Fynbos Garden Designing – Your Ultimate How To Guide

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 gardens to grow. Although a Fynbos Garden is rewarding to grow, it can be difficult to maintain over time. In this article, we at Contours Landscapes will provide valuable tips for designing a fabulous Fynbos garden. There is also a list of exciting Fynbos plants you can choose from when designing your garden.

What makes a Fynbos Garden special?

Fynbos Gardens are beautiful because of the large diversity of perennials, annuals, grasses, reeds and succulents that one can use. These plants provide a rich array of colour, texture, scent, shape and interest throughout the year while at the same time attracting a wide array of birdlife.

Why is it difficult to maintain a Fynbos Garden?

It is difficult because of the relatively short lifespan of many of the annuals and perennial species. Fynbos Gardens requires a higher level of maintenance and some specific knowledge to make it long-lived. When designing any garden, especially a Fynbos garden, certain functional requirements must be met before you get to the fun part of choosing plants. The main design and plant selection requirements are location, soil, wind, and sun/shade.

How many different species of FYNBOS are commercially available?

We are extremely fortunate in South Africa to live in a country with one of the highest biodiversity ratings in the world. South Africa has approximately 23,000 unique plant species, compared to Europe, which has approximately 10,000. The rich diversity of the Cape flora is well known. Some 8,500 species of Fynbos and Renosterveld plants are now commercially available in many nurseries. More Fynbos hybrids and cultivars are coming onto the market every year.

WHAT IS THE PREFERRED LOCATION TO GROW FYNBOS?

The primary areas where one can grow a Fynbos garden are the winter rainfall areas of the Western Cape. With its long, dry summers and very wet winters, the natural soil PH is acidic, low in minerals and originates from granitic sandstone. The best geographical areas for these conditions are Cape Town, Somerset West, Stellenbosch, Ceres, Grabouw, Hermanus, Riversdal and even 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. This area has its own unique plants that prefer slightly more alkaline soil. Most 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, with that said, pockets of acidic soil do exist.

Fortunately, Fynbos is adaptable and has been successfully grown outside its climatic region.

Sun, fire & wind

When designing a Fynbos garden, it is important to remember that plants have developed over millennia to occupy a unique niche, especially in bio-diverse communities like Fynbos. Certain plants prefer full sun, others only shady, wet environments. Others must be pruned after yearly flowering to mimic the destruction a natural Fynbos fire would inflict. In the wild, Fynbos naturally burns from wildfires every 3 to 15 years, 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. These winds bring rain, sometimes very dry heat, and salt from the sea spray along the coast. If your garden is very sheltered, you can 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 adapted to these conditions, of which there are luckily many.

What soil type do you need for a Fynbos Garden?

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 will not work for a Fynbos garden unless you can alter its sticky structure by adding a lot of lime and larger organic particles of matter. Fynbos is also fussy about rich soil, preferring impoverished soils without many 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 need a boost.

Mulching with organic material such as leaves or wood chips helps to add nutrients to the soil naturally. Furthermore, mulching prevents weeds and preserves water in the soil. Using pine needles as mulch in a Fynbos garden works particularly well, making the soil acidic as they break down.

Water and roots

When designing a garden with Fynbos, it is important to consider plants’ different requirements for water. If your soil supports Fynbos, half your battle is won. Of course, the soil should be able to retain the moisture your plants need. You should add compost to your soil to improve its moisture-retaining capability. Winter rainfall is very important to Fynbos plants. We usually get plenty of winter rain in the Cape. Fynbos is sensitive to root disturbance, so avoid digging in your soil near the roots at all costs. Similarly, Fynbos does not take to being transplanted. Think and plan well before you plant to avoid losing plants when transplanting them.

Putting it all together with FYNBOS plants 

When deciding on plants, one usually has a filtered selection already, based on the fulfilment of the above criteria first. However, there are still a lot of plants to choose from. The fun and beauty of designing with Fynbos are the many combinations and juxtapositions of colour, texture, scent, shape, and habit that make it work beautifully. For me, leaf shades of greens, browns, yellows and reds 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. Together, they should provide good evergreen or interesting changing foliage colour and texture throughout the year.

Now, let’s look at some examples. Good Fynbos examples are the many Leucodendrons (Conebushes) and Proteas. These come in leaf colours of lime greens, greyish greens and fiery reds. (Since many of you might be more familiar with the common names used for the Fynbos plants, I will put these names in brackets).

Then there are the reedy Chondropetalum Tectorum (commonly known as Cape thatching reed) and the Tecoma Capensis (Cape Honeysuckle) that sunbirds love. The scented Buddleja Saligna (False Olive, or Witolienhout in Afrikaans) is a fast-growing, water-wise, cold-resistant tree. Some interesting facts about the False Olive tree are that people used the tree’s wood to make assegai handles or small pieces of furniture. Furthermore, they used the roots and leaves for traditional medicinal purposes.

