A grassland is not often considered for a garden theme as many people often imagine it to be flat, featureless and unkempt barren land, with an endless spread of monochromatic grasses that look dismal in winter and are believed to attract ‘undesirables’ such as rodents and snakes.
But on the contrary, a typical African grassland is a riot of colour throughout the year and supports a wealth of wildlife. In addition to the magnificent and varied indigenous grasses, there are several plant species that grow naturally interspersed between the grasses. They vary in height, shape, colour and texture and will attract even more wildlife to your garden.
A grassland garden is an extremely rewarding, low-maintenance option. It can be implemented on flat or contoured ground and will tolerate most soil types. It merely requires a sunny area and, once established, will not need much water. Don’t forget to incorporate pathways so that you can explore the wonders of your garden. When choosing wild grasses, remember that ideally they should be those that occur naturally in your area. They will attract seed-eating birds and some species that will harvest the grasses for nesting material.
The following are some of the well-known and popular grasses that you can consider for your grassland-themed garden: snowflake grass Andropogon eucomis, Ngongoni three-awn Aristida junciformis, foxtail buffalo grass Cenchrus ciliaris, weeping anthericum Chlorophytum saundersiae, Eragrostis species, Melinus species, Guinea grass Panicum maximum, herringbone grass Pogonarthria squarrosa, broad-leaved bristle grass Setaria megaphylla, Stipa dregeana and red grass Themeda triandra.
You can always incorporate small trees or shrubs in a grassland garden. These can serve as focal points and will provide perches, dappled shade and possibly even food for wildlife. Again, preferably choose species that occur naturally in your environment.
The following trees, shrubs and groundcovers will serve to enhance a grassland theme.
Natal bottlebrush (Greyia sutherlandii)
A deciduous shrub or small tree that in the wild occurs in montane grassland, the Natal bottlebrush can be grown in most frost-free gardens with well-drained soil. In spring, it produces sprays of dense clusters of nectar-rich, bright red flowers. The flowers attract many nectar-feeding birds, such as sunbirds and white-eyes.
Agapanthus (Agapanthus species)
This common perennial bulb is widely used in gardens throughout the world and gives a fantastic display when mass planted. In summer, the plants produce spectacular clusters of nectar-rich, blue or white flowers borne on long stalks.
Proteas (Protea species)
A range of protea species can be found in various regions. Their showy and long-lasting flowers attract a wealth of insects and birds.
Crane flower (Strelitzia reginae)
In nature found in rocky coastal grasslands, the iconic Strelitzia is a marvellous addition to a grassland garden. This large-leaved, evergreen plant produces unique and long-lasting waxy flowers throughout the year. Birds feed on the nectar and seeds, and gardeners should not be in a rush to remove the dead flower heads as these are often inhabited by tiny insects and spiders that may be hunted by birds.
Wild dagga (Leonotis leonurus)
A number of Leonotis species are commonly seen in grassland habitats. Leonotis leonurus, the most widely cultivated garden species, is fast growing and hardy and its bright orange or white flowers are clustered in tiers along upright branches. Nectivorous birds feast on these plants from late summer through to spring.
Red-hot pokers (Kniphofia species)
There are several species of red-hot poker (opposite, top) that occur in grasslands, with some preferring marshy or riverine habitats. They produce beautiful, torchlike, red, orange or yellow tubular flowers that are carried in dense clusters on tall spikes and attract a wide variety of nectar-feeding birds and insects. The flowering season varies depending on the species, but most bloom in summer.
Pineapple flowers (Eucomis species)
The large, pineapple-shaped flowers of Eucomis species provide a stunning display in natural grasslands. These deciduous bulbs produce large, strap-like leaves that in some species can grow to more than a metre in length. Plant them among your grasses for contrasting foliage and additional perches for birds.