Indigenous landscaping & garden design
in Johannesburg & Pretoria, South Africa

A bird-friendly garden is one that attracts and supports the local birdlife, through the use of indigenous plant material, and by using elements that provide perching, nesting, drinking, and foraging opportunities. Although creating a locally indigenous garden will naturally attract birds, bird gardens can be enhanced by adding a few out-of-range plant species, as well as nesting logs, bird baths and water features.

Note that a bird garden differs from putting seed or fruit out on a bird tray. Although seed and fruit will certainly attract birds, these are artificial food sources, and often the birds attracted to them become noisy and messy, sometimes bullying other birds and taking over your tray. A bird-friendly garden on the other hand aims to replicate the natural environment, by using plant species that produce fruit or seed, and thus attract different birds. This creates a more harmonious environment for the birds in your garden, along with a healthier source of food. Additionally, many plants are also hosts for various insects, so adding these to your garden will help insectivorous birds find food, as well as helping their nestlings, many of which rely on protein in the form of insects for their growth and development.

Seed-eaters such as this juvenile Yellow-fronted Canary favour indigenous grasses over store-bought seed

To help you get started in creating a bird-friendly garden, let's go through some of the steps you can take to enhance your garden, followed by a starter list of plants.

Steps to creating a bird-friendly garden

Reduce the size of your lawn

Reducing the size of your lawn is probably the first thing to consider when creating a bird-friendly garden. Lawn is usually a monoculture, and one which you need to mow, weed, and water. It also usually takes up a lot of space, space that could be better utilised for plants that naturally attract birds and increase biodiversity. Reducing the size of your lawn and planting indigenous species not only provides additional food, but also creates more habitat for birds, which means more perching, nesting and foraging opportunities.

A lawn-free garden liberates you from mowing, weeding and watering a lawn. Most importantly, one has more space for habitat and food sources for birds.

Add water sources for birds to drink and bath

Birds need to drink, so adding a water source or two to your garden is a great way to help them. Additionally, birds love to bath, so depending on the water source some birds might use the water for bathing. A water source does not need to be large, and can be a grinding stone, a natural rock with cavities to hold water, or an artificial water feature. Some birds also prefer drinking from specific water features - perhaps for safety - so adding multiple water sources is beneficial.

In this small garden, Jameson's Firefinches prefer drinking from a natural rock embedded in the ground

Add rocks and logs

Along with your shrubs and trees, rocks and logs create perching opportunities for birds, and enhance the aesthetics of your garden

A Jameson's Firefinch female, having just had a drink, moves on to an elevated perch (a rock) in the garden
Logs and branches help birds such as this Southern Grey-headed Sparrow with perching opportunities

Add nesting logs

Nesting logs are made from Sisal (Agave sisalana), and usually come with a pilot hole which birds excavate to create a tunnel and nesting chamber inside the log. Nesting logs can be added to most gardens (they can even be mounted on walls) and easily allow cavity-nesting birds to take up residence. You might be surprised how quickly birds start using them, and we have seen barbets occupy a nesting log within a few hours after being installed. Birds that use nesting logs include Barbets, Woodpeckers, Wrynecks, Starlings and Woodhoopoes.

A Crested Barbet excavating a new nesting log

Leave a patch of soil for a dust bath

Many birds love to have a dust bath, as it helps them maintain healthy feathers. So along with water sources, leave a patch of open sand in your garden for birds to take a dust bath.

Laughing Dove having just finished a dust bath

Add pathways and seating areas (for yourself!)

You might be creating a bird-friendly garden, but you will still want to access it, especially if you want to photograph birds, so add pathways and seating areas so you can relax and enjoy the company of your avian visitors.

A seating area amongst the shrubs and trees of this small, forest-themed, bird-friendly garden

Plants for a bird-friendly garden

Now that we've discussed the ways you can enhance your garden to make it bird-friendly, it's time to design the garden, specifically the plants you can include. As mentioned, creating a locally indigenous garden will naturally attract birds, but by adding a few out-of-range plant species you can enhance the appeal for birds. Keep in mind that you're not only trying to attract fruit and seed-eaters, but also insectivorous birds, as well as providing nesting material and nesting sites. A well-planned bird garden therefore covers all of these aspects, so choosing your plants appropriately will help you achieve this goal.

Herewith is a starter list of plants which are ideal for bird gardens, and which can be grown on the highveld:

Metarungia longistrobus (Sunbird Bush)

As the name suggests, this medium to large shrub attracts sunbirds to your garden. The flowers are irresistible to them, and once the birds have found it you will find them visiting the plant on a regular basis, often multiple times a day. On the highveld, regular visitors include White-bellied Sunbird, Amethyst Sunbird, and Greater Double-collared Sunbird.