Fynbos, Fynbos and more Fynbos!

I’ve already discussed a few different Fynbos plants. Hopefully, you still remember that I mentioned that 8,500 different Fynbos species are commercially available! I will share more plant names and facts to help you decide which Fynbos plants to choose for your garden.

The Buddelja Salviifolia (Sage Bush, Butterfly bush or Mountain Sage) is a semi-evergreen shrub that grows up to 4 metres high. The leaves are dark green and wrinkled above, with whitish or brown hairs covering the bottom. This small tree is deliciously scented in early spring with its masses of white to lilac blooms.

Fluffy-flowered Tarchonanthus Camphoratus (Camphor Bush) is a small tree with attractive grey foliage. The name camphoratus refers to the strong smell of camphor when you crush the leaves.

The Rosemary look-a-like Eriocephalus africanus (Wild Rosemary or Kapokbossie in Afrikaans) is a bushy, evergreen, water-wise shrub. It has a silvery grey appearance with needle-shaped leaves. The aromatic leaves smell like “Vicks” when you crush them. Flowering time is in winter. During this time, the whole plant is covered in small white flowers.

Aloe arborescens (Krantz Aloe or Candelabra Aloe) is one of approximately 130 Aloe species native to Southern Africa. It is a “tree-like” Aloe. Unlike Aloe vera, which produces yellow flowers, it produces red flowers in winter. The Aloe arborescens also have narrower leaves compared to Aloe vera. A typical height for this species is between 2 and 3 metres.

Chrysanthemoides monilifera (Boneseed or Jungle flower) is an evergreen shrub with yellow flowers and oval-shaped leaves. It is part of the Asteraceae (daisy) family. This shrub can grow up to 3 metres tall.

Which Fynbos attracts bees, butterflies and nectar-feeding birds?

Hymenolepis chrithmifolia (Coulter bush) is a soft shrub with finely divided, needle-like, grey-green leaves. This shrub is also part of the Asteraceae (daisy) family. It grows up to 2.5 metres tall. This Fynbos plant produces masses of small golden yellow, sweetly scented flowers arranged in compound heads. When in flower (during summer), many insects, such as bees and butterflies, visit these plants and pollinate the flowers.

Leonotis leonorus (Lions ear or Wild dagga) is a plant species in the mint family. Not only does it produce bright orange flowers, but it is also nectar-rich. This has made it a favourite for families who wish to attract nectar-feeding sunbirds. The Leonotis leonorus is a fast-growing, soft-woody, robust shrub. It grows between 2 and 3 metres tall. The shrub has long, narrow green leaves, rough on the upper surface and velvety on the bottom leave surface.

Melianthus major (Honey flower, touch-me-not, kruidjie-roer-my-nie, heuningblom) is a striking plant. It has blue-green leaves and tall, dark, rusty-red flowers. Nectar-feeding birds feast on the nectar dripping from the flowers. Unfortunately, the leaves have a strong, unpleasant smell and are highly toxic when taken internally.

Smaller Flowering Shrubs

The smaller flowering Fynbos shrubs add further excitement and flower colour. We will now discuss some good examples. Anisodontea scabrosa (Sand Rose, Pink Mallow), part of the Malvaceae family, is ideally suited for home gardens. This cheerful shrub flowers throughout the year. What’s more, it can withstand both coastal conditions and frost. The Sand Rose has soft, aromatic, green hairy leaves and hibiscus-like blooms. The flowers are light to dark pink in colour.

Athanasia dentata (Toothed-leaf Athanasia, geelblombos in Afrikaans) is a fast-growing, upright, densely leafy shrub. It reaches a height of about 1 m. With its bright golden yellow, honey-scented flowerheads, it puts on quite a show during spring. The flowerhead consists of 15-20 rounded “buttons” clustered tightly together at the end of a branch. Moreover, every button consists of 30-60 tiny yellow flowers. Honey bees and Butterflies are attracted to the long-lasting, bright yellow flowers.

Erica baccans (Berry heath, Bessieheide in Afrikaans) is part of the Ericaceae family. With its light green needle-like leaves, this shrub reaches a height of about 1 m. In ideal conditions, it can reach a height of over 2m. It is a showy species that produces bright, cherry-pink flowers. The flowers are small and urn-shaped. They are produced in groups of four at the end of the branches. The Erica baccans grown in full sun amongst other Fynbos plants look very attractive in any Fynbos garden.

