We are extremely fortunate in South Africa to be living in a country with one of the highest biodiversity ratings in the world. In South Africa we have approximately 23,000 unique plant species, compared with Europe with approximately 10,000. A Fynbos garden, using plants indigenous to the winter rainfall areas of the country, is probably one of the most beautiful and rewarding gardens to grow, yet most difficult to maintain over time. Beautiful because of the large diversity of different perennials, annuals, grasses, reeds and succulents that one can use, that allow a rich array of colour and interest all through the year. Difficult because of the relatively short lifespan of many of the annuals and perennial species, bringing a higher level of maintenance and knowledge needed to make it long-lived. When designing any garden, and especially a Fynbos garden, there are certain functional requirements that must be met, before you get to the fun part of choosing plants. The main requirements when it comes to design and plant selection are location, soil, wind, and sun/shade.
The rich diversity of the Cape flora is well known. Some 8,500 species of Fynbos and Renosterveld plants are now commercially available from many nurseries, with more hybrids and cultivars coming onto the market every year. The primary areas where one can grow a Fynbos garden are the winter rainfall areas of the Western Cape, with its long dry summers, very wet winters and where the natural soil PH is acidic, low in minerals and originating from granitic sandstone. The best areas for these conditions are Cape Town, Somerset West and Stellenbosch, Ceres, Grabouw, Hermanus, Riversdal and as far as Humansdorp and parts of Port Elizabeth. The areas up the West coast of the Western Cape, fall into the Strandveld category of indigenous plants and have their own unique plants that prefer a slightly more alkaline soil. Most of the Fynbos Ericas and Proteas won’t grow in this soil type. It’s very important when designing any garden, that one makes it easier to guarantee gardening success, by choosing plants that will thrive in the prevailing conditions of your area. However, that said, pockets of acidic soil exist and Fynbos is pretty adaptable too and has been successfully grown outside of its climatic region.
Sun, fire, wind and soil
When designing a Fynbos garden, it is also important to bear in mind that plants have developed over millennia to occupy a unique niche, especially in very bio diverse communities like Fynbos. Certain plants prefer full sun, others only shady, wet environments, while others need to be pruned after flowering every year to mimic the destruction a natural Fynbos fire would inflict. In the wild, Fynbos normally burns every 3 to 15 years naturally from wild fires, which encourages a healthy plant community. Wind is important to consider as well. In the Western Cape our prevailing winds come from the North and the South East, bringing rain and sometimes very dry heat, and along the coast, salt from the sea spray. If you garden is very sheltered, then you are probably able to grow a wider range of plants more successfully. However, very windy gardens around the Cape Town coast, like Clifton, Muizenberg etc, that also experience a lot of salt and sea-mist, need to use plants that are adapted to these conditions, of which there are luckily a lot.
The soil in your garden is probably the most important element of a successful Fynbos garden. The soil must be slightly acidic and somewhat sandy or free-draining. Clay soil is not going to work for a Fynbos garden unless you are able to alter its sticky structure through the addition of a lot of lime and larger organic particles of matter. Fynbos also is fussy about rich soil, preferring impoverished soils without a lot of minerals. Rich inorganic fertilisers do more harm than good and one should rather switch to organic fertilisers such as Bounceback and Seagrow if your plants are needing a boost. Mulching with organic material such as leaves or wood chip helps to naturally add nutrients into the soil, prevents weeds and preserves water in the soil. Using pine needles as a mulch in a Fynbos garden works particularly well, as they make the soil acidic as they break down too.
Water and roots
When designing with Fynbos it is important to consider the different requirements plants have for water. If you soil is supportive of Fynbos, then half your battle is won and the soil should retain the moisture your plants need. Winter rainfall is very important to Fynbos plants, of which we usually get plenty in the Cape. Fynbos is very sensitive to root disturbance so avoid at all costs digging in your soil near the roots. Similarly Fynbos does not take to being transplanted, so think and plan well before you plant to avoid losing plants when you change your mind.
Putting it all together with plants
When deciding on plants, one has usually a filtered selection already, based on the fulfilment of the above criteria first. However, there are still a lot of plants to choose from and the fun and beauty of designing with Fynbos are the many combinations and juxtaposition of colour, texture, scent, shape, and habit that make it work so beautifully. For me, leaf-shades of greens, browns, yellows and red are very important to consider as most plants only flower for a short period of the year. Use these plants as the backbone of the garden along with trees, which provide good evergreen or interesting changing foliage colour and texture throughout the year. Good Fynbos examples of this are the many Leucodendrons and Proteas that come in leaf colours of lime greens, greyish greens to fiery reds, reedy Chondropetalum tectorum, Tecoma capensis that sunbirds love, scented Buddleja saligna or salvifolia, Dodoneas, fluffy-flowered Tarchonanthus camphoratus, the Rosemary look-a-like Eriocephalus africanus, winter-flowering Aloe arborescens, Chrysanthemoides monilifera , Hymenolepis parviflora, Leonotis leonorus, Melianthus major with it’s exciting foliage to name just a few.
The smaller flowering shrubs add further excitement and changing flower colour. Good examples are Anisodontea scabrosa, the bright yellow umbels of Athanasia, the incredible waxy flowers of the Ericas, yellow Euryops pectinatus, Helichrysum patulum, Leucospermums (pincushions) in all their amazing oranges and yellows, Lobostemon fruticosus, scented Pelargoniums, shade-loving Plectranthus fruticosus to name a few. The foreground and filler plants add more interest and include the groundcovers, like sculptural Cotyledon orbiculata grey, purple to stripey-orange Gazanias, succulent Lampranthus in jewel-like magentas and oranges, shade-tolerant Chasmanthes, our beloved purple Agapanthus africanus, shimmering blue Felicias, bright Arctotis stoechadifolia and the long-blooming Pelargonium peltatum. Other favorites include Geranium incanum as a great pink groundcover, Scabiosa africana that lends a cottage garden feel, and ferns like Adiantum capillus-veneris, Blechnum punctulatum, and Rhumora adiantiformis for those shady wet spots.
These listed above are the true Fynbos species. However, when designing with Fynbos, I tend to borrow plants from all of the other climatic regions of South Africa. This we call an ‘Indigenous’ garden. We can’t design an indigenous garden without many of the above mentioned Fynbos species, as well as other favourite shade-loving plants like Dietes grandiflora, Barlerias, Crassulas, Hypoestes, Asparagus densiflorus meyersii, Plectranthus ecklonii to smaller ciliatis, Brilliantaisia subulugurica, Burchellia bubalina, Mackaya bella for sheltered spots, Clivias, thorny Carissa macrocarpa with its glossy green leaves. Other musts are the Kniphofias (red hot pokers), more sculptural Aloes, Agapanthus cultivars and hybrids, Watsonia bulbs, wild garlic Tulbaghia, climbers like Jasminum multipartitum, daisy-like Senecio macroglossus and Black-eyed Susan Thunbergia alata. The choice is vast and exciting. But start with the ones that will definitely work in your location and then add your favorites from other regions.