White-bellied Sunbird on a Sunbird Bush, Metarungia longistrobus

For very small gardens you might only have space to plant one of these shrubs, but perhaps you can encourage your neighbours to also plant one, or donate one to your complex or neighbourhood. This will encourage more sunbirds to visit the area, and the birds will end up doing circuits around the neighbourhood to the various plants before returning to your garden. Flowering time is usually January to May, with 'sunbird-peak' usually in March/April.

Setaria megaphylla (Broad-leaved Bristle-grass)

This indigenous grass is one of the best species to plant if you want to attract seed-eaters - specifically canaries - to your garden. We've seen three different canary species feed off the seeds on one plant on the same day, along with other birds such as weavers. It is a robust and hardy species that works just as well in the shade as it does in the sun, so is ideal for those difficult, shaded areas that require a filler. The plants can look quite innocuous in a small 4l nursery bag, but don't be fooled. Setaria can grow very large, and can reach 2-3 metres in width and height, so if you are going to add it to a small garden you will probably only need one specimen. Additionally, the plant regularly self-seeds, so look out for seedlings when they appear in your garden, and remove them before they start to take over the space. The plant can be cut back after it has flowered - down to about a third - which will encourage fresh growth for the forthcoming season.

Canaries such as this Yellow-fronted can't resist Setaria megaphylla
Juvenile Yellow-fronted Canary on Setaria megaphylla
A Southern Masked-weaver feeding on the seeds of Setaria megaphylla
A streaky-headed seed-eater reaching down between Melinis repens to feed on Setaria megaphylla

Halleria lucida (Tree Fuchsia)

The Tree Fuchsia is a common species of our kloofs and nature reserves, most frequently along water courses. It is one of the most unique flowering species, with the flowers growing from the branches beneath the foliage, making them inconspicuous from afar. But from a bird point of view, the flowers are visited by all manner of nectar-feeding birds, making this a must-have for the bird-friendly garden. Additionally, the resulting fruits are loved by fruit-eating birds, so this is one of those plants that will attract both nectar and fruit-eating birds to your garden.

Fruit of Halleria lucida

Kiggelaria africana (Wild Peach)

If you want to attract butterflies to your garden, then this is one of the best trees you can plant. The reason is that the Kiggelaria is a host plant for the Garden Acraea butterfly, the larvae of which can strip the leaves bare. But the plant soon recovers, and in return you are rewarded with a garden filled with orange butterflies.

Garden Acraea butterfly on its host plant Kiggelaria africana

But there is another reason to plant a Kiggelaria in your garden, and that is to attract birds. The acraea larvae are toxic to most birds, but there is one group that can feed on them - cuckoos. Diederik, Red-chested, and Black Cuckoos are all regular visitors to feed off the Garden Acraea larvae, and once they have found the tree they will often visit on a regular basis during the summer months.

A Diederik Cuckoo feeding on the larvae of the Garden Acraea butterfly

In addition to cuckoos, the fruits of this tree are also irresistible to fruit-eating birds, many of which will take the orange, flesh-covered seeds before you even have a chance to see them! You will need a female tree in order to get fruit, so if you have space, we'd advise that you plant both a male and female tree in your garden to allow easy pollination of the female tree, and subsequent fruit.

Cassinopsis ilicifolia (Lemon Thorn)

The Lemon Thorn is also common species in our kloofs and nature reserves, and is an excellent screening plant for heights between 2-3 meters. As the name suggests, it has small spines, which may make it useful as an informal security barrier. It can also be trimmed into a hedge, provided it is placed in a sunny position (like many plants it tends to grow a bit scraggly in the shade). But the Lemon Thorn is also an excellent bird-attracting plant, as the fruits are loved by fruit-eating birds, especially mousebirds, bulbuls and thrushes.

A Dark-capped Bulbul feeding on Lemon Thorn berries

In fruiting season (usually September to April), the birds will visit on a regular basis, making it a valuable addition to the bird garden. On top of this the leaves have a beautiful, glossy-green colour, which contrasts with the bright orange fruits. One doesn't only need flowers to brighten up your garden!

Rhamnus prinoides (Dogwood)

Another glossy-leaved species that is common in our kloofs and nature reserves. Like the Lemon Thorn, the fruits of the Dogwood are irresistible to birds, and because they are small, they are favoured by smaller species, including white-eyes. The Dogwood can be planted as a screening shrub, or in an area where you have some space for it to bush out to 3-5 metres.

A Cape White-eye feeding on a Dogwood berry

Melinis repens (Natal Red-Top)

This indigenous, pioneer grass is a common and well-known species on our roadsides, and is beautiful when in flower. It can be used to great effect in a landscape setting, adding a soft, flowing foliage texture that contrasts with surrounding plants. But Melinis is also a great addition to the bird garden as it is used by birds for nesting material. Plant it in a sunny position, and allow the plant to self-seed in areas where you want it to grow.

