The shortcut to easy gardening – go local

‘When I finally made my first fynbos garden,
it inspired a whole new direction in my art,’
says Cape Town’s ANDREW PUTTER

The shortcut to easy gardening – go local

‘When I finally made my first fynbos garden, it inspired a whole new direction in my art,’ says Cape Town’s ANDREW PUTTER

The Edith Stevens Wetland Reserve in Philippi is one of the very few sites where Cape Flats sand fynbos is conserved. When Andrew Putter realised just how abundant this now seriously threatened veld type once was on the Cape Peninsula, he also realised that his suburban garden could help contribute to conservation.


As a dyed-in-the-wool Capetonian, I have been a fan of indigenous plants for decades. Then one day a couple of years ago, I found that I had completely underestimated what indigenous can mean.

Astonishingly, I discovered that within the broad sweep of South African indigenous flora there are 19 different forms of indigenous on the Cape Peninsula alone – and more than 380 across the rest of the country. To distinguish between what is indigenous to one specific area but not another, scientists use the term “vegetation type.”

Learning about vegetation types, or veld types as they are often more commonly called, changed the way that I see indigenous plants and – to my surprise – pointed to unexpectedly hassle-free ways of gardening with them.


Fortunately, all these 400 or so veld types have been mapped by SANBI’s breathtaking VegMap project, which you can access yourself to check veld types in your area. In the Cape Peninsula, we also benefit from the localised version adopted by FynbosLIFE (Locally Indigenous Flora Education).

These are two of the main resources I used to access a whole new vision of the local plant world and to re-evaluate my ideas of success and failure in indigenous gardening.

Along the way, I learned how specialised plants and veld types can be. A tree that is indigenous to the ravines of Table Mountain, for example, might not also be indigenous to that same mountain’s slopes, although at first glance we might think that it is interchangeable between the two.

A tree species in a Table Mountain ravine evolved to take advantage of local conditions – which means protection from fire. A shrub growing on the slopes, on the other hand, could have evolved to flourish in very different conditions, which might include regularly occurring fires. These two completely different vegetation types grow alongside each other but are not interchangeable.

Research – Andrew enjoyed researching how to recreate his locally indigenous veld in his garden.



The more I learned about veld types, the more one of them in particular tugged at my heart – Cape Flats sand fynbos. These plants evolved to thrive in Cape Flats sand, the nutrient-poor, acidic soil that runs through much of the peninsula, from Kuilsriver to Tokai, and includes most of the southern suburbs, including Pinelands, where I was born.

I was thrilled to discover that much of the botanical biodiversity that Cape Town is globally prized for – and which we are losing at an eye-watering rate – would have once been found in this sand.

Growing up in Pinelands, I had seen firsthand how many gardeners struggled to make gardens in Cape Flats sand. Their plants needed constant feeding, watering and protection from the wind.


I had always thought it was the sand that was the problem. Now, by understanding the world through the lens of veld types, it became obvious that there are many local plants – important, increasingly rare plants – that are ideally suited to this kind of sand.

Instead of fighting against reality and struggling to garden with plants that need conditions different to my garden’s actual conditions, a much richer alternative presented itself. Why not plant only those species that are part of the veld type of this area?

It was this understanding that turned me into a plant purist.


I love gardens but have always been too lazy to make one. The thought of looking after plants never really appealed.

Now, though, I understood something vital – if I planted only those species belonging to the veld type where my garden is, the plants would not need much care. These plants would have evolved to flourish and look after themselves in exactly the ancient soil type underlying the garden.

It was time to make my first garden!


The little bit of garden my landlady offered me to play in is in Rondebosch and would have once included Cape Flats sand, so some of the best species to grow there would definitely be Cape Flats sand fynbos plants. Fired up by my fledgling plant purism, I prepared to exclude as many plants as possible from my garden that did not belong to this local veld type – well, except the couple of exotic plants my landlady did not want removed.

To find out which plants to grow, I used various online resources, which I have listed below. SANBI’s valuable online indigenous-plant gardening reference, PlantZAfrica, helped me list plants that might be appropriate. For inspiration, using images of plants found online, I collaged together a fanciful picture of what the garden might one day look like.

Then I watched the weather and waited to take the plunge.

Within seven months of planting, Andrew’s garden was already growing madly as its veld-type specific plants flourished in their ideal habitat.


It was May and it had been pretty dry but when I saw that a series of rainy cold fronts were on their way, I began my preparations. I cleared the site, then divided the little patch of garden into small beds just big enough to lean into from the paths without treading on the plants.

I covered the paths with wood chips and spread Kirstenbosch compost onto the beds. The compost was mainly for mulching: an organic blanket to keep the soil cool and to prevent any existing seeds in the soil from germinating.

A day before the rains came, I planted out the first small plants, mostly from seed trays bought inexpensively at local nurseries. Over the rest of winter, I added more plants to my collection, trying my best to add only species that would have grown right there, in that corner of Rondebosch, for the millions of years before I arrived.

I discovered that FynbosLIFE’s Caitlin von Witt advises you to be careful about the provenance of your plants.

