Saturday, 5 April 2014

A garden without wildlife is hardly a garden at all

Ever changing ever new

Our average affluent north Durban suburban garden owner has the most  uninteresting sterile garden possible planted to a very limited number of sterile unchanging plants such as Philodendron selloum cv. Xanadu, bright coloured crotons Codiaeum variegatum, dust collecting Dianella tasmanica variegata, Ophiopogon japonica, Ophiopogon jaburan variegata a never changing boring landscape. Masses of boring single straight stemmed palms, yellow leaved Duranta erecta Sheena's Gold ™ which have been trimmed into hedges, balls and who knows what, to me a plant that is this colour is  critically ill and needs to be removed. All to be finished of with horrible gaudy purple border bedding plants such as purple setcreasea Tradescantia pallida and Rheoe Tradescantia spathacea

Croton Codiaeum variegatum

The Croton Codiaeum variegatum above is very clearly a magnificent plant that has its uses but it never changes how it looks which in time becomes overpowering and boring and in particular it is sterile, it attracts no wildlife at all it could very easily be replaced in the garden with an identical copy made of plastic and few if any people would be any the wiser. These magnificently colourful plants most certainly do not bring life into the garden.

Change and variety are the spices of life and that applies in particular when planning a garden either exotic or indigenous if one would like to create tranquillity in the garden and to provide the greatest of benefit for the user and observer.

In a Proudly South African living garden planted to our local South African plants there are never two days that are the same, it is ever changing, ever interesting, the  bright yellow bloom of a Hibiscus calyphyllus or Hibiscus surattensis here this morning gone this afternoon a flush of blooms the following day.

Hibiscus surattensis  bright and beautiful ever changing never the same.

Dietes grandiflora and Dietes iridioides which come to their full glory for a single day in the spring and early summer months after a drop in atmospheric pressure, then wait for the next drop in pressure to repeat the spectacle. A blaze of blue from the Agapanthus Agapanthus praecox spp.orientalis for a few weeks during midsummer, a blaze of orange from the aloes during the winter to be followed by a blaze of red from the coral tree Erythrina lysistemon announcing the early spring that attract birds and insect 

A brightly coloured butterfly here and brightly coloured bird over there plucking a bright berry from a Psychotria capensis bush. A brightly coloured carpenter bee sucking nectar from the flower of a Justicia betonica, dragonflies doing their amazing aerial displays, interesting and brightly insects every where.

A brightly coloured carpenter bee Xylocopa caffra sucking nectar from the flower of a Justicia betonica

A bright coloured bird flying overhead to alight and pluck a bright red berry from a Psychotria capensis in full fruit in the winter. An interesting and colourful bug sitting on a flower, interesting colourful insects everywhere you look in the garden. A Striped Skink Trachylepsis striata sunning its self on a stone and one up on the roof garden waiting for a fat fly to pass by, a blue headed tree agama Acanthocercus atricollis sunning itself on the trunk of a tree

A spectacled Weaver Ploceus ocularis building its nest on a Strelitzia tree Strelitzia nicolai outside my kitchen door.

These things are seldom seen and experienced in your regular traditional Durban garden with its mostly sterile tropical and subtropical plants that appear to never change from season to season, day to day, week to week, year to year, never changing always the same. Many of these gardens may just as well be made of brightly coloured plastic and concrete for all the life that they bring into the garden. Well manicured bright un-natural colours, coarse textures.
A well designed garden planted exclusively to our local indigenous plants will be green and tranquil full of interest, full of beauty, with green that comes in every texture, form and shade is ever changing ever new. Every day there is a new surprise, as flower buds burst open to expose a splash of brilliant colour, sometimes lasting only a few hours and sometimes weeks on end then back to the tranquillity of green to soothe the soul.

A very easy plant to propagate and to grow is this magnificent pendulous Gladiolus cruentus a rare critically endangered local gem seldom if ever seen in cultivation in South Africa

A brightly coloured sun bird gently alights on a leonotis intermedia to sip nectar before flitting off to another brightly coloured plant or to hawk a passing insect in mid air.

During the day bright orange paradise flycatchers with their long tail feathers dart out under the canopies of the trees to catch a passing fly and as the sun dips its head below the horizon tiny little bats appear doing tight aerobatics under the same trees to hawk the insects that they feed on.

