I have just spent the past six weeks in the Western and Northern Cape enjoying the beauty of spring in Namaqualand and visiting a few gardens in Cape Town.
It is fascinating to see how plants adapt to the harsh climatic conditions in these regions and how gardening in Durban is so much easier. Gardeners always joke that you can literally put a stick in the ground in Durban and it will grow, which is very true in many ways when you live in the tropics.
Selection of plants for different light conditions is something most gardeners get wrong, which is often the reason many plants die during the summer months. The best way to find out what grows in the different light conditions is to visit our nature reserves scattered around Durban, which generally house many interesting shade-tolerant plants.
It is important to select those plants that are naturally adapted to shady conditions as putting shade plants in full sun will damage the plants, as will putting sun-loving plants in full shade.
We have a huge palette of plants that flower and grow in shade, and knowing these plants will make gardening in the shade so much easier. How often have I seen Clivias growing in full sun that are sunburnt and dying, which is a tragedy for this magnificent plant, which naturally grows in deep shade.
Some plants grow in both sun and shade, including one of the favourite plants used in most gardens and known as the wild iris or rain plant, Dietes grandiflora.
A shrub that flowers from early to late spring and is adaptable to both sun and shade is known as Mackaya bella or forest bell-bush. Its specific name, bella, meaning beautiful, is a tribute to its large white to lightly purple bell-shaped flowers. It’s not a large plant but large enough to make an impact in any garden, reaching between 3–4m. Its flowers mostly appear in late winter to early spring, but it can flower a few times a year. It prefers the subtropical conditions of Durban and does not like cold, frosty weather. It prefers to grow in shady conditions with a few hours’ sunshine a day. In full sun this shrub will wilt and burn, so make sure you grow this shrub in shade. If the leaves start to turn yellow, it is an indication that it is getting too much direct sunlight.
Try to select shade-loving plants that flower at different times of the year. This creates interest in your garden and provides food and nectar for butterflies and birds. Many of the plants will produce seed once flowered and pollinated, which adds to the attraction of the plants plus increases the insect and birdlife in your garden. Birds will feed on the seeds which they then disperse, not just in your garden but other gardens around your area.
A good example is the blood lily, Scadoxus puniceus, which is a bulb that flowers in spring with a head of bright red flowers. These flowers are pollinated by bees. They then turn to seed which is fed on by birds. Birds then disperse this seed in your garden and increase the number of plants within your own garden.
Below is a selection of trees, shrubs, groundcovers and bulbs that you can add to your garden that grow in the shade:
Trees: Rothmannia globosa (September bells), Xylotheca kraussiana (African dogrose), Pavetta lanceolata (brides bush), Acokanthera oppositifolia (poison bush), Dracaena aletriformis (large-leaved dragon tree), Psychotria capensis (black bird berry) and Peddiea Africana (poison olive).
Shrubs: Carissa bispinosa (forest num num), Mackaya bella (river bells), Plectranthus zuluensis (Zulu spur flower), Plectranthus ecklonii (spur flower), Duvernoia adhatodoides (pistol bush) and Metarungia longistrobus (northern orange-lips)
Groundcovers: Asystasia gangetica (wild foxglove), Bulbine natalensis (broad-leaf Bulbine), Chlorophytum bowkeri (hen and chicken), Chlorophytum krookianum (giant Chlorophytum), Setaria megaphylla (bristle grass), Crassula multicava (fairy crassula) and Dietes grandiflora (wild iris).
Bulbs: Agapanthus praecox, Clivia miniata, Crocosmia aurea, Scadoxus puniceus (blood lily) and Haemanthus albiflos (paint brush).
When planting, make sure you prepare the ground with well-decomposed organic matter in the form of compost. This must be turned into the soil to ensure it is spread evenly. Rake the area evenly and add some form of protection from erosion if you have a steep garden.
First plant your form plants which can be either trees or a large aloe. When you plant, dig a hole that is slightly larger than the size of the plant bag or pot. Mix in some compost and fertiliser and place the plant in the hole. Make sure the top of the root ball with soil is at the same height as the top of the hole or slightly higher. If planted too deep the stem will rot. If planted too high the plant’s root ball will dry out. Once planted, press the soil down on either side of the plant to compact the soil. If possible, leave a small cup to hold the water.
Once planted, water well. Make sure you have a sprinkler that does not cause the water to run off, causing erosion. Water at least once every three days to ensure the new plants and roots receive sufficient water. Take some mulch in the form of leaves or chipped bark and place on the surface of the newly planted area. This holds in the moisture, prevents weed growth and soil erosion.
Things to do this month
Mulch: ensure you take all the leaves that have fallen from your trees in winter and spread them in your flower beds. Mulching prevents water loss, adds nutrients to the soil and prevents weed growth. It is a simple process that is Mother Nature’s best way of adding to and improving your soil quality.
Prune: prune shrubs and trees that are overgrown or finished flowering for this season. Pruning stimulates growth and now is the time to cut back those overgrown shrubs and allow these plants to produce a new flush of growth for summer.
Pest control: check your shrubs for insects, in particular scale insects that attack the old unhealthy parts of the plant. Remove those parts of the plants that are infected and allow the dormant buds to initiate a new flush of growth for summer. Always monitor your plants for insects as we move into summer. If you need to spray, then use a natural product that does not damage the environment or kill off beneficial insects.
Go for a walk: it is good for the soul.