Leonotis leonurus (Wild Dagga)

Another species much loved by nectar-feeding birds, especially sunbirds, is the Wild Dagga (Leonotis leonurus). It is an unusual shrub that can be used as a filler for larger spaces in the garden, and for additional pop of colour. If you have space plant two of them in sunny spots on opposite sides of the garden, which will encourage nectar-feeders to fly through your garden to feed on the different plants. Different colour varieties, including orange and white.

Amethyst Sunbird on Leonotis leonurus

Aloe sp.

Aloes are one of our most loved garden plants, and are frequently used as focal plants in a landscape. The benefit for birds, specifically nectar-feeders, is that aloes flower predominantly in winter, so planting them in your garden will provide nectar-feeders with food through the winter months.

A Cape Weaver reaches down to feed on the nectar of an Aloe ferox

Plectranthus sp.

Plectranthus species are a common indigenous species in our forests, and are beautiful fillers for semi-shade areas of the garden. The plants are excellent for attracting insects, and thus insectivorous birds. But another benefit is for the cover they provide for skulking birds, as well as nesting opportunities. They are fairly hardy plants, and can be used successfully in place of exotics such as Hydrangeas or Azaleas in the shaded areas of your garden.

Cape Robin-chat chicks in their nest in Plectranthus madagascariensis

For more information on plants and the birdlife that they attract, visit our plantbook website

An indigenous, wildlife-friendly garden is one which attracts all manner of creatures, from the tiniest insects to birds, reptiles, rodents, amphibians, and if you are lucky larger mammals. As Pitta Joffe so wonderfully puts it in her book 'Creative Gardening with Indigenous plants': "A garden has to be alive to thrive!"

Photographing creatures in your garden is a great way to get in touch with the life in your garden, and it need not take you more than an hour or two. Once you start looking at what is living in your garden, you'll start to appreciate the amount of life a single indigenous garden can support. Soil bacteria and fungi are not usually visible to the human eye, but most insects are, and these are the lifeblood of the garden - providing food for birds and larger animals - so searching for insects will give you a greater understanding of the health of your garden.

Below is a collection of photographs taken in a small indigenous garden, which hopefully will inspire you to go out and photograph the creatures in your own garden.

Praying mantis
Larvae of the Citrus Swallowtail butterfly, feeding on Vepris Lanceolata (White Ironwood)
Citrus Swallowtail butterfly on Dietes bicolor
Cricket on bulbine frutescens

Crab spider waiting for prey on a Scabiosa incisa flower
Jumping spider
Blowfly on Sunbird Bush (Meturungia longistrobis)
Carpenter bee - one of our favourite insects
Hornet inspecting the foliage of a Forest Elder (Nuxia floribunda)
Garden acraea larvae, on its host plant Kiggelaria africana (Wild Peach)
Garden acraea butterfly, feeding on Scabiosa incisa
Garden Inspector butterfly (dry-season form), again on Scabiosa incisa


The Hadeda Ibis does not rank highly as most people's favourite garden bird, probably because of their raucous, trumpeting call that can build to a deafening cacophony.

The Hadeda Ibis (Bostrychia hagedash) is a large (76cm) bird with a brownish-grey head, nape and neck. Despite their seemingly drab appearance, their rump and wing feathers have a beautiful metallic purple and green sheen. They use their long, black bill to probe into the soil in search of earthworms.

A visit from a hadeda is a sign of a healthy garden, teeming with smaller wildlife species. Their probing search assists with the aerating of soil and the control of insect populations. Apart from earthworms, their diet consists of slugs and snails, spiders, crickets, insects on the ground and small reptiles (lizards and frogs). They have been known to occasionally eat dog food from bowls. They will visit a ground level water feature to drink and bathe.

Despite their notorious racket, they are generally only vocal at dawn or when disturbed. It's common to have 2 or 3 birds visiting the garden. As they are territorial, chances are you'll have the same birds frequenting your garden. They are usually seen foraging in silence on the ground and if disturbed, will noisily fly to perch on roofs or tall trees. They build their nests in the fork of large trees usually 4-5 metres above the ground.

Another annoyance to some people is their large droppings which can mess paving. It will easily wash off with the spray from a hosepipe and makes a good fertiliser.

So next time you're annoyed by a hadeda's call, remember its important contribution to your gardening endeavours.

