Features editor Karien Slabbert shares her woes and sporadic triumphs as a novice gardener
My family members are all avid gardeners. They take cuttings, sow seeds, plant, replant – and all with great success. As such I thought I would have naturally green fingers. I was wrong. Everything I planted in my first garden died. Some plants died a slow painful death with me looking on in horror. Others didn’t last a week due to the fickle Cape Town weather.
After a while my garden looked like a wasteland, thanks to a gardening service that had no respect for plant life whatsoever. So, I decided to take action and learn from my surroundings.
Lesson1: Look over the fence
I started noting at the things my neighbours planted and a pattern soon emerged. These gardens consisted of mass plantings of succulents, very few flowering annuals, hardy perennials and lots of lavender. I then looked at the soil; it was typical sandy Cape Town soil. I decided to ‘steal’ their planning schemes and planted English, French and ‘Margaret Roberts’ lavender (they love sandy soil), agapanthus (the most grateful plants ever) and clivias in shady areas. They flourished and I was stoked.
Lesson 2: Plant endemic
On my way to work every day I would revel at the beautiful watsonias and Chasmanthe floribunda that grew on the foothills of Table Mountain. I bought a few at the Kirstenbosch Nursery and planted them according to the instructions (yes, another thing I learned). They went on to become stalwarts in my garden, ensuring pops of colour to my dreary planting palette in late winter and spring.
Lesson 3: Plant en masse
Block planting with striking shrubs like phormiums pack punch. While a collection of architectural plants form a lovely green backbone in your garden, a few plants scattered in a border look dreary. With that, I learnt the value of groundcovers. Cape buchu seemed to thrive, as did crocosmia. A Lilliputian forest of delicious monsters under the mulberry tree showed me the value of large-leafed plants.
Lesson 4: Check the soil pH
We had a huge pine tree that covered our entire front garden. I planted metres and metres of roll-on lawn, which died time and again. Nothing seemed to grow because the soil was just too acidic. My first success as a fledgling gardener? Planting azaleas and rhododendrons underneath. They thrived, as did a lovely camellia bush.
Lesson 5: Your verge is the most important part of your garden
Some people might disagree, but I believe that if your verge looks scraggy, it doesn’t matter if the rest of your property looks like the Garden of Eden. It’s like wearing the most expensive Dior make-up, but not plucking your eyebrows.
While we’re on the subject: 50m³ of gravel doesn’t constitute a neat verge. It looks lazy and sterile and reminds me of a lunar landscape. If you’re strapped for time rather, plant a hardy groundcover or a mass of plants. But please, no gravel. If the appearance of gravel doesn’t deter you, another thing I soon learned in my first garden is that weeds love gravel. They’ll grow through, under and over the plastic sheeting.
Years later, I now prune my plants with decent pruning shears (not a kitchen knife), but I still apply the lessons I learned from my first garden. I remember how every failure led me to learn and discover more. Often by trial and error, with a carnage of dead petunias, pansies, primulas and one horrible invasive syringa tree in my wake. And with time, I experienced the joy of gardening and realised that green fingers can be cultivated.
I also recall my first spring flourish of Dutch irises, daffodils, ranunculi and grape hyacinths in my potager and how I realised that my basil self-seeded. I jumped for joy when a bunch of naturalised snowflakes (leucojum) popped up under the eugenia hedge one winter and a mass of siren-red Shirley poppies sprouted from nowhere the following spring. To this day, I still wonder where they came from…