mucronata or Buffalo Thorn, known in Afrikaans as the blinkblaar-wag-‘n-bietjie (literally translated as a shining leaf wait-a-bit) tree because of their pattern of two thorns at the nodes, one of which faces backward.  Behind it is an Aloe ferox.

Dahlias – which come up only when the conditions are favourable – brighten one end of the front garden. They didn’t show themselves at all last summer.

Also self-sown are the cosmos that have bloomed for months now. The only difference since the first rain arrived is that the plants are growing taller!

This is one of several self-sown indigenous Senecio spp. which, I have discovered, make long lasting cut flowers – they look pretty in a vase mixed with cosmos.

Lastly, here is a colourful corner in the back garden – an indigenous mix other than a surviving nasturtium that must have grown from seeds dropped two summers ago. None grew last year for it was far too hot and dry for anything to survive.

SEPTEMBER 2020 GARDEN

The postage stamp size garden I am endeavouring to maintain with far too little water has yielded great pleasure in terms of colour. Especially pleasing are the Namaqualand / African daisies. I planted a packet of out-of-date seeds in the bare, dry ground with great faith and have watched them anxiously from the first tiny shoots to the orange and yellow flowers that open with the sun and wave merrily in the breezes.

Growing plants from seeds in a drought is a risky affair and so I caved in once our local nursery opened and bought calendula seedlings. These have survived being chomped by several locusts to produce pretty blooms, such as this one.

The miniature marigolds were also purchased as seedlings, but very few have survived the onslaught of snails.

This Van Stadens River Daisy (Dimorphotheca ecklonis) originates from plants my late mother grew on our farm in the now Mpumalanga.

To my considerable joy, several self-sown cosmos have grown up from last year’s crop.

A very strange thing I have discovered since the COVID-19 lockdown began is that there are no flower seeds for sale in the supermarkets. At first they weren’t allowed to sell any seeds (don’t ask) and now only have vegetable seeds on offer!