*images courtesy of Neil Ebedes,

Butterflies have a magical quality to them and everyone loves seeing these brightly-coloured delicate creatures dancing and flirting from flower to flower. South Africa boasts over 650 different species of butterfly and by hosting them in your garden, you can ensure that these living jewels can continue to thrive in our threatened environment. It’s easy to not only attract them to your garden, but by planting the appropriate indigenous plants, you can also encourage them to breed in your garden.

If you’re planning to have butterflies breeding in your garden, be warned, that it can become an obsession! When starting out, you’ll have to get passed the idea of having a picture-perfect garden, as you’ll need to bear with some plants having their leaves eaten by the caterpillars. But this is worth the sacrifice, as the damage to plants is minor, and in fact encourages more and abundant growth and flowering. In nature, butterflies and their larvae form part of a food chain and they fall prey to many creatures. So, you’ll get the additional benefit of attracting other wildlife to your garden such as birds, lizards, frogs, spiders, praying mantids and ants.

It’s important to understand the basic butterfly lifecycle to understand how to garden for these magnificent creatures. It starts with an egg which is usually laid on or near a specific larval (caterpillar) host plant. Different species have unique dietary requirements so host plants vary accordingly. When the egg hatches, a caterpillar emerges. It will feed on the foliage and once it reaches its full size will go into the next stage – the pupal stage. During this phase, it appears inactive but is in fact undergoing a transformation from a caterpillar to an adult butterfly.

Adult butterflies get most of their energy from the sugar-rich nectar from flowers. Again, different species have specific food preferences, favouring indigenous plants. Here are just some of the common plants which you can grow in your garden to attract butterflies.

Groundcovers: Arctotis stoechadifolia (Trailing Marigold), Asparagus species (Asparagus Ferns), Asystasia gangetica (Creeping Foxglove), Gazania species (Gazanias), Plectranthus species (Spur-flowers), Scabiosa incisa (Pincushion)

Small Shrubs and herbaceous plants: Barleria obtusa (Bush Violet), Hypoestes aristata (Ribbon Bush), Freylinia tropica (Blue Honeybell Bush)

Trees and Shrubs: Vachellia/Acacia species, Buddleja species, Harpephyllum caffrum (Wild Plum), Kiggelaria africana (Wild Peach), Mackaya bella (Forest Bell-bush), Mundulea sericea (Cork Bush), Rhamnus prinoides (Dogwood), Vepris lanceolata (Ironwood)

To find out more about indigenous plants and the butterflies which use them, visit

This article was published in African Birdlife, Nov/Dec 2018. Visit Birdlife SA for copies and to learn more about birds and birding in Africa

When homes are designed and built, measures are taken to divert rainwater away from the house and off the property. Structural changes on the property or in the surrounding environment may, however, alter the volume and flow of water entering a property and very often necessitate modifications to the initial drainage design.

The garden featured in this article is in a residential estate in Centurion, Pretoria. The house is built on a slope and the front door is positioned slightly lower than the 200-square-metre front garden, which is open to the street. The property was incident-free until a flooding incident occurred.

A few months before the event, a speed hump had been installed in the street. While this helps to calm the vehicular traffic, it obstructs the course of rainwater and water flows onto the property during a downpour. The front garden was mainly lawn, so rainwater simply washed down the slope and pooled against the house. When the water didn’t seep into the soil quickly, it entered the house, causing extensive damage. A drainage point was installed at the lowest point of the garden to capture water and redirect it away from the front door. Realising that their garden needed a facelift, the owners asked us to design a low-maintenance, water-wise scheme that factored in the possibility of the occasional flow of water through the garden.

The homeowners had originally planted up their garden over several years and it contained an eclectic selection of plants that were probably chosen according to trends current at the time. This resulted in the space lacking a synchronous theme, with a combination of tropical plants and desert and forest species. Some of the variety included a queen palm Syagrus romanzoffiana, a pair of ponytail palms Beaucarnea recurvata, a pencil conifer Juniperus scopulorum ‘Skyrocket’, a sago palm Cycas revoluta, a New Zealand cabbage tree Cordyline australis and a row of potato bush standards Solanum rantonetti. There were no groundcovers and this collection of plants provided very little incentive for any local wildlife to be attracted to the garden.

Our first decision was to remove the lawn, as it required a good deal of water and was a high-maintenance element. We created a stony, dry river-bed to channel water from the road towards the drainage point. The slope was contoured to help slow the flow of water and direct it to the catchment area, and a steppingstone path was laid to wind through the garden towards the tap. The plants were selected to provide interest and to meet the objective of creating a miniature bushveld river scene. Height, screening and bird perches are provided by trees: wild peach Kiggelaria africana, lavender tree Heteropyxis natalensis, tree fuchsia Halleria lucida and a monkey thorn Senegalia galpinii.

