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Written by: Michelle Malan

It’s midsummer and in most of South Africa we have searing heat, howling winds, drought and water restrictions. Gardeners all over are in despair as lawns yellow, leaves wither and prize plants droop beyond saving. We are constantly reminded to plant indigenous and waterwise plants to save on water and heartbreak, but I’ve realised over time that, despite their best intentions, many people struggle to choose suitable plants.

It is, however, encouraging to see nurseries offering greater varieties of indigenous plants every year, so here are some tips to choosing the right plants for your beautiful, indigenous, diverse and water-wise garden of the future:

1.     Pay attention to the conditions in your garden

No two gardens are alike, and it’s no use thinking that you can have the lush tropical garden you saw in a magazine if you live on sand. Take note of what kind of soils and environmental conditions you have, so that next time you go to a nursery the experts can point you in the right direction. Also keep an eye on nature reserves and strips of indigenous veld in your area. The plants that grow there should do well in your garden. Take photos of those that appeal to you and check their names using online tools such as iSpot or invest in the Botanical Society’s wildflower guide for your area. Armed with a name you can check whether they are really indigenous to your area and can search for them at a nursery or specialist grower.

Be inspired by local landscapes when planning your indigenous garden. Succulent vygies and wild rosemary (Eriocephalus) form a natural rock garden in the West Coast National Park.
Succulent vygies and wild rosemary (Eriocephalus) form a natural rock garden in the West Coast National Park. Be inspired by local landscapes when planning your indigenous garden. © Michelle Malan

2.     Get to know your plants

It’s easy to wander around a nursery and load your cart with plants that are marked ‘water-wise’, but if you truly want to invest some energy in creating an interesting indigenous garden, look beyond the gazanias and pay some attention to the plant traits. In general, big-leaved plants need shade, whereas small leaves will do better in the sun. Leaves that are thick and tough, known as sclerophyllous plants, will tolerate dry, nutrient-poor soils better than fast growing plants with soft, thin leaves.

When you’re digging around in your garden pay attention to the roots of your plants. Species with a long, thick tap root may take a while to adjust to being planted, but once established they should be able to shoot down to deeper, cooler, damper areas of the soil. Species with roots close to the surface of the soil will be more susceptible to drought. Remember that the more extensive the root system, the greater the plants ability to find water and nutrients for itself.

This pretty Pelargonium scabrum occurs naturally from Springbok to Grahamstown and once settled in needs hardly any water. Its fragrant leaves and pretty flowers will bring both colour and scent to your garden.
This pretty Pelargonium scabrum occurs naturally from Springbok to Grahamstown, and once settled it hardly needs any water. Its fragrant leaves and pretty flowers will bring both colour and scent to your garden. © Michelle Malan

3.     Leave the leaves

Unless leaves are completely smothering a precious seedling, it’s a good idea to leave fallen leaves on the ground where they’ve dropped. They will create a layer of organic material that will shade the soil, keeping the roots of plants cool, as well as preventing precious moisture from evaporating off the soil’s surface. Over time (accept that this will be a very long time in dry conditions) the leaves will decompose and add nutrients to the soil.

In the same vein, save yourself some effort and leave the weeds – at least until they’re big enough for you to tell if they’re going to grow into a pest or something interesting. Seeds brought into the garden by birds can often produce locally indigenous plants that will be tougher than what you will find at a nursery, particularly if you live near a reserve… or if your neighbours have good gardens!

Polygala myrtifolia is a tough coastal shrub with many fine roots that allow it to pull maximum moisture and nutrients from the soil.
Polygala myrtifolia is a tough coastal shrub with many fine roots that allow it to pull maximum moisture and nutrients from the soil. © Michelle Malan

4.    Appreciate the fact that you are creating your own private ecosystem

With great power comes great responsibility, and the more you learn about your garden and the plants that populate it, the better your chances are of creating a well functioning system. Note which plants make happy neighbours, group plants to protect each other, and if a plant isn’t coping with the conditions, don’t force it if it wasn’t meant to be. Choose another interesting plant to add to your little world.

Felicia aethiopica or amelloides, native to the Western and Eastern Cape, are a bright addition to any waterwise garden. Their tough, hairy leaves help them conserve water.
Felicia aethiopica or amelloides, native to the Western and Eastern Cape, are a bright addition to any water-wise garden. Their tough, hairy leaves help them to conserve water. © Michelle Malan

These tips apply to all successful gardening, and it’s important to choose indigenous plants because as South Africans we live in one of the most diverse regions of the world. You needn’t be content with just roses and petunias when we have thousands of indigenous species that are suitable for cultivation, and having personal contact with our native flora will open your eyes to the beauty of natural ecosystems that you may have previously ignored.

Be inspired by your local botanical garden and try some indigenous bulbs. With most being native to the Western Cape, Lachenalia bulbs will usually flower in autumn or early winter when the rains start and die down in summer as it dries up.
Be inspired by your local botanical garden and try planting some indigenous bulbs. With most being native to the Western Cape, Lachenalia bulbs will usually flower in autumn or early winter when the rains start, and will die down in summer as it dries up. © Michelle Malan

Become a member of the Botanical Society of South Africa and learn more about our incredible plants through the society’s quarterly magazine, Veld and Flora, and have the opportunity to meet and interact with a community fascinated by the indigenous plants of South Africa.

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You can further support plant conservation by getting a MyPlanet card and selecting the Botanical Society as your beneficiary.

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