Gardening for the holidays


Chris Dalzell

Last week I took my wife Pamela on a surprise trip to Simbavati Hilltop Camp in the Timbavati Game Reserve for her birthday.

Travelling through Northern Natal, into Mpumulanga and finally into Limpopo, the vegetation change from sub-tropical in Durban, to acacia country in Northern Natal then into Mopani country in the Lowveld showcased the incredible plant diversity of our country.

I was pleased to see that most of the eastern parts of South Africa have had lots of rain and the rivers were flowing and many of the dams full. The grasslands were in full growth and flower. One grass that flowers in many parts of the country is the Natal Red top, Melinis repens, which you find in Durban as well as throughout the Eastern parts of South Africa. If you catch it at the right time of the day, it is one of the most beautiful sights you will experience as a plant nut. You can have the red or white form and when growing together and dancing in the wind it makes the long drive to your destination that much more fun.

A flowering field of Melinis repens is one of most beautiful sights for plant nuts.

We have several interesting trees that flower in summer with three that come to mind. In Mandini recently I saw some of the best specimens of the Madagascan tree that flowers in summer called the Flamboyant or Delonix regia. It is elegant, creates lots of shade in summer and produces spectacular red flowers for at least five weeks of the year. It is not a tree grown in too many nurseries these days as most landscapers have gone for local flora instead of exotics. I remember as a young horticultural student seeing these trees growing in most of the large centre islands around Durban. Sadly, as these trees have died or been removed for safety reasons, they have not been replaced, a pity as summer and Christmas in Durban was always welcomed with flowering flamboyant trees.

Water-wise plants, such as the Eucomis autumnalis, will survive best if you plan to plant before going away.

The two other trees that flower in summer are the white or forest gardenia, Gardenia thunbergia, which produces very fragrant white flowers that stand up above the vegetation but which only flower for one day. Luckily, they produce lots of flowers over a five-week period so the tree will have a sequence of flowers each day.

The last tree that is just finishing flowering is the Pompon tree, Dais cotinifolia, with its pink balls of flowers. Some of the best specimens I have seen are in Old Main Road, Hillcrest, outside the Woza Moya HIV centre. The last two trees are smallish trees more suitable for small gardens.

Many of you will not be going away over the Christmas holidays because of Covid so enjoy the time to work in your garden and the growth we are experiencing with the summer rains.

Here are a few tips for those going away and those staying home

If your lawn is your pride and joy, learn how to care for it while you’re on holiday.

Lawns: With the rains we have had these past three months, lawns and weeds have been growing out of control. Cut your lawns at least once a week and make sure you set your mower at its highest cutting height for a deep and healthy root system. If you are going away contact a garden maintenance company to cut your grass once a week. If you cannot afford a garden service, cut your lawns as short as possible without exposing the soil. This will give the lawns a few weeks to grow while you are away. If you do go away and come back to a lawn that has grown exceptionally long, use a brushcutter to cut the grass because this will do less damage and will not burn out your lawn mower. Make sure you rake up the cut grass and use it as mulch or as compost.

Mulching: This is important for several reasons. It reduces water loss from the soil, prevents weeds from growing, provides nutrients to your soil and prevents erosion during heavy rains. You will need to keep replenishing this mulch because it will decompose quickly during the wet summer months. It is the best way to rejuvenate a sandy unhealthy soil.

Pot plants: For many of you living in flats or in small houses with no garden, pots are your garden, and can be extremely rewarding. Orchids, for example, if grown well, can flower for six months. If going away, water them well and place them in a shady place that gets some light and air movement. Place these plants in a drip tray that holds water. This allows the plant to take up water through absorption. If your pot plants are outside, put them in the shade where you have sprinklers so they get watered every few days when the rest of the garden is watered. Pot plants are sensitive because they grow in a confined space and rely entirely on the love and care of the owner. Sprinkle some slow-release fertiliser such as osmocote on the top of the potting soil. This will be absorbed slowly into the soil as it gets wet.

New gardens and plantings: The survival of these plants is always difficult because you have to water them often in the early stages. Mulching will be your best option because it will hold in the moisture, prevent soil erosion, and prevent weed growth. Collect and sprinkle either leaves from your garden or spread a layer of well decomposed compost over the exposed soil. New plants sulk when just planted. Water well before you go away and if possible, get a house sitter to water the garden. If you do any planting over the next few weeks, select indigenous water wise plants such as Aloes, shrubs and groundcovers that require less water to survive.

Pruning overgrown plants: Do this a week before you go away so the plants have time to recover before you go. If not too overgrown, then best to leave them while you’re away because they will look after themselves. Pruning is best done in the cooler winter months or when a particular shrub has finished flowering. Many people prune their shrubs just before flowering then ask why their shrubs never flower. If you prune now it creates lots of excess garden refuse and lots of work you don’t want to do before you go on holiday.

Fertilise: With the onset of the rains now is the time to feed your garden. Lawns respond best to a high nitrogen fertiliser such as 5.1.5 and flower beds 2.3.2 which allows sufficient nitrogen but also phosphorous for root growth and potassium for flowering. Of course, if you do fertilise it means the plants will respond and grow much quicker, which is not what you want before you go away. If you are not going away, this is the best time to fertilise. If you prefer natural fertiliser, use Neutrog which does smell for some time but a much more environmentally friendly way to go.

Herb gardens: This garden will be your most difficult to maintain. Herbs and vegetables need lots of attention unless well grown and mature. Mulch the beds with either leaves from your garden or compost. If you live in an area that has lots of monkeys, you will just have to hope and pray they don’t destroy your garden. If they do, I hope they enjoy what you have planted. Spray the plants with a mix of garlic and water. This tends to keep the bugs and monkeys off the plants.

Pests and diseases: This is bug season because the high moisture and warm humid weather is ideal for these bugs to breed. They also feed on the new soft growth that most plants produce during the growing season so keep a vigilant eye on your plants. Scale, aphids and Mealy bug will be your biggest pests. Make sure you use a natural insecticide as many beneficial insects such as ladybird beetles that feed on aphids will be having their own Christmas lunch so don’t ruin the party for them.

Join me and Steve Davis at the Buddhist Retreat Centre in Ixopo on January 15-17 where we will run a weekend course on indigenous plants and how to identify and attract birds. Contact the Buddhist Retreat Centre on or [email protected]

Wishing all you gardeners a very happy Christmas and let’s hope 2021 brings lots health and happiness to this world.

Happy Gardening

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

The Independent on Saturday


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