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Growing indigenous

The cultivation of indigenous plants — from the largest trees to the daintiest climbers and ground covers — can be rewarding for even the most inexperienced gardener.

More and more South African gar­deners are planting indigenous shrubs and trees in their garden — plants once only seen growing wild.

Indigenous plants make an attractive and hardier alternative to exotic plants.

Indigenous plants make an attractive and hardier alternative to exotic plants.

Indigenous plants make an attractive alternative to exotic plants, and there are plenty to choose from. No matter where you live — or how small your garden — you should be able to find some indigenous plants to fit in with your gardening plans.

Most of southern Africa’s indigenous plants are naturally adapted to only a certain range of soil types and climatic conditions. This vast, temperate region offers a wide range of grow­ing conditions.

In cultivation, many indigenous plants have been found to be very adaptable, and it is often worth attempting to grow plants from other regions under normal garden con­ditions.

When a seedling is protected and cared for in its early stages, instead of having to fight for survival in the wild, it will frequently thrive in an environ­ment that differs considerably from its native habitat. Gardeners will learn a great deal by joining the National Botanical Society of South Africa, which offers advice and a chance to share in the gathering of information on indigenous plants.

Indigenous plants should never be removed from the wild. In most in­stances it is illegal to dig up plants, pick their flowers or collect their seeds. Most species are protected, and inter­ference with plants in protected areas is prohibited.

Seedlings growing on private prop­erty can be removed with the owner’s permission, but they will have to be dug up with great care if they are to survive. Water the plant first and take a generous portion of the surrounding soil to keep root disturbance to a minimum.

Grow the seedlings in pots until they are well established, and then plant them out. Do not attempt to remove young plants that are more than 10 cm tall, as their roots will have grown too deep to be dug up without causing damage.

Indigenous plants can be raised from cuttings or seed, but for the gardener new to their cultivation they are perhaps best bought from reputable nurseries which specialise in indigenous plants, or from one of the many general nur­series that stock them.

Plants bought from nurseries will have been propagated from stock selected for cultivation. Many of the cultivated varieties bred over the last few years are easier to grow and showier than the wild species.

When choosing a plant, check its mature height and spread. Some trees and shrubs grow to a considerable height, or spread widely, and if planted unwisely can block out light from the house, obstruct paths and driveways or crowd other plants in the garden. In a small, inner city garden, be careful not to plant a tree that will be over-­intrusive when fully grown.

When planning an indigenous garden, do not attempt too formal a layout. On the whole, indigenous plants can be seen to best advantage if they are planted to give the appearance of an area of natural wild growth. Bark chips or gravel for open areas and seats and fences of stained timber are usually more suitable in an indigenous garden than cement paving, cast iron furniture and brick walls.

For those who have little time for gardening, a major advantage of an in­digenous garden is that it is almost maintenance free.

Provided plants are kept free from insect infestation, the soil is well mulched and shrubs are lightly pruned each year, almost no garden work is required. In some cases, heavy water­ing, weeding and regular fertilising with artificial fertiliser can actually do more harm than good.

Return regularly to this Indigenous Gardens section of Gardening Made Easy — we will constantly be adding new plant profiles (including each of the plants included in the illustration), indigenous garden ideas, and information on where to source good plant material. For photos and cultivation information on hundreds of Southern African indigenous plants, you can also visit