I have been in the UK for the past week with a group of six wonderful ladies, enjoying the gardens of England.
We finish with a visit to the Olympics of gardening, the Chelsea Flower Show, which will nearly be over by the time you read this.
It has been refreshing to see the English enthusiasm for gardening and how passionate they are about plants.
The Chelsea theme this year was Safari, so the shops around the Chelsea and Sloane Square part of London have decorated their shops with lions and giraffes made of plants and used so many South African plants such as Proteas, Strelitzias and Agapanthus in beautiful arrangements in their shop windows. It feels like I am at home.
As we move to the end of May, winter arrives, and over the next three months we will experience short days, cooler evenings and little rain. The recent lovely downpour filled some of the dams and prepared us for the dry season ahead.
Short days bring into bud and flower one of South Africa's most famous plants, aloes. They have gone in and out of favour so many times over the centuries but are now back in favour with many landscapers around the world. Most botanic gardens with a succulent garden will have a comprehensive collection of aloes that generally flower in the winter months. With short dry days, the plants will stress which will force those plants to produce flower spikes followed by a winter magic of flowering for many months.
There are a number of winter-flowering plants we should all be aware of and add to our gardens. These plants are important because birds and butterflies require them for nectar, food and to assist with pollination for future generations. Fortunately aloes fit into most landscapes and combine with other succulents and flowering scented plants. They come in all shapes and sizes, from miniature plants to robust shrubs and large single-stemmed specimen plants to large trees.
I take tours to Namaqualand every spring to see the flowers and the one place we visit is a forest of aloe dichotoma or Quiver Tree. These aloes can live to hundreds of years and have an unusual coloured bark that makes these plants so different. If you are looking for a plant that looks prehistoric, this will fit that description. Sadly these don't grow well in Durban because they require a hot, dry climate to survive. Best to grow this aloe in a large pot that is under shelter from the rain and preferably in full sun.
Aloes have for centuries fascinated landscapers and gardeners because of the variety of their growth forms and magnificent candle-like blooms. They typically bring out the atmosphere of Africa as most grow on our continent. They are textured and bold, and give gardens a natural indigenous feel. Aloes require very little attention and can survive for many years.
Aloe arborescens or Krantz aloe is widespread from the Cape Peninsula, along the Garden route, through KwaZulu-Natal and up into Mpumalanga. It is found mostly in mountainous areas from sea level to 2 000m. Its form is multi-branched that can either be a shrub or tree of about 2m high, with the leaves borne on apical rosettes. Leaf colour can vary from greyish green to bright green depending on location and altitude and the length of leaves vary from 500-600mm long. The flowers usually 1-4 in number that appear from each rosette of leaves with broadly shaped conical racemes that can vary in colour from scarlet, orange, pink to yellow, and flower from April to June. They can be propagated easily from taking large stem cuttings known as truncheons.
Other aloe species that will do well in Durban include: Aloe ferox, Aloe chaubaudii, Aloe vanbalenii, Aloe cooperii, Aloe marlothii, Aloe thraskii, Aloe pluridens and the tree aloe, Aloe barberae. Aloes are available in most nurseries with a number of hybrids that have become very popular. Flowering is from mid-May through late July depending on where you live.
If you do want to see aloes in flower then best to go on the aloe train from Creighton in July where you travel for a number of hours through the Umgeni Valley and stop among thousands of aloe ferox in full bloom. Go on the website and look up the Aloe Festival in Creighton.
Throughout the winter months there are a number of other flower-producing trees, shrubs and groundcovers we can use in our gardens. Probably the most famous of the trees will be the local coral trees or Erythrina species which flower from July for about two months, particularly Erythrina caffra and lysistemon. The drier your garden the better they will flower. Colours vary from dark red to yellows. These all attract many of the nectar feeding birds such as sunbirds, as well as monkeys that enjoy the juice from the flowers. Erythinas can be pruned quite heavily after flowering to keep the trees to a size that accommodates your garden. They are easily grown from truncheons and seeds.
Other winter flowering plants include: Crassula multicarva (Fairy Crassula), Crassula ovata (Kerky bush), Hypoestes aristata (Ribbon bush), Leonotus leonorus (Wild dagga), Strelitzia reginae (Bird of Paradise), Euryops pectinatus (Daisy bush), Plectranthus zuluensis (Zulu spur flower), Zanthedeschia aethiopicus (Arum lily), Tetradenia ripari (Iboza), Cotyledon orbiculata (Pigs ears), kniphofia sp (Red Hot Poker), Barleria obtusifolia (Bush violet) and Stapelia gigantea (Giant Stapelia), Dombaya burgesiae (Pink Wild Pear). All these plants will flower from late May to the end of August.
Keep an eye out for trees and shrubs that are food plants for a number of butterflies. The two in particular are the Milkweed, Gomphocarpus physocarpus, which is the food plant for the African Monarch, and Xylotheca kraussiana or African Dog rose, which is the food plant for the Red Acraea butterfly. My garden at the moment is filled with butterflies which is always rewarding as you know you are helping keep these butterflies and their larvae in food over the winter months. All these plants are readily available in nurseries, but if you do have problems finding these plants, please contact me and I will find them for you.
Things to do in your garden this month
● Reduce your lawn cuts to once every 3-4 weeks. Lawns will go semi-dormant in winter because of shorter, cooler days and no rain. I would suggest watering once every three weeks to just keep the lawn alive. I don't water my grass verge through the winter months; it takes a hammering but after the first rain it recovers immediately.
● This is the ideal time to repot indoor and outdoor pots. Remove the plants from the pots, remove most of the old soil from around the roots, wash any excess soil off the roots and dip in a fungicide. Mix potting soil with a little compost and replant in the same pot, making sure that the plant is at the correct depth and in the middle of the pot. Press down the soil to stabilise the plant in the pot. Sprinkle a little osmocote on the surface and water well. Place in a shady spot until you see new growth.
● Cut back a number of your shrubs, in particular Plectranthus ecklonii (Spur flower) which has finished flowering for this year. Reduce to about a third of its size, compost and fertilise well. Follow with a good watering
● Enjoy those plants in flower, in particular Kniphofia sp or the Red Hot Poker. This will flower for the next few weeks before the leaves dry and go dormant. Do not remove. Just allow this plant to remain dormant until the first spring rains when new leaves will push through the ground.
● Plan what changes you want to make to your garden such as planting, moving trees and shrubs and adding pathways and water features. The cooler winter days make gardening fun.
● Walk through many of the nature reserves that border our city and enjoy the clear winter days and all the flowering trees and Aloes.
● This article is sponsored by Chris Dalzell Landscapes, specialising in landscaping, consultation and botanical expeditions. If you have questions, please contact me at [email protected]
The Independent on Saturday