We included lower-growing, spreading groundcovers such as African daisy Arctotis stoechadifolia, aptenia Aptenia cordifolia, variegated plectranthus Plectranthus madagascariensis and silky cotula Cotula sericea along points of the path and river course. To cater for seed-eating birds, we planted grasses, namely weeping anthericum Chlorophytum saundersiae, common rush Juncus effusus and Ngongoni three-awn Aristida junciformis. They look magnificent when blowing in a breeze and require minimal maintenance. Nectarivorous birds can feast on the wild dagga Leonotis leonurus, crane flower Strelitiza reginae, tree fuchsia and three aloe species that flower at different times of the year. Seasonal colour is provided by hardy favourites such as agapanthus Agapanthus praecox, yellow wild iris Dietes bicolor, jade plant Crassula ovata and the September bush Polygala myrtifolia.

The garden is young and still evolving, but in the past three years it has begun to teem with life. At least one plant species is in flower at any time of the year and the garden has become home to bees, butterflies and spiders. Being barely a kilometre from the Zwartkops Resort, a large, undeveloped area along the Hennops River, it is now attracting regular visits from numerous birds. The practical drainage solution has become a feature in its own right. Hopefully it will set a trend for the estate, as passers-by who watched the transition recently commented that although they were initially sceptical, they now see the vision behind this lawn-free, indigenous garden.

This article was published in African Birdlife, Sep/Oct 2018. Visit Birdlife SA for copies and to learn more about birds and birding in Africa

The garden featured in this issue is located in Whale Rock Ridge, a 100-hectare estate situated a few hundred metres from Robberg Nature Reserve. This World Heritage site at the southern edge of Plettenberg Bay in the Western Cape has a rich heritage dating back 120 million years to the break-up of Gondwanaland and caves show evidence of occupation by Early Stone Age people.

From a floristic point of view, the reserve and its surrounds host many fynbos species, all of which are adapted to the harsh, windswept coastal conditions. The Whale Rock Ridge estate has gone to great lengths to preserve the natural flora of the area and much of the fynbos and heaths have been retained for the common areas. The garden of this home originally had a significant amount of lawn, but after a little persuasion on our part (and a big leap of faith) the owners removed the kikuyu grass and replaced it with regionally indigenous plants.

In June 2017, shortly after the owner had planted up the new garden, the estate was devastated by the runaway fire that raged from Buffalo Bay through Knysna and surrounds to Plettenberg Bay, destroying much in its path. While the trees recovered within weeks, producing new foliage, many of the smaller plants were destroyed and needed to be replaced. Most of the photographs in this article were taken exactly
one year after the fire.

When the garden was initially conceived, in a bid to screen neighbouring houses the original landscape designer had chosen tree species with non-invasive root systems that could be planted close to the home, most notably coastal silver-oak Brachylaena discolor and coastal camphor bush Tarchonanthus littoralis. He had also advised that these trees might possibly form a barrier in the event of fire. When the fire wreaked havoc on the estate, these trees did indeed save the house, as flames fuelled by the 100-kilometre-an-hour winds were directed by the arboreal barrier onto the tiled roof.

Other tree species in the garden included false olive Buddleja saligna, cheesewood Pittosporum viridiflorum, white pear Apodytes dimidiata and forest elder Nuxia floribunda, all indigenous to the Cape and excellent choices for a wildlife-friendly garden. So, with the trees in place and the lawn removed, it was time to select the shrubs. The main goals were to attract sunbirds, sugarbirds and insects and to have a collection of aromatic plants. With this in mind, numerous nectar-producing plants were selected, including Cape honeysuckle Tecoma capensis, wild dagga Leonotis leonurus and red hot pokers Kniphofia spp., as well as a variety of plants from the Proteaceae family. Other smaller-growing shrubs were added for their aesthetic appeal and to provide contrasting foliage. These included a selection of restios, buchu, ribbon bush Hypoestes aristata and some bulbs, namely Cyrtanthus spp., Watsonia spp. and falling stars Crocosmia aurea. The aromatics included golden pagoda Mimetes chrysanthus, saffron bush Gnidia squarrosa and blushing bride Serruria florida.

Once the trees and shrubs had been taken care of, it was time to select the groundcovers. A challenging facet of the home is that it is situated along the edge of the ridge and a large portion of the garden is planted on a steep slope. To cater for this and to prevent soil erosion, spreading groundcovers, grasses and more large shrubs were strategically planted. Species suited to this scenario included sour fig Carpobrotus edulis, lobster flower Plectranthus neochilus, red aptenia Aptenia cordifolia and Arctotis spp., as well as a number of indigenous grasses. At the front of the house, the verge allowed for an array of groundcovers with a neat form and the most notable inclusions were Acmadenia spp. and Gazania spp., while on the shady, east-facing side of the house, paintbrush Haemanthus albiflos and forest lily Veltheimia bracteata were mixed between hen and chicken Chlorophytum comosum and a range of Plectranthus species. Finally, some perennial favourites, such as Agapanthus spp., wild garlic Tulbaghia violacea and bush lily Clivia miniata, were added as fillers.