Other flowering shrubs for your Fynbos garden are the Euryops pectinatus (Golden daisy bush) and the Helichrysum patulum (Honey everlasting). Another lovely flowering shrub is the Lobostemon fruticosus (Pajama bush), with its showy blue and pink flowers.

Leucospermums (pincushions)

Pincushion shrubs produce their nectar-rich flowers in all their amazing oranges and yellows from the middle of July to the end of November. These Fynbos shrubs are part of the Cape Floral Kingdom. You will find them in only a small area in the Western Cape. Although they grow in a very small area, people worldwide are familiar with these amazing flowers. The reason is that florists worldwide stock these fabulous flowers.

There are more than 40 different species of this evergreen shrub. One of particular interest is the Leucospermum grandiflorum (Rainbow pincushion). This plant makes a fascinating floral display. The flowers open as bright yellow and slowly change to a flaming red!

Leucospermums Pincushions

Scented Pelargoniums

Pelargoniums are sun-loving perennials which require very little care. Moreover, they provide months of colourful flowers. Succulent pelargoniums, which thrive in rockeries, have strongly fragrant aromatic leaves. Some scented favourites include the Pelargonium odoratissimum (Apple scented), Pelargonium vitifolium (Balm scented), and Pelargonium botulinum (Camphor scented).

Furthermore, the Pelargonium grossulariodes (Coconut scented), Pelargonium citronellum and Pelargonium limonseum (Lemon scented) are also firm favourites. In addition, many people also love the Pelargonium fragrant (Nutmeg scented) and Pelargonium tomentosum (peppermint scented). Last but not least are the Pelargonium graveolens, radens, and capitatum. All three of them are rose-scented.

Pelargonium Flowers

foreground and filler plants

The foreground and filler plants add more interest and include the groundcovers, like sculptural Cotyledon orbiculata (Pig’s ears). This is a fast-growing succulent which adds colour to the winter garden. The brightly coloured flowers of this plant attract bees and birds.

Purple to stripey-orange Gazanias, also known as African daisies, are popular in many gardens. Gardeners often plant Gazanias as a drought-tolerant groundcover. Large daisy-like composite flowerheads in brilliant shades of yellow and orange characterise these hardy plants. Gazanias are very easy to grow. They produce lots of seeds and are easy to propagate from seed.

Succulent Lampranthus (Vygie in Afrikaans) is one of the most colourful succulent plants in jewel-like magentas and oranges. The leaves, with their high water content, ensure the plant’s survival during long hot periods.

Shade-tolerant Chasmanthes (Cobra lily) is part of the Iris family. This bulbous plant produces vibrant orange flowers, which attract Sunbirds. Apart from the foreground and filler plants already discussed, we also wish to mention a few other popular plants. Our beloved purple Agapanthus africanus, shimmering blue Felicias, and bright Arctotis stoechadifolia (Coast arctotis) are favourites in many Fynbos gardens. Moreover, there is also the long-blooming Pelargonium peltatum (Ivy pelargonium).

Other favourites include Geranium incanum (Carpet Geranium) as a great pink ground cover. The Scabiosa africana (Cape Scabious, Pincushion flower or Koringblom in Afrikaans) lends a cottage garden feel with its many tall flowering stems that wave in the wind.

Ferns for the shady wet spots

Ferns like Adiantum capillus-veneris (Maidenhair fern), Blechnum punctulatum (Mountain deer fern or Valsboomvaring in Afrikaans), and Rhumora adiantiformis (Leatherleaf fern or Knysna fern) are ideal filler plants for those shady wet spots.

Other indigenous plants which complement Fynbos

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 and other favourite shade-loving plants. Some indigenous plants include Dietes grandiflora (Large wild Iris or Fairy Iris), Barlerias, and Crassulas (Succulent plants containing about 200 species).

Then there are also Hypoestes (Polka dot plant), Asparagus densiflorus meyersii (Cat’s tail), and Plectranthus ecklonii (Tall Spurflower). Furthermore, there are the smaller ciliatis, Brilliantaisia subulugurica (Giant Salvia), and the Burchellia bubalina (Wild Pomegranate), The Mackaya bella (Forest bell-bush), Clivias, thorny Carissa macrocarpa (Natal plum or big num-num) with its glossy green leaves, are further companion plants for Fynbos.

Other Indigenous Plants Which Complement Fybos

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 work in your location, then add your favourites from other regions.

Of course, we at Contours Landscapes are in the Landscape Design business, and we will be more than happy to help you design a perfect Fynbos Garden.

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Let’s plan your landscaping project together!

We plan, install and maintain award-winning landscapes for our commercial clients and project partners. Clients who wish to add function, value and inspiration to their outdoor spaces and properties.

Our roots are in Cape Town, but our footprint stretches deep into southern Africa.