I look out the window and see a bright coloured Locust Zonocerus elegans which feeds on the milk weed plant Gomphocarpus physocarpus which is also the host plant to the African Monarch Butterfly.

A bright coloured Locust Zonocerus elegans resting on the flower of a grass aloe, Aloe cooperii

A bronze back manikin alights on a grass stem to pluck a seed head of Panicum maximum to build his nest,  later I see him return to collect the fluffy flower heads of natal redtop grass Melinis repens to line it with.

A bright red African Fire Finch arrives on the ground just outside my kitchen door to look for seed and insects.

African Fire Finch Lagonosticta rubricata

The sound of the Crested Barbet that has his home in a nest box I placed in a tree directly opposite my kitchen window only a few metres away, the sound of  Painted Reed Frogs in a small pond of arums in the evening a garden which is a haven for wildlife in all its forms both day and night with interest without end, is this not what a garden should be.

Painted Reed Frog Hyperolius marmoratus

To maximise the life in a garden it must be planned with as large a variety of interesting local plants to create habitat, which provides shelter, breeding and feeding opportunities for all manner of creatures both great and small. Thereafter we need to do little more to encourage life into our gardens, if the conditions are right wildlife will come and stay of its own. The bigger the variety of plants and habitat types the greater the numbers of creatures that will be attracted. The garden must have water, it must have lawn to serve as green pathways and to separate the different elements of the garden. Do not forget a bench here a table and chairs there so that one can sit and relax and enjoy the garden and its wildlife.

African Monarch butterfly Danaus chrysippus on the flower of it´s host plant the Milk Weed Gomphocarpus physocarpus

There is no reason why a garden that is maximised for wildlife should not be planned and planted to the highest standards of landscape design incorporating only our local plants and a slightly different order to what has traditionally been accepted here in South Africa and much of the world.

When it comes to maintenance the garden must still be well manicured just as the sterile traditional garden in particular at the entrance and near to the house but it will need to be a slightly different order, the beds will still need to be edged, the lawn mowed and the weeds removed, no one wants to be greeted by a mess. However the maintenance must not show a misguided sense of order it must not be carried out with sensitivity and not to the detriment of the life in the garden.

All the photos that I used in this article have been taken in my own garden at Mount Moreland north of Durban.

Michael Hickman
Landscape Design Specialist


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1 comment:

  1. The only fire finch I've ever seen was in the Gambia, beautiful common and friendly garden birds. They hang around people and dwellings and will often bath in fine dry dust right at your feet, looking up inquisitively as they fluff up into little red balls. Do you think these are escaped pets in Durban? I honestly didn't think you got them so far South of Mozambique maybe!

    Love this page, it's so true. However I was looking up Codiaeum when I found it.

    Of course I wouldn't have one on my completely indigenous garden and farm in South Africa but since I live in Hong Kong most of the year I love em here. I know how popular they are/were back home where I so readily despised them that I destroyed an entire croton garden, but I was thinking to myself the other day that there must be some fantastic old varieties still to be found in old gardens on the Natal coast where I could get cuttings.

    Thing is they are suddenly back in fashion around the world where the tropical look is all the rage but many of the excellent varieties have been lost to horticulture in many parts of the world.

    In fact the original is my kind of plant. Shiny dark green demure deep forest under-story little wannabe tree, beloved of one species of butterfly. Like something you would find in the Umtamvuna gorge.

    The many cultivars are however also not as static as you might imagine. They respond to temperature drops and lack of rain fall by intensifying their colours. A quite neutral vomit looking plant can otherwise suddenly erupt into a fire ball of colour. They flower and set fruit secretly, little tiny white powder puff explosions that have an incredible intense jungle penetrating sweet scent and they light up gloomy corners of the world where a sense of place has been lost.

    I agree they dont look happy at home where a sense of place is so profoundly comforting and easy to achieve, however the latest creations in the Codeaum variagatum world have me drooling. The Australian "colours of Africa" series for example have wonderfully and definitely here rather ironic names like "Zulu", "Congo", "Masai" "Zanzibar".

    Zulu in particular stands out as a must have in any exotic paradise (LOL).

    OK that's enough. Im already jealous of your reed frog, fire finch, spectacled weaver etc they have completely side tracked my croton quest. BTW Im passionate about reed frogs, passionate! The little painted is one of my all time favorite amphibians. I dont think many people realise how small these frogs are in fact. Sigh cant wait for Christmas holls.....