Once all the planting had been done, a generous layer of mulch was added and it was then time to wait and see how the local fauna responded. The garden rapidly attracted birds and insects and some species are now regular visitors. Sunbirds are prolific, flitting between the various nectar-producing shrubs throughout the day, while insectivorous birds such as Cape Robin-chats and Cape Wagtails unearth a wealth of new life beneath the leaf litter. Cape Canaries frequently arrive to eat seeds of the Tarchonanthus trees, and female Greater Double-collared Sunbirds (and others) use the fluff from these seeds for nesting material.

Importantly, although an irrigation system had previously been used for the lawn areas, the homeowners now only water manually when the need arises. This proves how economical we can become with water usage if we reduce the size of lawns. In conclusion, it should be mentioned how happy the homeowners are with their new garden. By removing their lawn, they have significantly improved the biodiversity of their garden and of the estate. Not only are they helping to conserve and protect local fauna and flora, but they are also enjoying the pleasures that each new plant species provides.

This article was published in African Birdlife, Jul/Aug 2018. Visit Birdlife SA for copies and to learn more about birds and birding in Africa

South Africa is known for its cultural diversity and this is mirrored in the increasing number of requests for variety in garden designs. Last year, we were approached by a landscape designer who specialises in creating Japanese gardens. Kim Nicholls from Japanese Garden Concepts had devised a Japanese-themed garden for her clients who were moving into a residential estate in Boksburg that has a strict indigenous plants-only policy. Being an expert in the use of typical Japanese garden plants (which traditionally include maple, bamboo and camellia), Kim needed input on the indigenous alternatives she could use and still achieve her theme.

The transition to indigenous plant selection is relatively new to many property developers, as well as to the majority of homeowners, many of whom have a sentimental connection to more traditional, exotic gardens. In the face of opposition from homeowners, many estates that had initially decreed a fully indigenous planting scheme have made allowances for some non-invasive exotic species to be included. In this particular instance, the estate has now permitted a maximum of 10 per cent exotic plant material. All garden designs are reviewed before the start of the project and are inspected during and after installation to ensure compliance.


The clients were down-scaling from a large property and their main stipulation was for a low-maintenance garden. Japanese garden design principles focus on simplicity and use natural elements and asymmetry, features that translate well in the creation of a wildlife-friendly space. To achieve a truly low-maintenance garden, we opted not to use lawn, thus eliminating the weekly upkeep required to maintain a luscious grassy turf. Instead, we planted a selection of groundcovers to cover the soil and provide colour and interest. Mounds were created to add visual ‘movement’ to the flat property and to accentuate key features.

As you enter the property, you are greeted by a Buddha statue positioned on a plinth near the gate. Randomly placed sandstone pavers encourage a journey from the entrance to the patio area and Japanese garden ornaments are strategically placed as focal points along the way. The area furthest from the patio was demarcated as an exclusion zone to allow wildlife to flourish without being disturbed by human traffic. The plant material in that section varies in height and also serves to screen the garden from passers-by.

The garden has a variety of plants that were chosen both to emphasise the Japanese theme and to attract insects, birds and other wildlife. The main groundcover used around the pathway is the indigenous silver carpet Dymondia margaretae. Its silvery-grey foliage provides a striking contrast to the dazzling yellow-green of Irish moss Sagina subulata planted on a mound around a formation of carefully positioned rocks.

The bedding plants feature a variety of grass-like species: weeping anthericum Chlorophytum saundersiae, agapanthus Agapanthus praecox, wild iris Dietes grandiflora and Japanese mondo grass Ophiopogon japonica. To add height, we chose the lavender tree Heteropyxis natalensis, whose foliage turns a dazzling red in winter and replaces what would traditionally be a maple tree, while to represent bamboo we selected the soap dogwood Noltea africana and tree fuchsia Halleria lucida. Both species have delicate foliage with interesting branches and, in addition, the tree fuchsia’s flowers and fruit sustain many birds for much of the year.

Japanese gardens generally consist of foliage plants in varying shades of green, punctuated with the occasional flowering plant like camellia Camellia japonica. To introduce some colour, we used September bush Polygala myrtifolia, which flowers throughout the year and attracts insectivorous birds to the garden; pink mallow Anisodontea scabrosa, which bears delicate, hibiscus-like flowers that attract a host of insects; and Natal gardenia Gardenia cornuta, which bears fragrant flowers in summer and whose network of branches provides ideal nesting sites for birds.

