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.)
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.)
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.)
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.)
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.)
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!