The City of Cape Town is in the grip of a three-year-long drought. Residents have been urged to use no more than 50l of water a day to avoid Day Zero - the day the taps will be turned off. So while having lush green grass is not an option for now, those keen to maintain a garden should consider sprucing up their gardens with succulents.
Succulents come in all shapes and sizes – from the mighty baobab towering 20m into the air to tiny soil huggers just a few millimetres above the ground. Succulents store water in their roots, stems and leaves. They are able to tolerate the driest of conditions and are suitable for planting in low-water zones.
Succulents are adaptable and need little in terms of maintenance. Their striking shapes and intriguing colours can be used to create distinct contrast in the garden.
Succulent field guide
Field Guide to Succulents in Southern Africa, recently published by Struik Nature, is an illustrated guide of succulents in the region.
Plants are grouped according to their family classifications, a total of 47 families including varieties like the aloe, daisy, cactus, spiderwort, stonecrop, milkweed, bird-of-paradise and ice plant.
An introductory section provides readers with a short summary of each family and lists the key characteristics for ease of identification. The book is a collaboration between Gideon Smith, Neil Crouch and Estrela Figueiredo. Smith is a prolific author on succulents and an honorary professor at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth. Crouch works in the biodiversity economy field and is an honorary professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.
Figueiredo, also an honorary professor at the university, has a keen interest in succulent plants, African flora and sustainable gardening, on which she has authored a number of books and papers.
Alien vegetation can have a devastating impact on natural environments and the authors have included as many as possible of the more than 80 invasive succulents that have been recorded in the country. This is to enable their identification and facilitate control.
Tips for using succulents in your garden
As the authors note in the book, a variety of succulents – from large trees suited to bigger gardens to daintier species suitable for hanging baskets – are today readily available in the country.
Popular succulent varieties include aloes, crassula, cotyledons, echeveria, euphorbia, lampranthus and kalanchoe. Not all varieties are native to South Africa. Some hail from the dry lands of Mexico, North Africa and Madagascar.
How can you use succulents successfully in your garden?
● Make a low-water zone your garden’s biggest – about 30% to 80% of the total surface area – and choose succulents for this zone.
● Ideally, choose areas of the garden that receive full sun for most of the day, but keep in mind that succulents can tolerate some shade, especially during the heat of the day.
● If you have heavy clay soil in your garden, add compost and river sand to improve drainage before planting.
● Never over-water succulents. The soil should be allowed to dry out completely before plants are watered again. They cope very well during drought periods.
● Succulents make excellent candidates for containers. Several varieties can be grouped together or use a single variety for an equally vibrant display.
● In the garden, succulents work well in groups where they make the biggest impact. They can also be coupled with grasses, fynbos and other water-wise plants.
● Low-growing succulents can be used as a living mulch to cover soil, keep it cool and prevent moisture loss.
● When planting succulents in the garden, take note of the mature size of the plant. Some larger varieties need a fair amount of space.
● Succulents are available in a variety of different foliage colours. Use these to your best advantage by grouping colours that create bold, harmonious or striking colour contrasts. Succulents are found in colours of green, grey, red, copper, gold, burgundy and silver.
● To add interest, use different textures and leaf-shapes – smooth leaves in contrast to those with thorns or spikes or plants with sword-like leaves grouped with those that have smaller, round leaves.
● Use hard landscaping like rocks, stone, pebbles, drift wood, gravel and other natural items to enhance the look of a succulent garden.
● Aloes provide exceptional winter colour, especially for gardens in summer rainfall areas where little else is in flower. Together with red hot pokers, aloes brighten the winter garden in fiery colours of yellow and orange.
● Succulents can also be used to create a living wall. Plant them inside a box frame using a blend of succulent mix and perlite.
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