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Thursday, 23 April 2015

Converting an exotic garden to an indigenous garden

Perhaps you, like many gardeners, want to change your garden from being predominantly exotic to predominantly, or even totally, indigenous. Here is a wonderful article from Witkoppen Wildflower Nursery telling you exactly how to go about this.

There are many good reasons to go indigenous, but the more common ones are because you are environmentally aware and want to increase the biodiversity in your garden, want to use less water, or use fewer pesticides. Or you have realized that indigenous plants can add colour and interest to a garden, require less maintenance or maybe you just want to stay trendy.
If you are new to gardening, or have not gardened with indigenous plants before, the prospect of converting your existing garden can be daunting, even more daunting than starting a new garden.  It need not be a traumatic an experience, and if you do your homework first and treat it as a long term project, it should be interesting and fun.

What is meant by “indigenous”.

A Celtis africana in my garden

Plants are deemed “indigenous” to an area if they occur naturally in that area, so, for example, Celtis africana (White Stinkwood, Witstinkhout) is indigenous to Africa. Plants are considered to be indigenous to southern Africa if they occur naturally anywhere south of the Kunene or Zambezi Rivers or the northern borders of Namibia and Botswana between these rivers. So, from our previous example, Celtis africana is also indigenous to southern Africa. Strictly speaking though, when speaking of indigenous plants, these should be limited to those plants that occur naturally within area you are speaking about. Most gardeners accept the broader definition for southern Africa. We can extend this by also including hybrids that have been bred from plants that are indigenous to southern Africa.

Do your homework

Before starting the conversion of your garden, find out which plants will grow in your area. There are some good books on gardening with indigenous plants in the summer rainfall regions. One of the best is Pitta Joffe’s Creative Gardening with Indigenous Plants. (Afrikaans edition ISBN 978-1-875093-36-6 and a new English edition co-authored with Tinus Oberholzer, launched on 1 September, ISBN 978-1-875093-99-1.) Also good are those by David and Sally Johnson, and Charles and Julia Botha, but remember that they garden in KwaZulu-Natal, where winters are in general not as harsh as those in parts of the South African interior.  Fanie & Julye-Ann Venter’s Making the most of Indigenous Trees is strongly recommended. The Gardener’s Tanya Visser and Anna Celliers’ book, Homegrown Garden Design, is about landscape design using indigenous plants.
SANBI and some indigenous nurseries have good websites that provide information about indigenous plants and gardening with them. Find sites that are based in your area or at least a similar region so that information is applicable to your garden. If there is a National Botanical Garden in your area, visit it to see what the plants look like in cultivation and how they have been used.

Euryops pectinatus (Golden Euryops, Gouemagriet) growing and flowering beautifully in the dappled shade of Acacia karoo (Sweet thorn, Soetdoring) in the Free State Botanical Gardens, Bloemfontein. By visiting botanical gardens you will be able to see what plants will look like in cultivation, as well as how you can use them in your garden.

My 10-year old Acacia karroo in my garden

Establish your starting point.  Identify what plants you already have in your garden. Identify which plants in your garden are indigenous. You may be very pleasantly surprised to realize that you already have quite a few indigenous plants. Many common, widely grown garden plants, like Plumbago auriculata and Freylinia tropica (Blue Honeybell Bush, Blou Heuningklokkiesbos) are indigenous without gardeners realizing it. If you are uncertain of the plants, cut samples and take them to your local nursery and ask them to help. If you cannot get joy there, send us close-up pictures of the leaves, flowers and fruit (if available) and we will try to help you. Then determine which of the exotic plants are invasive or potentially invasive, as these will be the ones you should remove first.

The white form of Freylinia tropica (Blue Honeybells, Blouheuningklokkies) has become a very popular garden plant, but many gardeners do not realise that it is indigenous to southern Africa.
Remember that you can use indigenous plants to create whatever style of garden you would like, from very formal to wild and woolly.  Plan for the style you want before you physically start changing your garden.
Phase the changes
It is very seldom that an existing garden needs to be totally trashed and re-started from scratch, rather phase the conversion.  If you decide to replace existing trees, see if you can use them to shelter their replacements for a few seasons before you do remove them. Remove the declared invasive plants before attacking the more benign plants. If you do need to fell the trees immediately, do not despair, because if planted correctly, most indigenous tree are quick growing and will quickly fill the gap. For shrubs, remove 1 in 3 or 4, plant their indigenous replacements and give them time to establish themselves before repeating the process. In this way you will not be left with a naked garden while the new shrubs get established, and use the existing plants to give more cold-sensitive plants protection through winter.

Remember to group together plants that have similar water and soil needs.
If you are converting to an indigenous garden to attract more birds and other wildlife to your garden, select plants that will provide different types of food. Include a variety of plants that provide fruit, seeds, flowers and nectar. Select some that are hosts to insect larvae and so provide food to insect eaters, while ensuring that there are butterflies in your garden. You will be amazed at the life your indigenous garden will attract.
Gardening is meant to be fun, so take time and plan carefully, and you will enjoy the journey to your new garden!


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