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Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Planting for nature

We choose plants for the garden for a number of reasons, mostly colour, size, texture and how they will fit into the overall design. We tend not to give much thought as to the why's of colour and shape, but one thing is certain, plants do not flower in order to pretty up our gardens! The evolution of flowers was to ensure their survival and that of other wildlife.

When you really love nature, its fauna and flora, gardening takes on a whole new perspective. Keeping wildlife, birds and insects in mind when planting can give immense satisfaction in knowing you are providing food and shelter for them. To achieve this, we need plants as they occur in their natural setting along with the wildlife they support – after all, it is their world too, and the pleasure of having such a strong connection to nature in our own back yards offers health benefits the medicinal world would bottle if they could!

Not many of us give real thought to nature when planting our gardens. The garden is there to give us pleasure, please our aesthetic senses and, to some extent, impress our friends and neighbours.

Many insects, like the Praying Mantis, are beneficial to the garden. It is no wonder they are often referred to as 'the gardener's friend' as they have voracious appetites for insects like moths, crickets, grasshoppers, spiders, aphids and flies, including one another! Your garden's greenery can be a safe haven for them against predators like owls, frogs, chameleons, bats and monkeys.

A Yellow Pansy (Junonia hierta) enjoying minerals in the soil after feeding on some nectar in my garden. This is one of the shiest butterflies around and it is easier to take a photo of a dragonfly up close than to even get near one of these beauties. Male and female similar and females have dots on hind wings. Common throughout South Africa except for most parts of the Cape province. Larval stage feeds on creeping foxglove among others. 

An Orb-web spiderling making its web between two of my plants. I watched this baby building its web in a matter of hours, complete with the characteristic zig-zag pattern in the centre. In South Africa the family Araneidae includes 40 genera of master weavers. There are both diurnal (day) and nocturnal (night) species. The diurnal groups continually repair their webs, usually using them for a number of days. The web cannot be used indefinitely as it dries and loses its capture ability and insects will no longer stick to it. Nocturnal spiders, on the other hand, construct a new web every night and it is taken down at dawn and eaten. This serves as a valuable source of protein. The bridge line, the main original stay that is built, is retained for reuse.

A Speckled Emperor Moth, (Wattled Emperor Moth, Mopane worm) resting on a Restios plant in my garden. It is from the Saturniidae (Silk Moths) family. I actually found her inside the house and brought her out to safety (not sure how SAFE it is...?) and she seemed quite content to just rest a while before disappearing into the thickets. Adult moths lay a single cluster of 50 to 200 eggs around twigs or on the leaves of host plants over a two month period. After approximately ten days, the larvae emerge and then pass through five instars before pupation. Instars I to III of the caterpillars are strictly gregarious and will forage together in aggregations of 20 to 200 individuals. After moulting into instar IV, caterpillars disperse immediately to become solitary. The larval stage lasts approximately 6 weeks, during which time the caterpillars undergo a 4000 fold increase in body mass. At the end of the larval stage, the fifth instar caterpillars burrow into the soil, where they undergo a period of diapause. Eclosion occurs either one or six to seven months after pupation, depending on the generation. The non-feeding adult stage lasts only two to three days, during which time the only function of the imago is to find receptive mates and to oviposit.

Indigenous trees lure birds and provide cover and safety 

Watching the birds as they make their homes in the shelter I have provided leaves me with a sense of achievement, pride and satisfaction. Seeing the Sunbirds visiting the Aloes and taking nectar back to their young warms my heart and watching the bees and other insects pollinate the flowers fills me with a sense of wonder, knowing they are ensuring the future of many plants in the process.

When gardening with nature in mind, do not use pesticides!! Most of these products are not selective and in spraying to kill what the gardener perceives as ‘pests’, will usually result in getting rid of the beneficial insects too. Use indigenous plants, preferably a good selection of local species, including nectar and pollen rich plants as they are of great value to bees, as bees around the world are disappearing at an alarming rate.

Indigenous grasses provide safety for many of our insects - this is a Net-winged beetle I found in my garden. Net-winged beetles or flat beetles (Lycus spp.) are all poisonous and therefore display aposematic colouration in combinations of orange and black patterns, which is mimicked by certain long-horn beetles and moths. The longitudinal ridges on the wings are characteristic of the net-winged beetles. They are slow flying insects that are very common on flower inflorescences and flower heads during the summer months. The larvae are predatory on other insects and look very similar to the larvae of the glow worms or fire flies. Eggs are laid under bark and in rotten wood, where the eggs will hatch and the larvae start feeding on other insects. 

Try not to plant hybridised plants - many hybridised plants have far less pollen and nectar and are thus not efficient providers of food. Many of them also have double petals, and, as lovely as they are to look at, it often makes life very difficult for the bees and insects to get to their food source.

A Grey-headed Bush Shrike (Malaconotus blanchoti) surveying his surrounds from one of the Karee's. An adaptable hunter, it will eat almost any animal that it can catch and kill, ranging from small insects to large 1 metre long snakes and other bird chicks. It often gleans prey from leaves and branches, either eating them immediately or impaling them on a thorn to be eaten later. Prey items which are to large to be swallowed are ripped into bite-sized pieces. 

The Ground-scraper Thrush absolutely loves loose leaf litter and is very active in Autumn and Spring when leaves tend to cover the ground. He is also a snail's worst nightmare and I often watch as they catch one, banging it against the ground until the shell is broken and he can consume the tit-bit inside.

When you plant for nature and not just yourself, you will be rewarded by having the best of both worlds - a beautiful garden as well as the company of a varied variety of wildlife. Who could ask for more?


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