September 22, 2011

Gardening in South Africa

One of the most annoying things about becoming an expat is having to learn certain things from scratch. Like what kind of fish to buy. Which cut of meat you need when you're looking for flank steak. And the names of the plants around you.

I thought this being spring would be a good time to tell you a little of what I've learned about gardening in South Africa. Even though I've claimed before that there are only Two Weeks of Spring, judged by temperatures, we are still at the beginning of spring when it comes to planting your garden.

First off, South Africa is a gardener's dream. It's warm most of the year, but not oppressively so, which gives you the perfect weather year-round to get out there and swing your shovel. The only snag I've found with that is that people probably think I'm weird. Labor is so cheap here, you see, that almost everyone has a gardener doing this kind of work for them. In fact, doing it yourself might somehow be viewed as taking a much-needed job away.

But I can't help myself. I love walking around the yard among all the plants, getting my hands dirty, and seeing the progress of "my babies." It's not the same as having someone else do it for you. So on my last trip around our garden and through our neighborhood I donned my camera to show you my favorites. As you can see, I love anything that flowers, so if you're looking for non-flowering plants, this might not be the right article for you. (Also, even though the heading talks about Gardening in South Africa, this is more an article about gardening in Johannesburg; if you live in Cape Town, you will be dealing with an entirely different climate, but also many other equally beautiful options.)

Bougainvillea: Both Noisette and I fell in love with Bougainvilleas in Singapore where they'd spill down from overpasses with an abundance of color that's hard to surpass. So when we got a little bit of a budget from our landlord here to improve the garden, we had a couple bougainvilleas thrown in. Unfortunately, they were planted sometime in May and promptly died when it got cold in June. But undeterred, we planted new ones in spring, and a year later they are doing fine. Here in Joburg you do have to beware of frost, which is why people cover up their sensitive plants with frost sheeting during the cold months. We have one that we planted against a wall and it survived the best of all of the, as it was protected from the cold wind.  But if you're a bit careful, all your bougainvilleas will do well and reward you with plenty of blossoms all summer long. (Full sun, drought resistant, in fact, more water will make leaves grow but will bloom better when dry, protect from frost.)

Tying rocks to the end of the shoots as weights helps your bougainvillea spill over a wall

Queen’s Wreath: At least I hope that's what this is called. There is this particular bush I see almost every day on the way to school,  and it is absolutely stunning. It is also listed as Sandpaper Vine or Petrea Volubilis. (Full sun, fast growing, easy to grow, drought resistant, can tolerate frost briefly.)

Queen's Wreath or Sandpaper Vine

Wild Iris: Our borders are full of them, and they are very easy maintenance. You just have to cut them back severely in the fall or early spring, and they will bloom all summer. They're a little bit what daylilies are back home, though they have those here as well. But I prefer the thick foliage of the wild irises. (Full sun, grows like a weed, perfect for perennial borders.)

Wild Iris

It's still a bit early for the wild irises so I just found this lonely blossom,
but soon there will be hundreds.

Bird of Paradise: Also called Strelitzia reginae, and I just learned that it is actually indigenous to South Africa. But I don't think they're actually made for the highveld, as mine seem to struggle with frost. They pretty much die at the onset of winter and by the time all the leaves are finally regrown, it's winter again before we get any flowers. But they are everywhere throughout the neighborhood where they seem to be doing fine, so maybe they just have to be established for several years before blooming regularly. (Full sun to partial shade, needs regular water, blooms several times a year.)

Strelitzia, also called Bird of Paradise

Red Hot Poker: These members of the lily family, also called Kniphofia or Torch lily, are stunning in large groups, such as I pass every day on my way out of our gate as seen in the picture below. (Full sun, flowers mid-summer, needs regular water but well-drained soil, mulch in winter to protect from frost.)

Red Hot Poker or Torch Lily

Bottle Brush: Also called Callistemon and native to Australia. These have been such a joy in our garden with their spectacular brush-like flowers. They are bushes that grow into trees over time, comparable to a Crape Myrtle, and they flower several times each summer. Water them well after planting, and then they should take care of themselves. We have two in pots on our patio, and two more in the flowerbed along the fence, and both are doing well. (Full sun or partial shade, occasional watering.)

Bottle Brush Bush

Rose: Good old roses - what can I say? Maybe that is why the rose is such a symbolic flower, because it can exist pretty much anywhere in the world. This is the only plant I've had in every single garden where we've lived (though perhaps with the exception of Singapore). Our roses here flower pretty much year-round, though we do cut them back pretty drastically in the winter.

Roses do very well in South Africa

Jasmine: If you're not the gardening-type but might be persuaded to plant just one single thing, I would say it has to be Jasmine. It grows like a weed (you do have to cut it back regularly where you don't want it to grow or your house will turn into Sleeping Beauty's castle), is resistant to the kind of frost we get here (just goes dormant in the winter but keeps all its waxy dark green foliage), and flowers beautifully throughout spring and most of summer. It makes for a great screen if you help it up the fence a bit (once it's found a place to wind around, it won't need any encouragement), and the scent from those little white flowers is intoxicating.

