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​How to grow a grassland garden in South Africa

 

FEB 18, 2021 | Written by Zoë Chapman Poulsen. Photographs by Alison Young

Grassland garden

 

 

Above: Erythrina zeyheri in bloom during summer the grassland garden at the University of KwaZulu-Natal  (UKZN) Botanical Gardens. Photo: Alison Young.

 

One of South Africa’s most biodiverse biomes, South Africa’s grasslands are found on the central inland plateau of the country, encompassing the inland and coastal areas of the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng, Northwest Province, Mpumalanga and Limpopo.

 

Our grasslands are biodiverse, yet highly threatened

The grassland biome is the second largest in the country, covering around one third of South Africa’s land surface. Grasslands are known for their extraordinary biodiversity. Far from only being home to grasses, South Africa’s grassland ecosystems are home to a plethora of plant species, many of which are threatened or endemic to specific grassland vegetation types.

However, South Africa’s grassland biome is highly threatened, with extensive habitat loss due to the growth of urban development, ploughing of grassland for agriculture for crops including sugar cane, and the expansion of forestry plantations. Degradation by overgrazing, inappropriate fire management and alien invasive vegetation is a further cause of concern.

 

Above: Aloes add architectural structure to grassland gardens, with their bright candles of flowers adding light to the winter garden among the dry grasses. Photo: Alison Young.

 

Grassland gardens in the spotlight

In recent years, growing grassland gardens has increased in popularity in South Africa, particularly on larger housing estates in KwaZulu-Natal, because of their combination of beautiful blooms at different times of the year, as well as how easy they are to maintain and waterwise they are.

It is important not to confuse grassland gardens with grass gardens. Grass gardens only comprise grasses of various shapes, colours and sizes, whereas grassland gardens also include a range of other plants alongside grasses, including bulbs, succulents and many other indigenous plants.

Grassland gardens can make fantastic habitats for wildlife, with the blooms of flowers attracting pollinators into the garden. As the grasses in a grassland garden grow, flower, mature and set seed, they are often visited by birds to feed on the grass seeds.

 

Above: Cat’s Whiskers (Ocimum obovatum) after rain. Photo: Alison Young.

 

Grassland Garden Inspiration

One of the best places to visit to be inspired to grow your own grassland garden at home, is the grassland bed at the KwaZulu-Natal National Botanical Garden in Pietermaritzburg.

This garden was designed to educate people about South Africa’s grasslands and is affectionately known as the ‘people’s garden’, given its celebration of the relationship between grassland plants and people.

In the grassland bed during the winter months, the bright and architectural blooms of Aloes and Red Hot Pokers stand bold against the dry grasses. During summer, there are spectacular displays from many bulbs, as well as Senecio and Helichrysum. The grassland bed is also home to numerous medicinal plants.

 

Above: Bronze mannikens enjoy visiting grassland gardens to feed on the grass seedheads. Photo: Alison Young.

Starting your own grassland garden

So how can you start growing your own grassland garden? To begin, you’ll need to choose the right site. Pick an area that is away from deep shade of trees and receives around 6-8 hours of sunlight per day.

Before you start planting your grassland garden, clear the area of any weeds and alien vegetation. The next step is to add your compost. This only needs to be done once when you are creating your garden.

You can either use homemade compost if you have a compost heap, or apply a compost mix that comprises decomposed leaves, bark and well-rotted manure. A carbon rich organic fertiliser can be added during the initial soil preparation.

During the initial soil preparation, you can sculpt the surface of the soil to create a more natural appearance, as well as adding in rocks and logs to create spaces for wildlife to shelter underneath.

Above: The day after an ecological burn in the grassland garden on 2 July at the UKZN Botanical Gardens. Photo: Alison Young.

 

Choosing plants for your grassland garden

Once the ground has been thoroughly prepared, you are now ready to begin planting up your grassland garden. The next step is to choose the plants you are going to use. Some of the most popular grasses for use in grassland gardens are the Ngongoni grass (Aristida junciformis) and the KwaZulu-Natal Red Top (Melinis repens). Both of these grasses are highly ornamental and easy to grow.

Beautiful pineapple lilies (Eucomis) make a fantastic addition to grassland gardens, with their architectural foliage and flowers. Several members of the genus have sweetly scented blooms. Cape Scabious (Scabiosa africana) and Wild Scabious (Scabiosa columbaria) produce gorgeous purple or white flowers that attract bees and butterflies into the garden.

The African Potato (Hypoxis) is a hardy bulb that is easily recognised by its attractive yellow star-shaped flowers. The flowers are pollinated by honeybees. For winter colour in your grassland garden, consider planting some Aloes, such as the Spotted Aloe (Aloe greatheadii).

Remember as you plant up your grassland garden not to plant your plants too close together, with no more than 8 plants per square metre. Once planting has been completed, add a layer of mulch and water thoroughly.

 

Top: A winter ecological burn in July in the grassland garden at the UKZN botanical gardens. Above: The yellow fire lily (Cyrtanthus breviflorus) in bloom among the burnt vegetation in the grassland garden at the UKZN botanical gardens. Photo: Alison Young.

 

Maintaining your grassland garden

As your grass garden becomes established, it requires relatively little maintenance. After the initial planting, the only water your grass garden will need is the seasonal rainfall it naturally receives each year. No additional fertiliser is required.

You can also top it up with a fresh layer of mulch each year. Once a year during winter (between May and July), trim grasses back to around 5 cm in height and rake up the resulting dry grass from this process. This will encourage your other grassland plants to grow and come into bloom during spring.

We wish you happy grassland gardening!

 

4 Comments

  1. Lovely article thank you. I would like some advice on what to grow to achieve a grassland garden here in Noordhoek, western Cape. I have taken up all the lawn and planted Lippia which has worked well and certainly keeps the bees happy. I trim this back once the flowering is over.

  2. We live in a small 22 year old complex of 11 dwellings on the West Rand, with a theme of keeping it indigenous. As the longest staying inhabitants in the complex we have had to fight hard to keep our tiny + – 3 000 sq. m. patch of local grassland. Some of our neighbours buy into the idea but others consider it looks unkempt and would much rather plant kikuyu. It is so interesting to see what appears each spring and after last winter’s burn a tiny orchid that we had never seen in 22 years appeared and flowered. Magic!

  3. Thank you so much for this valuable information! Can’t wait to get digging…

  4. So happy to learn about growing our beautiful grasses.
    I had in my previous home many grasses and they were much loved
    I’m starting new areas for grass planting here but have had to order from Pretoria as I cannot find a nursery here in the Overberg that sells grasses
    Please keep us up to date with news of grasses
    Regards. Anna

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