A Garden for WILDLIFE

Images & Text by Warren Schmidt

Against the backdrop of several world conservation and climate events, many of us can create a wildlife wonderland in our own garden. Urban Ecology is a growing sub-discipline of academic ecology with a journal dedicated to this subject. In addition, restoration ecology, also with several dedicated journals, looks at ways and means of restoring transformed landscapes back to their original form.

Conservationists and ecologists have come to accept that people are an integral part of any ecosystem and not separate from it. However, our presence and impact can be catastrophic and detrimental to the organisms that naturally occur here. Creating an eco-friendly wildlife garden can bring back a range of creatures and create a wonderland of discovery for children and visitors alike.

A tropical bluetail (Ischnura senegalensis) is a common summer garden visitor. 

A garden is often the first experience of nature that many children get. A lifelong interest and appreciation of the natural world can be nurtured from a young age as children explore the garden and discover snails, toads and other creeping and crawling things. Unfortunately, we are experiencing high levels of biodiversity loss. This includes the decline of thousands of insects. I remember as a child being awestruck by the sheer abundance of beetles, butterflies, spiders and bees which called our garden ‘home’, including the regular patronage of chameleons which fed on them. In contrast, today’s gardens seem barren and devoid of life.

In this feature, we will look at ways you can enhance your garden to encourage a range of creatures to take up residency.

Every gardener should be thrilled when they come across a flap-necked chameleon (Chamaeleo dilepis).

Indigenous Gardens

Wherever possible, try and plant indigenous shrubs and trees. Even better, try and plant species which occur naturally in the biome you live in.

These plants will be suitably adapted to the climate of your region. Low maintenance gardens which require minimal watering have become increasingly popular. As such, plants such as aloes and spekboom are favourite garden plants. Indigenous gardens might appear messy and unkept compared to the manicured English garden, but birds and other creatures will find the environment tempting and conducive to their needs.

Crested barbets (Trachyphonus vaillantii) are commonly found in gardens and produce a lovely ringing call.

An important aspect in attracting local wildlife is to give them places to hide, nest and feed. Large natural rockeries will provide a range of crevices for shelter. Large logs and branches provide shelter as well as perching places for birds.

Set out different zones throughout the garden, such as sunny and shady spots. Plant a few sections with indigenous grasses and work with your local garden center or nursery to acquire indigenous plants which flower at different times of the year. Most aloes flower over winter and will provide bright splashes of orange, red and yellow. Flowering plants will also attract important pollinators such as bees. In additional to attracting insects, a well-balanced garden will also attract the birds and lizards which feed on insects.

Water Features

Garden ponds and natural water features add a dimension of life and movement to a garden. Careful planning from the outset is important to ensure that it does not become a stagnant eyesore. Keep in mind that a natural water feature may attract resident frogs. Painted reed frogs (Hyperolius marmoratus) have a high-pitched call which may distress people trying to sleep, so if you live within the range of reed frogs, place the water feature at the far end of the garden.

Guttural toads (Sclerophrys gutturalis) commonly occupy coastal gardens and those with garden ponds.

Provide a range of refuges around the water feature to provide shelter for lizards, frogs and insects. Lush vegetation will also provide hiding places for various creatures. If you decide to place fish in a garden pond, it is important that they have access to overhanging shelter and a deeper section, as herons and other fish-eating birds will quickly eliminate the fish population.

Extra Comforts

In addition to natural vegetation, you can erect a range of nesting boxes and hides for various birds. Many species nest inside cavities, so if you provide different hollow log nests, and nest boxes, birds will move in and use these. Owl boxes are becoming increasingly popular in many gardens. Bat hides are another type of shelter often attached to the side of a house to provide roosting spots for bats. Another trend is to create bee hotels. You can also provide several shallow rocky basins to provide drinking spots for bees and butterflies. These must be very shallow so that the visitors don’t drown.

The speckled rock skink (Trachylepis punctatissima) is a popular inhabitant of Gauteng gardens.

The idea behind a natural wildlife garden is not to be clinical. Plants should grow naturally and provide falling leaf litter to the substrate below. This will provide nutrients to the soil and simultaneously provide shelter to many small invertebrates, as well as a hunting ground for lizards and birds. 

The Spekboom Craze

Spekboom (Portulacaria afra) is also known as pork bush or elephant bush. It is a shrub or small tree belonging to the purslane family Portulacaceae. In recent years this plant has received a lot of media coverage and often referred to as the miracle plant. Indeed, it is a hardy shrub that can withstand a range of environmental conditions. It is drought-resistant and therefore an excellent choice for water-wise gardens. This shrub is largely found naturally across arid regions of the Western and Eastern Cape, as well as parts of KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga.

Spekboom (Portulacaria afra).

It has been referred to as an excellent plant for carbon sequestration. In other words, a plant that is highly effective at absorbing and storing carbon from the atmosphere during the process of photosynthesis. This came about during one of South Africa’s restoration programmes where degraded land in the Eastern Cape was planted with thousands of spekboom. This was also hailed as a great initiative for carbon sequestration in South Africa. However, most vegetation types and forests are equally as efficient in absorbing carbon, but spekboom is simply a hardier plant and a good choice for restoration projects.

Spekboom is available from most nurseries and will grow in most regions of South Africa. As an added bonus, spekboom produces a fantastic pink to red floral display when they flower, adding colour to your garden.

A list of popular indigenous garden plants

  • Agapanthus (Agapanthus sp.) – shade-loving and hardy evergreen shrubs with purple and white flowers.
  • Black-eyed Susan (Thunbergia alata) – a climber producing bright orange flowers with central black spots and suited to sub-tropical gardens.
  • Clivias (Clivia sp.) – green strap-like leaves with attractive orange to red flowers. Prefer shaded and well-watered areas.
  • Impala lilies (Adenium multiflorum) – a flagship succulent of the lowveld, they produce beautiful pink and white star-shaped flowers.
  • Arum lilies (Zantedeschia aethiopica) – semi-aquatic and ideal for surrounding a garden pond or planted alongside a stream. Produces large white trumpet-like flowers which provide daytime retreats for arum-lily frogs in the southern and western Cape.
  • Aloes (Aloe sp.) – Krantz Aloe is a popular garden plant with a spreading growth form. In warmer regions, tree aloes are also popular due to their tall growth. Aloe ferox is another popular choice. These are also drought-resistant plants which mostly flower over winter.
  • Red pokers (Kniphofia sp.) – look similar to aloes and produce vivid red and yellow flowers.
  • Indigenous daisies such as Arctotheca and Arctotis are annuals and perennials that will provide bright splashes of colour.
  • Cape Honeysuckle (Tecoma capensis) – scrambling shrub with bright orange flowers. Note: the invasive Yellow-bells (Tecoma stans) is becoming a serious competitive invasive plant in KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga and should not be grown or planted.
  • Coral trees (Erythrina) – large trees conducive to warmer climates which produce bright red flowers which are fed upon by a variety of birds.
  • Lions ear (Leonotis leonurus).
  • Proteas – several species are grown commercially and ideally suited to Western Cape gardens.
  • Crane flower (Strelitzia reginae).

Red-hot poker (Kniphofia sp.).

A Note on Alien Invasive Plants

Many exotic or alien garden plants have become serious pests. Free from natural enemies, these plants have escaped the confines of gardens and taken over expanses of natural grassland, fynbos, coastal forest and aquatic systems. They outcompete indigenous plants and in the fynbos biome present a significant fire risk, as many species contain highly flammable resins. It is illegal to propagate and plant listed alien invasive plants. To find out more, and to obtain the latest alien invasive species lists published by the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment, visit www.invasives.org.za.

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