Eco-estates have become a popular choice for those people who wish to escape the noise and crowds of city and suburbia in order to lead a quieter lifestyle. While a true eco-estate may not encourage (or even permit) the introduction of large expanses of man-made landscapes, homeowners generally prefer some sense of order in the areas immediately surrounding their homes when reestablishing the land after building.
With people constantly encroaching on and developing in open areas, it becomes increasingly important for homeowners to plan a garden as an extension of the nearest greenbelt to ensure the survival of indigenous fauna and flora. There is no better way of doing this than by incorporating elements of the surroundings and using vegetation found in the area. Not only will the plants survive the prevailing conditions with minimal maintenance, but they will also attract and sustain the wildlife that already exists there.
In the next series of gardening articles, we will introduce wildlife-friendly gardens in various locations throughout South Africa. The suggestion of expanding a greenbelt is not limited to eco-estates and can also be implemented with great success in small townhouse gardens. This style of gardening is generally informal and mimics how plants grow in nature – you are unlikely to encounter rows of neatly clipped hedges! In estates with free-ranging wildlife, it may be necessary to start the garden with fairly mature plants and, if possible, to protect them until they are well established.
The garden design is for a recently built holiday home in the northern Drakensberg. With magnificent views of Cathkin Peak, the garden was required to enhance the view, be low-maintenance and attract birds and other creatures. The garden is approximately 475 square metres and designed to be lawn-free to reduce maintenance and watering costs. To increase accessibility, a natural stone pathway was added to allow people to explore the outdoor space and give the feel of hiking along a nature trail. The garden is arranged in three overlapping zones.
The southern section has minimal human traffic, particularly in the area behind the garage. This is demarcated as an exclusion zone, with trees and shrubbery intended to encourage birds such as Bokmakieries and Cape Robin-chats that prefer more secluded habitats. The plant species were chosen for their capacity to attract birdlife by providing food (insects, fruit, seeds and/or nectar), habitat and perching spots. Some of the key species are Natal bottlebrush Greyia sutherlandii, Cape honeysuckle Tecoma capensis and karee Searsia lancea. The vegetation also serves as a screen to hide the entertainment area of the neighbouring house. The pathway diverts to a secluded bench so that one can retreat and absorb the majestic mountain view.
The remainder of the garden features mainly a selection of low-growing plants commonly found in the surrounding grasslands, with a couple of wild peach Kiggelaria africana trees to shade the seating area. These trees serve as larval host plants to the garden acraea butterfly and also attract cuckoos that eat the caterpillars, as well as those species that feed on the fruit of the female plant. Some colourful, bird-attracting shrubs like the tree fuchsia Halleria lucida and Cape leadwort Plumbago auriculata are used for additional screening along the northern
A mixed succulent garden was incorporated in the north-east section of the property. The focal plant of this area is the krantz aloe Aloe arborescens, which provides a spectacular show when it flowers in winter and attracts nectar-feeding birds such as sunbirds and bulbuls. The planting around the covered patio has deliberately been kept low so as not to obstruct the view of the mountain range.
Some of the plants used in this area are agapanthus Agapanthus praecox, watsonias and red hot pokers Kniphofia praecox. Wild plants and grasses from the surrounding open areas are allowed to seed freely throughout the garden so that in time the stand will blend seamlessly with the natural vegetation. In order to keep the garden interesting, the plants chosen have been selected to flower at different times of the year. The rocks found on the property were used to create the stone pathways, and were loosely packed so that wild plants can establish themselves in the gaps. Some of the larger boulders were positioned in the garden to serve as perches for birds such as the Familiar Chat, as well as to allow other wildlife, like lizards, to bask in the sun. In years to come, as the plants grow, the space will develop into a wildlife retreat for the local fauna.