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.