The result is a Japanese garden with a southern African twist – a design that remains true to its roots, but fits within the local landscape through the use of indigenous species.

This article was published in African Birdlife, Mar/Apr 2018. Visit Birdlife SA for copies and to learn more about birds and birding in Africa

In recent years, many homeowners in South Africa have, for various reasons, down-sized from expansive properties to smaller, more manageable homes in secure complexes. In many instances these are new complexes that have been developed in the vicinity of major urban areas, whereas in others large existing properties have been subdivided.

The end result has been a move away from sprawling gardens to far smaller ones that may be only 30 to 200 square metres in extent. Although this may seem to limit the options for creating a bird or wildlife sanctuary, these smaller areas can in fact be converted relatively
easily into wildlife gardens and allow homeowners to create attractive and tranquil areas in the midst of a busy city environment. With the correct design, plant selection and placement, it is amazing how quickly the local wildlife will respond to these mini ‘ecosystems’, with
insects, birds, lizards and even amphibians rapidly choosing to find a home in these small spaces. In their own way, the gardens become mini-extensions of natural greenbelt areas and help to enhance the biodiversity of our country.

The garden featured here is one such example. It is situated in the heart of Ferndale, a bustling central area of Johannesburg, but by using
specific design features we managed to create a haven for the homeowner. It not only provides peace and tranquillity after a long day at the office, lends itself to being used for entertainment and effectively muffles noise from the nearby main road, but it also acts as a harbour
for wildlife.

The garden space is 200 square metres in extent and as it had not previously been developed, it was neglected and weeds proliferated. The new homeowner enlisted our services and requested a garden with an entertainment area in the form of a firepit, as well as a koi pond
and, most importantly, an indigenous, lawn-free garden – a landscaper’s dream! Doing without lawn would dramatically reduce maintenance costs as there would be no need to mow or for an irrigation system, which might unnecessarily raise his water bill.

We began by first selecting the appropriate locations for the firepit, the koi pond and the access pathways to these areas. Because of a natural slope in the garden, the layout lent itself to positioning the firepit near the top of the garden, with the koi pond directly beneath it – this provided an elevated view over the pond and lower parts of the garden.

Next, a primary access pathway of modern flagstone steps was built along the northern boundary wall, with sufficient planting space to create adequate screening from the neighbouring property. An additional informal pathway of stepping stones was designed behind the firepit to serve as a tranquil walkway through the indigenous woodland at the back of the garden. Two mini ‘exclusion’ zones were then fashioned in corners of the garden where human access was not required, but where wildlife – and birds specifically – could shelter, forage and nest in relative peace and quiet.

Once the primary hard-landscaping elements had been designed, it was time for the plant selection. We focused on using species that occur naturally within the greater Johannesburg area but also incorporated additional southern African species that would work well in a Highveld garden. Perhaps the most important aspect was to select trees that would not in time have an adverse effect on the space by potentially
damaging boundary walls or paving. However, one exception was made as the homeowner wished to include a fever tree in the centre of one of the exclusion zones. Apart from this, the primary tree species included lavender tree Heteropyxis natalensis, cheesewood Pittosporum
viridiflorum, false olive Buddleja saligna and sand olive Dodonaea augustifolia var. augustifolia. These species were then accompanied by river indigo Indigofera jucunda, lemon-thorn Cassinopsis ilicifolia and September bush Polygala myrtifolia.

Once this primary ‘layer’ of trees had been selected, we concentrated on the smaller shrubs and groundcovers, selecting crane flower Strelitzia reginae, yellow iris Dietes bicolor, wild garlic Tulbaghia violacea and wild dagga Leonotus leonurus. A number of small aloe species were included to provide food for birds during winter and a few water-adapted plants were added to enhance the natural feel of the koi pond.

The addition of garden lighting provides a wonderful atmosphere in the evening, allowing the homeowner to experience the full beauty of his garden both day and night. Crucially, no irrigation system was installed, which meant that once the plants were established, the garden would make use of natural rainfall. It would be watered manually only as and when required. Indeed, during the drought in 2017 the
garden continued to survive despite the lack of water and, with the recent rains in 2018, it is flourishing again.

The result is a garden that is a natural wildlife haven with a constant stream of avian visitors, including nesting pairs of weavers and sparrows and regular visits from Dark-capped Bulbuls, Grey Go-away birds and mousebirds, to name just a few. It is a serene space that requires minimal maintenance, but also helps to increase the biodiversity of the area. And what do the neighbours think? Well, their only complaint to date has been the raucous croaking of the frogs and toads that have naturally found their way into the garden!

