Set your African Garden Ablaze

March 31, 2017

How to design, combine and manage your succulent display.

Published by The Indigenous gardener Web Magazine


Exciting gardening times are with us.  The ongoing drought has urged us to think differently about our gardens.  Colourful water-wise gardens are entirely possible and dare I say it, entirely necessary. Read on for ideas on how you can enjoy a bright blaze of colour year round with little or no water apart from rainfall.


Mention the word succulent, and many people envision a desert -like design.  Not so! Have a look at the garden pictured here.  It is alight with colour year round.  It has had no added water (apart from rainfall) since its establishment two years ago.  In fact, the drier and hotter the situation the better the plants look.

This particular site is perfect for this design – a steep sunny, hot hillside with poor well-drained soil and no water source available.  It will translate perfectly on a flat area provided there is full sun.  You can certainly make this work in your garden with the right conditions.  Here’s how.

Start by measuring the area to be planted and roughly sketch the outline of the bed.  Do you have rocks to add?  Draw them in – try and copy Nature.  Do not scatter lots of little rocks across the surface, rather use a few bigger ones and dig them in, roughly a third of the rock under the ground.  You want them to appear as though they have emerged from the earth not thrown there by yourself!  Think about the aspect of the bed – does it have a back to it?  Will it be visible from all sides?  In which case you may want the height in the middle of the bed. 


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Next to be considered are the accent plants - the main features of the bed.  These are plants which look good as singular features.  The size of your bed will determine the number of focal points.  Be careful not to use too many and lose the overall impact.  Uneven numbers work best as a general rule.

 Aloe ferox, large and stately with a single stem is one superb accent plant.  So too is Aloe vanbalenii – knee high with lime green leaves and gold flower spikes - perfect singly or in groups of three.    Perhaps Crassula ovata (Pink Joy) – the rounded shrub makes a superb accent plant with its shape alone, the pink flowers are a bonus.   Grey-leaved Aloe chabaudii and green spotted-leaved Aloe maculata can also be used as highlights in your bed.  All are wonderful for form and texture.  And then - they all bear flowers of different hues through winter.  Double colour – leaf and flower.  

You could use that wonderful plant Portulacaria afra or Spekboom as an accent plant rather than as a hedge.  Its red stems and round green leaves are just lovely.


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Make a list of your filler plants and simply fill the gaps with swathes of them.  Take care to put contrasting colours alongside each other, i.e., red leaves next to gold leaves, grey with lime green or yellow, different shades of green together.  Try and have a balance of round and spiky leaves - not too many of the same shape.  Plant closely for an instant effect.  The plants will never be wasted – as they grow you can simply divide up and replant in other areas.  Use your sketch to try out the different colour combinations.  I have a range of coloured pencil crayons for this purpose – very helpful at the design stage.

Preparation is key.  Armed with your sketch, it is time to prepare the bed with compost and an organic fertiliser to get them going.  Tough as they are, succulents and aloes do appreciate a good start so don’t miss this step.  Do not turn the soil over – this is an old-fashioned practice that is actually harmful to the layers of soil and its accompanying creatures.  Simply loosen the surface with a fork, apply your compost and fertiliser, lightly scratch it into the surface and you are ready to dig your holes to plant.

Compost is an aerobic product and needs to be in the top 15 cm of the surface.  To put it any deeper is to waste it.


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