MY SECRET GARDEN REVISITED

The drought has not been kind to my ‘secret’ garden, deliberately left ‘wild’ and undisturbed for the benefit of creatures either living there or finding shelter and sustenance. Several trees and shrubs have died, leaving open spaces and creating sunny spots. This is a view from it looking up the steps to the rest of the front garden.

Over the years the mulch made up of leaves, twigs – and Hadeda ibis droppings – has grown thick and spongy underfoot.

A dead fiddle-wood is kept company by a cluster of other trees growing straight up to reach the light. On the right are branches of another tree that has fallen down during the strong winds.

Behind them the Natal fig towers over everything, its base covered by clivias.

The lowing of cows (part of the Urban Herd) drew me to that spot this morning. These are only a few of many gathered on the verge of a main road leading into town. The curtain of foliage is courtesy of the fig tree.

HOW GREEN IS MY … GARDEN

I keep harping on about the drought, and with good reason for both Howieson’s Poort and Settler’s Dam have run out of water – leaving our town in dire straits. The very light (and little) rain that has fallen has not been enough to provide the much-needed runoff that will make its way to these vital storage dams. Nonetheless, the rain has made a noticeable difference to the vegetation and has been captured in hollows, such as this aloe leaf in my garden

The aloes now have a beautifully green backdrop that provides shelter for the birds.

Our forested garden is becoming rejuvenated: the Natal Fig is heavy with fruit that attracts African Green Pigeons, Red-winged Starlings, Speckled Mousebirds, Cape White-eyes, Olive Thrushes, and many other birds. The pompon trees are filled with swelling buds that will soon provide a beautiful display of pink flowers – and the Cape Chestnut is already blooming!

Fine droplets of welcome rain cling to the leaves of a canary creeper.

It is a pleasure to sit in the shade outdoors and to enjoy all of this green – last December our garden looked apocalyptically brown and skeletal!

WHAT A TANGLED WEB WE WEAVE

While the quotation Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive! (Sir Walter Scott) uses the imagery of a spider’s web, it often springs to mind when I walk past this enormous Natal fig (Ficus natalensis) growing next to the road around the corner from where we live. Look at the intricacy of the large trunk and the air roots that have become so entwined over the years – much as that ‘small white lie’ might grow and twist until one can become completely ensnared by it.

No, this isn’t a moral tale – merely an analogy. We too have a magnificent Natal fig in our garden, the base of which is somewhat hidden by a number of clivia plants.

It was big thirty years ago and now has a very wide drooping canopy of shade, with branches that stretch right over the street!

While the figs are not edible to humans, they attract a wide variety birds which relish them.

The broad branches provide adequate roosting spots for several Hadeda Ibises that come in to land during the late afternoon and generally start waking up the neighbourhood about half an hour before sunrise every morning. Here two of them are perched on a branch.

Other birds commonly seen in this tree are Red-eyed Doves, Red-winged Starlings, Speckled Mousebirds, Cape White-eyes, Black-collared Barbets, and Olive Thrushes.

We are always delighted when a flock of African Green Pigeons settle in to devour the fruit.

We have seen Olive Thrushes and Speckled Mousebirds nesting in the tree, as well as Fork-tailed Drongos. Here a parent has just brought food to its youngster.

A thick layer of mulch has gathered underneath the tree, so thick that one can sink into it. One has to step through it with care – this puff adder emerged from it into our neighbour’s garden three years ago.

ARBOUR WEEK

The theme for this year’s Arbour Week is Forests and Sustainable Cities. My garden is a microcosm of this and could be termed Forests and Sustainable Gardens. Early readers will know that we inherited a rather barren garden and set about planting as many indigenous trees as we could soon after our arrival. The initial hard work has paid off: we may not have a prize-winning looking garden, but the intention has always been to provide a haven for birds and other small creatures – including snakes that find their way here – such as at least one tortoise and a Brown Mongoose.

One of the highlighted trees of the year is the Boscia albitrunca, otherwise known as the Shepherd’s Tree. We do not have one in our garden, but see them growing in the wild around here. A lovely example is this one growing in the Great Fish Nature Reserve.

I often mention the trees in our garden and the birds that use them for either food or shelter. This is the enormous Natal Fig that dominates the ‘wild’ section of our garden. It must be at least seventy years old, having been planted soon after the end of the Second World War when our house was built. It is looking a little bare at the moment, yet will soon be covered with thick foliage.

A flock of Hadeda Ibises roost in it every night and a variety of birds feed off the tiny fruits. These include African Green Pigeons, Blackeyed Bulbuls, Cape White-eyes, Blackcollared Barbets, Blackheaded Orioles, Greyheaded Sparrows, Olive Thrushes, Knysna Turacos and many more!

This Cussonia spicata (Cabbage Tree) was grown from seed by a friend. As you can see, it has had to bend away from the encroaching ‘jungle’ to reach the light. Keeping that ‘jungle’ in check is an ongoing battle – which I am nowhere near winning, yet it provides a perfect haven for nesting Cape Robin-chats, Cape White-eyes, Fork-tailed Drongos – and is where we have seen several snakes.

Whenever I mention the Erythrina caffra trees in our back garden, I tend to show you what its magnificent flowers look like.

Here you can see the base of one of these trees. They are enormous and are also very old. Near the top of the picture you can see where some of the branches have shrivelled with age and fallen off.

I will leave you with a partial view of our front garden.

The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now. Chinese Proverb

HERALDING AUTUMN

There is no dramatic recolouring of the landscape here. Instead, autumn in our garden is heralded by the subtle fullness of the Natal figs:

These attract African Green Pigeons and Redwinged Starlings by the dozen:

The aloes are swelling in readiness for their winter blooming:

Black-eyed Susan creepers twine around other plants to provide bright colour:

Other splashes of colour come from the plumbago:

Canary creepers and Cape Honeysuckle:

While self-sown butternuts ripen on their vines.

In these years of severe water shortages, I bless the indigenous plants that simply ‘get on with it’ and do their best.