This article was published in African Birdlife, Mar/Apr 2018. Visit Birdlife SA for copies and to learn more about birds and birding in Africa

Situated in North West Province, Madikwe is a magnificent game reserve where visitors have the opportunity to observe the Big Five and many other animal species, as well as numerous reptiles, insects and birds (the reserve’s bird list stands at more than 350 species). The temperature year-round is moderate to hot and the average annual rainfall is 500 millimetres, although this has been decreasing over the past few years.

It was with this in mind that the owners of a four-star lodge in the western section of the reserve contacted us to assist with their garden. Their primary goal was to redesign it in order to reduce the amount of water it guzzled. The original lawn covered an area of 1600 square metres and consisted of a mix of kikuyu and LM grasses. It was (and still is) a magnificent sweeping lawn, but the extensive watering cycles it needed to keep it looking green and healthy were having a severe impact on the lodge’s water consumption.

Water is a scarce commodity in the region and, with the recent drought and uncertainty over the changing climate, efficient water usage is always going to be a concern. So the transition to a more water-efficient – and wildlife-friendly – garden was important for the lodge. There were other notable problems to resolve too: the lawn’s thirst was having a negative impact on some of the trees, specifically the beautiful row of coral trees Erythrina lysistemon that frame the outer edge of the garden. Generally, coral trees go dormant in winter and should not be watered during the dry season, but because of their proximity to the lawn they had received year-round watering.

Our first task was to map out the lawn and put together a proposal that would include a reduction in its area as well as an adjustment to the irrigation system in order to maximise its efficiency. We came up with a concept design that converted lawn areas on the periphery and around focal trees into five functional garden zones of indigenous plants that have low water requirements.

1. Forest garden

A shady section linking the lodge to the service area had been planted with LM lawn around a cluster of trees. We replaced the lawn with shade-loving hen-and-chickens Chlorophytum comosum, bush lilies Clivia miniata and a grouping of large-leaved dragon trees Dracaena aletriformis. To enhance the forest feel, the pathway was covered with bark chips.

2. Chill zone

Although frangipani trees are not indigenous, we decided to retain a grouping of them that formed a focal point in the middle of the lawn. Aiming to create an intimate seating space, we removed a roughly circular section of lawn around the trees and mass planted the area with weeping anthericum Chlorophytum saundersiae to create a mini-grassland. The centre was covered with bark chips and two pod chairs were added to provide seating.

3. Pond planting

First we extended the bed around the existing koi pond to wrap around it completely and then we planted a mix of agapanthus Agapanthus praecox, large wild iris Dietes grandiflora and common rush Juncus effusus. The plants, along with the rocks we placed in the bed, have created additional habitat for tiny creatures living around the water.

4. Waterhole view

A section of the eastern side of the garden was completely under-utilised and had a dry bed with just one species: mother-in-law’s tongue Sanseveria sp. We extended this bed and created a pathway to meander through it and lead to a bench positioned to give a good view of the activities at the nearby waterhole. As this area is predominantly in the sun, we selected plants that would entice birds and butterflies, including wild dagga Leonotis leonorus, tree fuchsia Halleria lucida and wild peach Kiggelaria africana.

5. Return to veld

The irrigation for the section of lawn in front of the coral trees was removed to allow the area to return to veld. This has the added benefit of providing the coral trees with less water so that they can go dormant in winter. When selecting plants for the garden we wanted to make sure that the species we chose are suited to Madikwe’s climate. With this in mind, we reviewed the reserve’s plant list and opted for species that would work well in the lodge’s garden setting, such as African wattle Peltophorum africanum and wild olive Olea europaea subsp. africana. Then, within the microclimate of the garden, we chose plant species based on whether they prefer sun, semi-shade or shade, as well as for their screening or ‘framing’ potential for specific guest areas. Some species were selected to attract sunbirds, with sunbird bush Metarungia longistrobus an obvious choice, while others, such as pincushion Scabiosa africana, were chosen to entice butterflies. These were positioned to encourage bird and butterfly movement around the garden. It was rewarding to see how quickly the local wildlife responded: an acraea butterfly began feeding on the bagged plants within minutes of their delivery!

In the end we reduced the lawn area by 33 per cent and, with adjustments to the irrigation system in line with the new garden layout and changes to the run times, the result is a water saving of 22 500 litres per week. In addition, the garden is teeming with wildlife, so guests can experience nature not only on a game drive, but also by merely relaxing around the lodge.

About us

Grounded Landscaping is an award-winning landscaping company specialising in indigenous, wildlife-friendly gardens. We are based in the Cradle of Humankind, a world heritage site and part of the grassland biome of Southern Africa. We service most areas of Gauteng, including Johannesburg, Centurion and Pretoria.
© Copyright 2024 Grounded Landscaping, Gauteng, South Africa, cc 2011/012073/23
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