Jasmine is good at climbing and winding around fences
You can see the jasmine flowers throughout our flower bed, with a daylily in the middle

Potato bush: We have these bushes, also called Solanum, growing along our fence, and much like the Jasmine it is virtually indestructible and has pretty purple flowers all summer long. It loses its leaves in the winter but will grow very fast all summer, so you can cut it back to any shape you'd like. I prefer let it shoot through our fence however it wants.

Potato Bush

Clivia: While most of the plants I've described above need full sun or at least flower much better when exposed to lots of sunlight, I wanted a potted plant on our patio where it's shady. I had an Azalea there first but somehow killed it (a sad testament for someone who had gazillions of azaleas in her yard in North Carolina, I'm still not sure if it was too much or too little water that did it), and just bought this Clivia which seems to be doing fine and has stunning flowers.


Aloe: I'm not such a big fan of these, but they are native to Africa (particularly common in the Cape area) and seem to be doing extremely well in my garden. They actually have stunning flowers in the winter, which gives your garden a nice splash of color when most everything else is looking drab.

It's a pity I forgot to take a picture of the stunning aloe flowers during winter. Just picture
the sorry left-over stem you see as a vibrant orange torch, and about 5-6 per plant.

Agapanthus: I think this is what this border perennial is called. It is also native to South Africa and seems to do very well in our yard. It flowers only once sometime in summer but the blossoms last several weeks and look stunning, a full ball of blue on each stem, and each bush producing many of them. I also like the foliage of the plant the rest of the year, it's nice to look at as a border.

I'm sorry again for not to have a flowering Agapanthus picture for you.
I'll have to take one this summer!

And finally, I have to mention Jacaranda tress here. You won't be able to plant them here as they are considered invasive species (originally from South America) and there is a big push by the South African government against non-native plants, actually taking out some and not allowing the planting of others. But maybe you'll get lucky and find a house in an older neighborhood with Jacaranda-lined streets. It is a sight to behold in October/November, and there is a reason Pretoria is also called the Jacaranda City.

I'm sure some of my loyal South African readers will  have comments about what I've left out or maybe even misnamed, so I apologize in advance for any mistakes. I invite all your comments!

12 comments : said...

I just wrote a long comment but somehow didn't post it. I have comment issues this week!

Anyway, I love all these flowers, especially jasmine, which I missed this year in my yard because it bloomed while I was away, and jacarandas, which I can't wait for. I also love arum lilies. Do you have those? Beautiful white, cone-shaped lilies that bloom from fall through spring. I love the way flowers bloom all year-round here. And if someone gives you a houseplant, you can often plant it outside and it thrives. That never happens where I come from.

Sine said...

Ah! There is nothing worse than writing a long comment and then losing it. You'll never be able to rewrite it! I think your jasmine might have been a different kind, one that blooms more in winter or very early spring which I just saw (and smelled!) in my neighbor's yard. It's gorgeous. I have the kind that blooms most of summer so there will be many days left. I don't have arum lilies though I found them when trying to figure out what else I had. I've seen them in other yards and they seem to be doing well. You're right, anything does well here, just water it well initially since it is so dry. And beware of frost. Other than that, you can't do much wrong...

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Sine said...

Thanks Erika, I did go ahead and register but it looks like I was too late for your contest :-(. But thanks for pointing me to your website, I will have to check it out...

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thepinkcucumber said...

I know exactly what you are talking about - I myself am a 'legal alien' in South Africa, living, gardening and recently blogging!

W. A. Jeffrey said...

I think learning plant names and figuring out what meat to order is part of the fun stuff. But maybe I am just weird.

Love the pictures and descriptions of the flowers.

I have commented on the Jacaranda thing before but it tells a person a lot about a country when there are SO many things that need addressing but the powers that be find time to politicize plants. Good grief! I sometimes think that it is not South Africa that needs "transformation" but the stupid politicians. Let people grow what they want.

Sine said...

Agree with you wholeheartedly on that. Though in view of the current drought, I do appreciate concerns that water shortages must be addressed. The best way to address it is via price of water so you might be encouraged to plant more indigenous drought-resistant plants.

W. A. Jeffrey said...

Pricing water is a great idea. That way those who like thirsty plants will have to pay accordingly. Many will change varieties to save money but some will be willing to pay. The proceeds can then go towards improving the water infrastructure or a drought prevention program. Although under the current govt they would probably steal it but the idea is sound nonetheless.

Siobhan Blundell said...

Dear Sine, thanks for all the writing. I have grown up in Jhb and never lived anywhere else. It is fascinating reading what you have written about my country and city, somehow gives me a wonderfully fresh perspective on things.
Thanks again

Sine said...

Thanks so much for your nice comment, Siobhan, and you are welcome. There are so many interesting things to write about South Africa that I still have material even though having moved away almost 3 years ago!

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