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
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!