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My Mother’s Garden: Summertime in South Africa

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My Mother’s Garden: Summertime in South Africa

January 10, 2018

I live 8,000 miles from where I grew up, one hemisphere north and one sideways, too. Home for me is still my mother’s garden in Constantia, a suburb of Cape Town in South Africa. My other home is my own backyard garden in Brooklyn, New York. Now, in January, that Brooklyn garden is buried under two feet of snow. I can’t believe it will ever wake up again. So this is the perfect time to escape to the southern tip of Africa, to take a warming walk through a garden filled with flowers, edibles, and resident birds.

Photography by Marie Viljoen.

Increasingly, my mom&#8
Above: Increasingly, my mom’s garden needs to look after itself. Here, self-seeded verbascum is a bright and structural centerpoint in a bed, between drought-tolerant Salvia leucantha and the blue uprights of Salvia ‘Indigo Spires.’  In the background a grass aloe’s orange blooms open in summer. A passion flower vine sprawls on the warm wall of the sun-facing house.
The old-fashioned garden favorite S. leucantha (commonly called Mexican bush sage) requires little more than a cutting back after it has bloomed. Tall, crisp yellow dahlias are given focus by the salvia&#8
Above: The old-fashioned garden favorite S. leucantha (commonly called Mexican bush sage) requires little more than a cutting back after it has bloomed. Tall, crisp yellow dahlias are given focus by the salvia’s soft textures and hot coloring.
  The eclectic verbascum bed shares space with watsonias and artichokes. The giant edible thistle is grown for its spectacular purple flowers.
Above:  The eclectic verbascum bed shares space with watsonias and artichokes. The giant edible thistle is grown for its spectacular purple flowers.
The biggest challenge for Capetonian gardeners is water. A record-making drought has left municipal water stockpiles—in the form of near-empty dams—perilously low. Stringent water restrictions are in place.
Above: The biggest challenge for Capetonian gardeners is water. A record-making drought has left municipal water stockpiles—in the form of near-empty dams—perilously low. Stringent water restrictions are in place.

Fortunately for my mother’s plants, the property came with a borehole when my parents bought it decades ago. That borehole, drawing on an aquifer, now supplies occasional garden watering needs (the lawn is no longer watered), as well as water for the entire household. Still, water-hungry plants such as these plump peas have been confined to a few containers, which manage consumption better. And whenever anyone takes a shower, a bucket in the shower stall catches excess, which is given to thirsty plants.

Onions growing in troughs are allowed to bloom, attractive country cousins to the glitzy hybrid alliums planted in many gardens (including mine) for summer display.
Above: Onions growing in troughs are allowed to bloom, attractive country cousins to the glitzy hybrid alliums planted in many gardens (including mine) for summer display.
One of my favorite perfumes belongs to bearded iris. For a couple of weeks in late spring they bloom effortlessly.
Above: One of my favorite perfumes belongs to bearded iris. For a couple of weeks in late spring they bloom effortlessly.
In many parts of the garden salvias are a strong presence, a backbone of color that does not ask for much water. The flowers are very attractive to the resident sunbirds, who rely on nectar rich blooms (and the occasional spider) for their diet.
Above: In many parts of the garden salvias are a strong presence, a backbone of color that does not ask for much water. The flowers are very attractive to the resident sunbirds, who rely on nectar rich blooms (and the occasional spider) for their diet.
Lychnis, or rose campion, provides waterwise pops of lipstick brightness on a silver backdrop of soft leaves.
Above: Lychnis, or rose campion, provides waterwise pops of lipstick brightness on a silver backdrop of soft leaves.
A lover of seeds and their catalogs, my mom has had to restrict her new sowings to plants like these delicately scented sweet peas that grow near the house. She is now 84 and finds it simpler to garden within reach. It is also easier to keep them watered. In the background a no-maintenance bougainvillea blooms regardless of drought.
Above: A lover of seeds and their catalogs, my mom has had to restrict her new sowings to plants like these delicately scented sweet peas that grow near the house. She is now 84 and finds it simpler to garden within reach. It is also easier to keep them watered. In the background a no-maintenance bougainvillea blooms regardless of drought.
In a bed that relies on irrigation, bright chartreuse euphorbias, Inca lilies, alyssum, many salvias, and hot pink marguerites blend into a floral tapestry. In the background bracken fern fills a difficult dry shade space beneath an enormous London plane tree.
Above: In a bed that relies on irrigation, bright chartreuse euphorbias, Inca lilies, alyssum, many salvias, and hot pink marguerites blend into a floral tapestry. In the background bracken fern fills a difficult dry shade space beneath an enormous London plane tree.
Potted amaryllis are brought out onto the patio in rotation as they come into bud. My mother has a collection dozens strong that lives in a back alley way. They bring instant fireworks to dull spots.
Above: Potted amaryllis are brought out onto the patio in rotation as they come into bud. My mother has a collection dozens strong that lives in a back alley way. They bring instant fireworks to dull spots.
Increasingly, indigenous plants that withstand long periods without water are being encouraged to take root in the hitherto very cosmopolitan garden. This indestructible Plectranthus neochilus blooms for weeks in early summer despite growing in sandy soil in the driest part of the garden.
Above: Increasingly, indigenous plants that withstand long periods without water are being encouraged to take root in the hitherto very cosmopolitan garden. This indestructible Plectranthus neochilus blooms for weeks in early summer despite growing in sandy soil in the driest part of the garden.

