Monday, November 22, 2010

The wetland garden

Looking across to the wetland garden (October 2010).
Before I proceed with the topic of this post, I am going to give you a little background on both the seasonal and climatic zone in which my garden is based.

I live in the western cape of South Africa, not more than 2 hours drive (in an easterly direction from my home), from Cape Agulhas, which is the southernmost town in Africa.

Courtesy of Google images

Our regional climate zone is Mediterranean.  Most of our rainfall occurs during the winter months (June, July & August), when our prevailing winds come from the north west.

We have long, hot, dry summer months (November, December, January), with our hottest month frequently being February.  During summer, we are at the mercy of prevailing south easterly winds and we have scant rainfall. 

The biome of our surrounding area is largely Cape fynbos and is considered one of the richest biodiverse areas in the world.  It is a very fragile system and has Ramsar status.  The protea is probably one of the most recognisable of the Cape fynbos species worldwide.  
King protea (image courtesy of Google images).
Right now, we're seeing out the end of spring 2010. Spring is a beautiful season as it is everywhere else!  We have chilly to cold winters, with very occasional snowfalls on the highest reaches of the surrounding mountains. We do not get frost and, even though our winters are cold and wet, this is the time of year that everything is at its greenest and the light is at its best.

Our seasonal changes are fairly defined, but not nearly as dramatic as those experienced in northern climes.  We never have to wear layers upon layers of winter gear and sturdy fur-lined boots.  We actually enjoy some of our most beautiful, crisp, clear days in winter when the sun shines and we can be outdoors for a good part of the day, often only wearing a light jersey. The sun sets at about 18h00 in winter, while in summer we enjoy long, languid days with the setting of the sun happening as late as 20h45.  Our summers can be very hot and humid and we long for a thunderstorm to break the heat - however, we hardly ever have those in our part of the country.  

This is very much a wine-growing region (as in the Mediterranean) and we have some of the finest wine farms in the world, beautiful nature reserves, exquisite mountain ranges and long stretches of beach literally on our doorstep.  I am very privileged to live here. 

Ok, enough of the geography lesson..Toby is pestering me to get on with showing you the wetland garden as promised!

My azaleas did well this year (October 2010)

As with almost anywhere else, we have our fair share of challenges when it comes to making a garden.  The first thing we did when we moved into our newly built home 27 years ago was to plant TREES!  Shade was going to be an absolutely crucial requirement for the type of garden I was envisaging.  Had we gone indigenous, it would have been less of an issue, but I need water, trees, ferns and moss to feed my soul and so it was essential to create shade for this to be even remotely possible.  It has been a long, slow process to get to where our garden is at today!

Section of the wetland garden October 2010.  All of our bath and shower water feeds this garden.
Wetlands are among the most biologically productive ecosystems in the world, but due to increasingly uncontrolled human activity, many of the world's naturally occurring wetlands have been degraded and, in some cases, completely destroyed...all in the name of development!  Ecologists have long been highlighting their importance, as they know wetlands are among the earth's greatest natural assets.  As a result, efforts are now gradually being made to protect existing wetlands, restore damaged ones, and even develop new, artificial wetlands worldwide, but it's a slow process frought with obstacles and still hampered by mankind's insatiable need to conquer and dominate the natural resources of our magnificent planet.
My wetland garden (October 2010).  Notice the water tanks in the background.
As gardeners, there's not much we can do (singly) to influence world powers, but we can at least attempt to recreate aspects of these naturally occurring systems in the limited confines of our own backyards.
My wetland garden (October 2010).
How can we do this?  We can turn all of our vegetable peelings, eggshells, used teabags, coffee grounds, old newspapers and lawn and garden clippings into compost to be reused in the garden to enrich the soil, naturally (and yes, I do have a compost heap!).  We can start a worm farm (yes again - I have a worm farm!) and feed them all of these scraps so they can set about producing their humus rich castings.  We can lead the bath and shower water directly into the garden thereby creating our own mini, wet area (yes, we do this, too!).
Extension of bathwater pipe being led directly into newly established wetland garden (2008).
We can attract wildlife to our gardens by using far fewer chemical pesticides and fertilizers (we try very hard to do this).  We can spread bark chips and logs and rocks and pebbles throughout the garden (as you've seen, I do this a LOT!).
Wetland garden after construction (2008).

All of the logs and disks used in the wetland garden were from trees that were cut down or pruned back in my garden.  I really try to use everything within reason.

We can allow leaves to remain unswept in the beds in which they've fallen (yes again!!!).  We can put out breadcrumbs, seeds and pieces of fruit (the birds that visit here think this is a 5 star hotel!).  In doing so, we'll be creating an environment attractive to all the beetles, earthworms, spiders, birds, bees and butterflies that will flock to our garden and set up homes.  We'll be doing our tiny bit towards preserving the natural order. It really is THAT SIMPLE!