“Always ask at local nurseries,” she says. “Plant genetic material needs to be sourced locally to be of conservation value. So if you are gardening on the Cape peninsula, for instance, steer clear of plants that were not sourced there.”

Rich dividends

Eventually there were more than 120 plant species in that little garden. My plant purism paid rich dividends, making my life as a gardener childishly easy. I do not remember ever having watered my garden – the plants just looked after themselves. 

 By midsummer, the garden was an abundant riot, attracting many insects, birds and small reptiles to its sanctuary. The only work I ever did in that garden was to plant things and cut them back when they got too big. Here is a list of some of my favourites – those marked [w] prefer wetter parts of your garden:

 Samphire-leaved athanasia (klaaslouwbossie; Athanasia crithmifolia)

Blombos (Metalasia densa)

Sour fig (elandssuurvy; Carpobrotus acinaciformis)

Cape sweet pea (bosklimop; Dipogon lignosis)

Arum lily (wit varkoor; intebe; Zantedeschia aethiopica [w])

Gold carpet (goue carpyt; impepho; Helichrysum cymosum)

Wild mint (balderjan; inixina; Mentha longifolia subsp. capensis)

Cobweb bush (vaaltee; Plecostachys serpyllifolia)

Fountain bush (bloukeur; Psoralea pinnata [w])

Glossy crowberry (blinktaaibos; umchane; Searsia lucida)

Grey tickberry (vaalbietou; Osteospermum incana)

Bearded pelargonium (Pelargonium longifolium)



Last year I moved out of that house and lost the garden. But my fascination with the Cape peninsula’s plants and making a veld-type specific garden continues to bear fruit.

One of my primary careers is an artist. Some years ago, I made a series of artworks that traced an imaginary relationship between 17th-century Dutch flower painting and the flowers of the Cape. I called the series ‘Flora Capensis’ because this is how some botanists in previous centuries titled their records of the indigenous plants they encountered in the Cape.

At the time, I used photographs to record indigenous flowers collected from all over the Cape – from Cape Town to Hermanus, from Stellenbosch to Darling, all the way out to Hopefield. Then, they had felt profoundly indigenous to me. Now, less so.

Before and after – in his ‘Flora Capensis’ works (left), Andrew Putter used actual Cape plants to recreate the feel of a 17th-century Dutch flower painting. In his latest art series, recently exhibited in Cape Town, Andrew Putter focuses on flowers locally indigenous to the area where he lives yet retains some of the traditions of botanical painting such as including insects. Here he depicts blistering leaf (Anemone knowltonia). Left: Photo by Tony Meintjes, flower arrangement by Christopher Peter



For the past five years, I have been teaching myself to make art on an iPad. Unsurprisingly, many of the artworks I make are of locally indigenous flowers. Recently, this artistic activity culminated in a series of 12 new artworks. This time, though, every flower in the series is indigenous to the Cape peninsula – that corner of the Cape where I have spent my entire life and which is much smaller than the area from which I drew plants to make the ‘Flora Capensis’ artworks.

Having made a garden of plants utterly specific to the Cape peninsula changed my relationship to those plants. I could watch them grow and change, and become intimate with them over time.

Influenced by the long tradition of European botanical illustration, each of my new artworks shows a single local plant against a plain background. But where most botanical illustrators depict plants with scientific accuracy, I wanted to do something different. I wanted to capture something of the life of these ancient, extraordinary beings – the jaunty unfolding of a flower, or the rustling of their leaves in the wind, for example, or the way petals dramatically alter colour as the sunlight they are seen in changes throughout the day.

Andrew Putter ( is an artist and teacher. 

Left: Lachenalia aloides. Middle: Nerine sarniensis and ladybeetle and moth. Right: Orthochilus tabularis and moth.
Resources such as this map from FynbosLIFE on rehabilitating the veld types of the Cape peninsula helped open Andrew’s eyes to locally indigenous gardening. COURTESY FynbosLIFE

Find out more

Resources for indigenous veld types and locally indigenous gardening;

The most up-to-date info on what grows where indigenously can be found online on the Vegmap of SA at SANBI BGIS. To access the actual Vegmap, and the written information about each vegetation type, register on the website so that you can log in.

The vegetation of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland, edited by Ladislav Mucina and Michael C. Rutherford (SANBI, Pretoria, Strelitzia 19, 2006) can sometimes be found for sale in hard copy at the Kirstenbosch bookshop or download free from Internet Archive.

However, not all plants found naturally in the wild are suitable for gardens. Fynbos gardeners, for example, can find help from FynbosLIFE, which has been experimenting with the horticultural viability of plants from the Cape Town lowlands for nearly a decade. Contact the organisation for a copy of Veld Type Greening Guidelines for the Cape Town Lowlands by FynbosLIFE’s founder Dr Caitlin von Witt. This provides guidance on where to start, as well as plant species lists keyed according to veld type.

If you live elsewhere in South Africa, ask your local BotSoc branch or a good indigenous nursery to point you in the right direction of more information.


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