Gardening: Grasslands grow in popularity

By Chris Dalzell

During the dry winter months control burns were undertaken by The Kloof Conservancy and eThekwini Municipality in several grasslands in the Kloof region.

With the onset of spring and the first rains these grasslands have come alive with many flowering species of not just grasses but other plants that require fire and smoke to initiate flowering.

The new trend in gardening, especially in the large estates around eThekwini, is grassland gardening.

Why? Ease of maintenance and water wise gardening.

Sadly, the grasslands that once covered most of KwaZulu-Natal have all but disappeared due to urban growth, and the demand for pulp and paper, exotic plantations and agriculture, especially sugar cane.

I have just been watching a most interesting programme on Netflix called Kiss the Ground which talks about the importance of soil, especially topsoil and how we over the past 80-100 years have lost, through bad farming practices, most of the topsoil that once covered the world. It talks about how we can reduce further loss of topsoil by correct farming practices through rotational grazing, planting trees and plants and not removing existing vegetation when planting a food crop or an ornamental garden.

All these gardening practices are not new and have been around for thousands of years.

We tend to be lazy and take short cuts so now is the time to make amends and do it right from the beginning. If you have Netflix please watch this programme.

So how do we go about creating a grassland garden?

It will probably be the easiest garden you will ever establish. It will require some initial work but once established will require little attention and maintenance.

Once a year you may have to cut the grass short to keep it under control and remove any dead grass from around the base of each plant.

Throughout the year different species of grassland plants will flower, creating interest throughout the year. That is why it is important to plant as many different species of grassland plants as possible. Rule number 1 is to prepare the soil correctly. Follow this process and in a short time you will have a mature grassland to enjoy this summer.

Examine the ground you would like to convert into a grassland.

Remove all alien and undesirable plants.

Either create your own compost or purchase a load of compost that contains well decomposed leaf matter, bark, and some animal manure. Spread evenly over the area and turn gently into the soil. Rake level.

Water well to settle the newly prepared flower bed. If the soil is wet, it also allows the newly planted plugs to obtain some moisture on the roots.

Add some structural plants, rock or driftwood to your grassland bed for a natural look and place grass plugs between them.

First, plant all your shrubs, bulbs, and structural plants. When a flower bed is empty is it easier to see where you would like to plant certain plants. Add some weathered rock and driftwood if available for a natural look.

In between the structural plants, space between seven to 10 grass plugs per metre square. If grasses are in a 2-litre plastic bags, then place five plants per metre square.

Create a pathway through the garden so you can take a walk through the grassland and if space allows then install a bench for you to sit and contemplate life in your quiet space.

Try to find some mulch like fallen leaves and spread over the soil surface to prevent erosion. This also prevents weeds growing and water evaporation.

Within a few months these grasses and plants would have grown to maturity, giving you a new maintenance free garden to enjoy.

Later in the year these grasses will produce seed for birds to enjoy. You have just created a garden and a haven for many bird and other insects to enjoy.

Listed below are plants you need to include in your grassland to establish an active grassland garden.

Aristida junciformis (Ngongoni grass) Grasses

Aristida junciformis (Ngongoni grass): Probably the most popular of all the ornamental grasses grown as quick growing either from plugs or packet material. If planted in spring these grasses will grow into a mature specimen within three months which is ideal for difficult rocky areas in your garden. Once established will require little water except the summer rain and will remain green in the summer months. In the cooler winter months it will turn a brown golden colour that looks like a lion’s mane.

Melinus repens (Natal red top): Grown to control soil erosion and as an ornamental grass because of the spikes of red flowers that stand above the leaves. It will flower from early spring throughout summer in KwaZulu-Natal.

Berkheya speciosaOrnamental shrubs and bulbs

Polygala virgata (Bumble-Bee): Slender shrub up to 3m which grows in grasslands and forest margins. Pink to magenta flowers that grow on long, slender, terminal inflorescences. Stands above the grasses to give height to the garden. Flowers from October to February.

Dianthus zeyheri (African Carnation): Perennial herb in grassland along the coastal regions to 2 000m. White to pink flowers.

Vernonia capensis (narrow-leafed Vernonia): I wish this plant was grown in more nurseries in South Africa. Flowering now in many KwaZulu-Natal grasslands especially after a good burn. Silver foliage with violet to magenta flowers that stand out above the grass. One of the best grassland plants for your garden.

Pentanisia prunelloides (broad-leaved Pentanisia): Widespread in most KZN grassland. Flowers first after a fire with heads of purplish-blue flowers. Forms large clumps of flowers that stand about 600mm.

Asystassia gangetica

Gnidia kraussiana (lesser yellow head): Robust shrublet that flowers in a large, compact terminal head of yellow flowers from June to December. Very conspicuous after a burn. Poisonous to stock.

Dierama pulcherrimum (Hairbell): Delicate pink to magenta flowers hang like bells from the main branches. Flowers from November to February.

Cyrtanthus contractus (fire lily): Red flowers conspicuous after a fire which stand out in the burnt veld. Flower from August to October after fires.

Watsonia densiflora (Natal Watsonia): Flowers in summer, grows in large clumps up to 1.2m and with more than 40 flowers per stem. Plant requires a wet summer to grow best. Leaves go dormant in winter. Extremely rewarding.

Eucomis autumnalis (common pineapple flower): Found in damp grasslands throughout KZN. Flowers white to pale yellow green from December to April. Leaves go dormant in winter.

Scilla nervosa adds interest to a grassland.

Gomphocarpus physocarpus (Hairy balls): One of the best butterfly plants, the food choice of the African Monarch butterfly. Stands tall above the grassland with delicate white flowers that, once pollinated, produce large hairy balls. Once these balls split, seeds are dispersed by the wind. Can become a weed in certain areas.

Leonotis leonoris (wild dagga): Quite common in grasslands throughout South Africa. Produces orange flowers in clusters on the stems in winter which attract many of the nectar feeding birds. Wonderful winter flower plant that complements other winter flowering Aloes.

Aloe maculata (common soap Aloe): Widespread in most of KwaZulu-Natal. Flower colour varies from yellow to orange to red. Flowers stand up above the grasslands. Easily grown from seed.

Crinum macowanii (River lily): Flowers in September to November in large heads of 25 flowers. Flowers open upwards on erect stems that later recline. Flower bell shaped and white. These are majestic plants for your grassland.

Hypoxis hemerocallidea (Starflower): Probably the most common plant found in grasslands throughout South Africa. Flowers are yellow and open at first light and close just after midday. Flowers most of the year and easily grown from seed.

Becium obovatum

Becium obovatum (Cats Whiskers): Very hardy herb that can grow into a large plant. Flowers in well-spaced clusters on terminal inflorescences. White to pale mauve. Easy to grow and creates lots of interest in the garden.

Other plants for your grassland: Galdiolus dalenii, Kniphofia sp., Aloe cooperi, Scadoxus puniceus, Helichrysum cymosum, Gerbera ambigua, Berkheya speciosa, Bulbine abyssinica, Albuca nelsonii, Agapanthus praecox, Aristea ecklonii, Scilla nervosa, Eulophia speciosa, Asystasia gangetica (pictured). Pelargonium luridum, Wahlenbergia grandiflora, Aloe boylei. Asystassia gangetica

Happy gardening.

    This article is sponsored by Chris Dalzell Landscapes, specialising in landscaping, consultation, plant broking and Botanical tours. email [email protected] or visit www.chrisdalzellinternationalcom

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