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Endemic Gardening: a Highveld Garden gets an Environmentally Sensitive Redesign

A historic Johannesburg garden returns to its roots with an indigenous planting scheme that works to restore the natural landscape.

Sarah de Pina

Just around the corner from the towering skyscrapers of the Sandton CBD lies one of Johannesburg’s most remarkable private gardens – an almost 11ha expanse of indigenous grasslands, wetlands, forests and formal gardens that is currently undergoing a dramatic, environmentally sensitive redesign. 

The sprawling estate is called Isibindi, which means both ‘courage’ and ‘seed’ in isiZulu, and has been owned by the same family for nearly as long as Johannesburg has been in existence. And now the next generation is imagining a new future for the property, with a plan that asks what the landscape would have looked like before their historic garden was planted.  

Landscape designer Patrick Watson heads up this project of removal and restoration, a 10-year labour that culminated in a highveld meadow the size of a soccer field where thousands of rare endemic specimens grow. Many of these were rescued by Watson from neighbouring properties where new developments have seen native plants uprooted for malls and housing estates, or grown by him in his nursery. The trapezoid-shaped beds teem with butterflies and other insects between a maze of grassed pathways. 

A walk along those pathways moves between dense tufts of Gauteng-specific perennials, such as blue Buffalo grass, plum Crinum lilies, wild Transvaal gerberas and critically endangered Eulophia welwitschii orchids. Acacia trees dot the planting scheme as they would in the Highveld naturally, shading the rare succulents and euphorbias that shelter beneath the grasses. 

The meadow requires six full-time gardening assistants to maintain, but its contribution to the overall ecosystem of the garden is essential, explains Watson. House and Leisure sat down with him in his own garden in Greenside (a wild suburban jungle, for those curious) to learn more about Isibindi, understand the move toward endemic gardening in South Africa, and discover how this new gardening style can be achieved in your own space at home. 

Why did you decide to go endemic for the new garden at Isibindi?

The client wanted a prairie garden once the big house was built, and she didn’t want to water it, so I suggested an endemic garden. Essentially, the endemic idea is quite old: an endemic garden contains only plants
that are native to the specific area in which the garden is located. Johannesburg is a Highveld area, and so gardens in this city should look almost like prairies, but the reality is that they are rare if not impossible to find, which makes no sense really. It was important to me that the land become more of a garden than a piece of veld.  

The garden appears undesigned, but when you look closer, the planting is very complex. How did you go about blurring the lines?

The goal is to make it stylised, so it’s not just a veld. The paths do that here. I used a classical Dutch path that references the Cape Dutch of the house’s architecture – so it’s not English, nor is it Romantic, which would be foreign to the area. The garden is also specific to the client, who is very into natural, low-key solutions, as is her mother, whose own gardens also embrace indigenous gardening. When you go into the veld, you see the same plants as at Isibindi, but we clustered them, removed grasses, and added flowering plants.  

Should we create our own endemic gardens at home?

An endemic garden in Gauteng dies off in the winter, so if you don’t like a dry garden, I wouldn’t suggest a garden like this. In the Cape, you could use fynbos, and in tropical areas like Durban, make a jungle. But you mustn’t irrigate it or compost it, which is actually ideal today.

In many ways, the Isibindi garden is more like a restoration project than a garden design. It’s important from a conservation point of view. Now all the birds and flowers are coming back to the area, which is big for me and the client. The environment we live in has been degraded – there are no butterflies or termites, and we tend to forget how important insects are to the survival of the environment. Every insect only eats certain plants, and there are millions of them, and fewer birds, and even fewer mammals. Insects are the main base for restoration. If I use plants from KwaZulu-Natal, the bugs don’t come here, and when you use Karoo plants, the Karoo bugs don’t come. But more than anything, it’s morally right to plant like this, and it’s time we do it.

Where I live – in a suburban area – there are almost no natural insects. There are only fruit-eating birds. So we’ve destroyed the environment. In the next 50 years, there won’t be a scrap of Egoli grasslands. Hollard HQ in Parktown has put a highveld garden back into a space where there was once only exotic plants not native to the area, and a few other private gardens are trying to do the same, but more people should be following suit.   

 

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