Pollinators do not mind the notoriously smelly leaves of P. neochilus, and its gorgeous blooms are a cool blue for the warm orange spires of Bulbine frutescens, another waterwise choice (its gel-filled leaves are also a botanical first aid kit, good for burns and skin ailments).

Bird friendly plants by Marie Viljoen

Above: Succulent Cotyledon orbiculata is aggressively happy in full sun, needing no supplemental water and feeding nectar-hungry sunbirds when it is in copious and statuesque bloom. The plant propagates very easily from cuttings and makes a near effortless gift for gardeners challenged by evolving growing conditions.

Birds are an integral part of my mother&#8
Above: Birds are an integral part of my mother’s garden. No insecticides or herbicides are used. This little dusky flycatcher is on insect patrol, and helps out by performing aerobatics in pursuit of flying insects. Here, he is perched on the stem of a protea.
Another familiar indigenous ally on the pest-control scene is a tiny green army of shy Cape dwarf chameleons. Hard to spot until your eyes focus on their beaded skins, these small reptiles are a sign of garden health.
Above: Another familiar indigenous ally on the pest-control scene is a tiny green army of shy Cape dwarf chameleons. Hard to spot until your eyes focus on their beaded skins, these small reptiles are a sign of garden health.
The sunbirds are attracted to red flowers and this Cestrum elegans was planted for them.
Above: The sunbirds are attracted to red flowers and this Cestrum elegans was planted for them.
Beside the South American Cestrum is a large cape honeysuckle shrub, Tecomaria capensis, another food source for sunbirds. The southern African native tolerates long periods of drought.
Above: Beside the South American Cestrum is a large cape honeysuckle shrub, Tecomaria capensis, another food source for sunbirds. The southern African native tolerates long periods of drought.

Every garden is  a blend of  many factors, including place, time, and circumstance. And personality, of course. Tuning your horticultural world more closely to its greater influences creates a green space that enriches not only your soul (because that is why we garden), but also the environment where wildlife persists against the odds in our urban lives. Observing these plants, birds, insects, and small beasts provides us with little dopamine hits (like the ones we have come to expect from social media, where our complex responses have been whittled down to a Like, or an emoticon). When spring rolls round, plant something.

For now, there are seed catalogs. Because planning is half the pleasure.

See how Marie’s mother’s garden has changed from one year to the next, in Garden Visit: My Mother’s Garden in South Africa and Back to Africa: At Home in My Mother’s Garden.

Visit Marie’s Brooklyn garden in Rehab Diary: A Year in the Life of a Brooklyn Garden.

N.B.: Are you designing a new garden or rehabbing a flower bed? See our Garden Design 101 guides to get started and Perennials: A Field Guide to Planting, Care & Design.

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