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A garden is a lovesome thing, God wot! — Thomas Edward Brown 1830–1897.

Gardening in Betty’s Bay should be a breeze. After all, we live in what is probably the richest pocket of the richest floral kingdom of the world, where “richness” refers to the huge variety of flowering plants occurring naturally in our indigenous vegetation. But gardening here is not easy. In fact, it is “vrot” with disappointment and despair. Seemingly healthy plants up and die on us for no apparent reason and, more often than not, plants refuse to behave as the books tell us they should.

An example: In 1988 I planted a Milkwood tree. It was at least a metre tall at the time and was as healthy as could be, with fabulous shiny foliage and lots of promising new growth. Over the years, I have loved and nurtured it. I have regularly fed it with compost and Seagro. I have religiously watered it in the dry season. I have whispered words of encouragement into its leaves and have even sung to it. But latterly these loving words have been replaced by less salubrious diatribes. The damn thing continues to cling to life but appears to grow down instead of up. After 27 years, my Milkwood is 1/2m tall and has a quarter of the leaves it once had. I wish it would curl up its toes once and for all, but no, it battles on, a constant reminder of my failure as a gardener.

But at last my [and your] gardening attempts could enjoy more success. I now realise that ignorance has been at the root of most of my personal failures. And I use the word “root” quite intentionally. It turns out that I have been trying to grow plants in soil conditions for which they are not suited. [My failure with the Milkwood is testament to this.] Two recently-published books have unscrambled the mysteries of gardening in the Kogel- berg.

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The first is Your Place in the Kogelberg, by Tim Atwell [reviewed in last month’s Buzz] and the second is Indigenous Plant Palettes, An Essential Guide to Plant Selection, by Marijke Honig. It appears that there are no fewer than seven local ecosystems within the Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve, each with its own “geological and soil features and special and endemic plants” [Attwell, p32]. One’s success in cultivating particular plants in one’s garden is dependent on the soil type and conditions of the immediate area and it is advisable to choose the plants that would naturally thrive there.

The Attwell book outlines the actual areas in the Kogelberg that fall into the different categories and gives an overview of the plants that thrive in each. The Honig book deals with the specifics of gardening in these different conditions and her “palettes – groups of plants for a specific purpose or situation” – provide a very useful guide as to what to plant where, depending on the effect that you want to achieve. Ernst van Jaarsveld, in his introduction to the book, explains that “Marijke simplifies plant choice in a step by step approach and describes 24 plant palettes which cover a wide range of needs from security, screening, fragrance and architectural plants to attracting birds. For each palette she has chosen 30 of the best plants available – taking into consideration our regional diversity of climate and landscape.” Once you have identified the local ecosystem into which your garden falls, you can find out what to plant in it and how to achieve the best results by altering your gardening techniques to suit the environment. Then by a process of cross referencing you can go a step further. You can choose plants for a particular purpose, like attracting birds or creating a screen, while at the same time ensuring that these plants are suited to your particular gardening conditions.

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According to Tim Attwell, I am to be congratulated! This is because my garden is situated in the heart of the Cape flora. It appears that I, in gardening terms at least, am privileged to live on the slopes of the mountain as opposed to the flatter section between the mountain and sea. My property is part of the Kogelberg Sandstone Fynbos and, as such, can support a huge variety of endemic plants that do not occur naturally in any other part of the world. The fact that the garden is on a slope is another plus. This ensures good drainage, an important factor in the successful cultivation of fynbos. So, even though the soil conditions appear unpromising – sandy, nutrient-poor and acidic – I should enjoy many gardening triumphs if I choose my plants wisely, using the rich natural vegetation around me as my guide.

But do not despair if your garden is situated in one of the other ecosystems in the Betty’s Bay area. You may not have such a large selection of plants suited to your conditions, but there are easily enough to create a lovely garden. Again use the naturally-occurring vegetation as your guide. A good idea is to base your garden plan on the local vegetation, using the plants found around your property as the skeleton of the garden. You can then enhance the overall effect by introducing colourful and interesting additions. Both books are very helpful as to what plants grow best in the different conditions. Also, you can consult the people who work in the Harold Porter nursery. They are very knowledgeable about what grows best where. [And you’ll probably be able to grow milkwoods!]

Marijke Honig provides practical gardening advice to fynbos gardeners. Here are some of her suggestions:

  • Plant fynbos in autumn or winter. This gives the plants a chance to develop good root systems before the onset of the hot and dry summer months.
  • If you are planting in good, undisturbed topsoil you do not need to add compost. If the soil is sandy and poor, compost will be of benefit, but don’t dig it in. Instead, put a layer on the top of the soil. Not only will it enrich the soil, but will help it to retain water.
  • Never disturb the soil unnecessarily. Your hole must be just big enough to accommodate the plant that you are putting in.
  • Be very careful not to disturb the root system when you transfer a plant from the plastic container to the ground. Remove the bag very carefully and press down the soil gently with your hands after planting.
  • Be careful not to buy plants that are root-bound. The root system is more likely to be damaged during the planting out process. In other words, avoid larger plants where the roots have filled the bag. [A sign to watch out for is roots growing out of the holes at the bottom of the bag.]
  • An annually-renewed, thick layer of mulch on a bed is very important as it will keep the surface of the soil cool and retain moisture. Your mulch layer must be 3 to 5cm thick and you can use rough compost, wood chip or pine needles. [ If you have proteas growing in your garden, the litter they produce forms an excellent mulch. This litter is to be found lying at the base of the plants. When you cut back a protea or shrub, do not remove all the debris. Allow this to form a natural mulch. This can stay where it is and any excess litter can be used on other plants.]
  • You will need to water new plants during the first two summers or until they are well established. But be careful not to over-water. [This will cause the roots to rot and the plants to grow too rapidly.] Water infrequently but deeply so that the roots are encouraged to grow down in search of water.
  • Don’t dig unnecessarily in your garden. Digging disturbs delicate root systems and soil microbes. Pull out weeds. Never dig them in to the soil.
  • Once a plant has flowered, give it a trim. This will encourage future flowering and make the plant bushier. [When trimming proteas, avoid cutting below the lowest leaves. Very often a plant will not recover if it is pruned too enthusiastically.]
  • Never use chemical fertilisers that are high in phosphates in a fynbos garden. A mulch of compost will do the trick. Foliar feeding or watering with seaweed or fish extract is always beneficial. Seaweed is excellent for strengthening the root systems of plants.

It is never too late to get your garden into shape. Arm yourself with these two books and be guided by them. The results should make all your efforts worthwhile.

[from a very enthusiastic amateur]