Water is essential for visiting birds and frogs.  I have water everywhere!
October 2010 - the birds love perching on these sticks & twigs while waiting for a turn at the feeding table.  I often add pieces of fruit to the sharp twigs for them to snack on.

October 2010 viewing the wetland garden from a distance back.  The birds' feeding table is sited on top of the stump of a tree we cut down to open up this part of the garden.  As you can see, there are enough other trees here.
Feeding table bottom left.

These plants have all completely taken over their allocated space and need to be cut back & thinned out fairly ruthlessly and regularly.

I leave you with these words from Inversnaid, a poem about wetlands by Gerard Manley Hopkins ~

What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and wildness?  Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet,
Long live the weeds and the wildness yet. 
Have fun creating your own wetland garden!



  1. What a great , informative post. So your seasons are the complete OPPOSITE of our seasons in the US. I think it is wonderful how you use your bath water in the garden, I am unsure if we can do that, but will ask my husband. I can't have so many open areas of water for the birds, as the mosquito problem is HUGE here. I know you can change the water out daily , or every other day. Beautiful garden, take care, Gina

  2. Yes, I'd read about the problem you have with mosquitoes in one or two of your posts. We obviously also have them here, but they aren't as much of a problem. I do try to change the water fairly regularly, though. I guess regulations vary from country to country and some might be opposed to discharging bath water directly into the garden. In SA, some people have installed a submerged tank and the grey water is discharged to that first, then filtered before being pumped into the garden. As long as your bath water is free of oils, it should be fine. I always use bubbles, plus there's the shampoo and conditioner, but we've not had any problems, as the water seeps away (there is no standing water in my wetland garden, other than that in the little rock water feature) and my plants show no ill-effects whatsoever. On the contrary, they flourish. We do have potable water laid on as well, as the grey water on its own is not sufficient. In our situation, the system works well.

  3. I've enjoyed reading through and seeing all your pictures on all of your posts. Your garden is just amazing! I'm sure the wildlife just loves it there.
    I love how tropical everything looks, so different from my garden here. I was wondering about your seasons, so now as we are freezing here you are enjoying the sun. I look forward to seeing more of your sunny garden to help me through the winter :)

  4. What a lovely surprise to have you visit my blog, Catherine and so delighted to know you've enjoyed learning about my garden. Your exquisite garden and especially your enviable pond, have given me so much visual candy. The changes you undergo from summer to winter are totally foreign to me and I am continually amazed to see how rapidly northern hemisphere gardens spring back to glorious life after having been apparently annihilated during the severe winter months.

  5. Oh Desiree, Thank you for the eye candy! Your garden is absolutely incredible. I love what you have done with your paths. The wood you use in the garden is very unique.

    The wetland garden is wonderful! What is the big tree like grass surrounding the banana tree in picture number 7? I wonder if I could grow it here. It looks rather tropical so I may be out of luck. Your colocasia looks like it grows wild there! I am envious!


  6. So happy to hear you're enjoying my garden tour, Annie :)

    Now, to answer your questions:

    1. Colocasia (elephant ear) is not indigenous to SA, but does well in the right spot! It is thought to have originated from Eurasia and as you correctly indicate, it is a tropical plant. We live in the Fynbos vegetation biome of the Western Cape. It is unique in the world and has a Mediterranean climate (i.e. hot, dry summers; winter rainfall). We can, however, grow a wide variety of hardy tropical plants.

    2. The elegant reed you spotted in my wetland garden is a member of the restio species indigenous to our region. It is Elegia capensis. It was originally described as an Equisetum (horsetail) a worldwide one-genus member of the ancient flowerless Equisetaceae family (cf. Restios of the Fynbos co-authored by Haaksma & Linder & published by the SA Botanical Society).

    I do think the secret to successful gardening in our region, especially, is to use plenty of compost, mulch and bark.

    Happy gardening and experimenting!

  7. Desiree!! Wow...what a fabulous and beautiful post! YOu are lucky to live in such a gorgeous place...truly a space of wonder! I love where your birds feast! How awesome is that!Love it!
    Enjoy your magical world!
    Thankyou for visiting me too and your kind words!
    Happy Gardening!

  8. Thank you, Kiki! I do feel very privileged to live in such a beautiful part of SA and I enjoy my garden immensely as, over the years, we've attracted some delightful little visitors to it and I do feel that it's the life in one's garden that makes it so special and magical.

  9. Hello Desiree, I enjoyed seeing all the little native violets peeping through. I use them a lot in my garden, they cover the ground so well and are so hardy.
    The ferns are so pretty too... in fact, everything is. Using greywater for your wetland sounds like it's working very well too.


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