A Johannesburg Garden Mixes Wild Grasses With Perennials
Boasting a water-wise mix of wild grasses and perennials, this Johannesburg garden challenges the myth of indigenous-only planting.
It was during the height of South Africa’s drought in 2016 when Johannesburg-based landscaper Tim Steyn finalised the designs for this Johannesburg garden, which is situated in the suburb of Bryanston. Created in tandem with a spacious new home, the idea was a timeless juxtaposition between the structure’s contemporary architecture and the site’s sloping, rocky surrounds.
‘The style of the garden draws on some of Dutch landscaper Piet Oudolf’s work that I’d seen at Trentham Gardens in Staffordshire in the UK,’ says Steyn. ‘The combination of wild grasses and hardy perennials is very appealing, and a great response to our dwindling water resources.’
Describing the landscape as a direct counterpart to the building, Steyn was especially cognisant of the home’s dramatic views. The elevated, clean-lined property looks directly towards the Sandton skyline, with the pool and patio level descending steeply towards the boundary below.
‘On the upper level, the lawns are delineated into flat geometric planes to complement the home’s rectilinear style,’ he says. ‘The loose nature of the wild grasses acts as a direct contrast to this. I also wanted to create the visual impression that the infinity pool cascades directly into the wetland below.’
First steps involved some dramatic rock-blasting to carve out sufficient space for the pool. Some of the boulders were craned in and placed in strategic positions, while others were simply unearthed in situ.
With these elemental structures in place, Steyn then created a meandering walkway that loops from the manicured upper garden to the lower wetland and back. ‘The rhythm changes are frequent, from formal water features to tranquil contemplative areas,’ he says. ‘The idea is that you’re taken on a journey, that you want to walk through the space and explore the varying elements.’
When it came to selecting grass species, Steyn chose varieties that would ‘behave optimally’ in a Johannesburg garden, holding their form rather than collapsing back down in the winter months. ‘We wanted year-round interest and colour, from the rich green of early spring, to the flowering heads in autumn, and the textural browns and greys in winter,’ he says. The indigenous Aristida and Miscanthus species proved ideal, as did two varieties of exotic Muhlenbergia.
For colour, drought-hardiness and texture, Steyn introduced statement perennials, including deep purple salvia and soft grey helichrysum. ‘I intentionally mixed indigenous and exotic species, choosing plants best suited to the design rather than simply trying to replicate an indigenous plantscape for a Johannesburg garden,’ he says. ‘Globally, there are many regions that are far drier than Joburg. As long as plants are not locally invasive, I often use exotics for suburban gardens. Salvia leucantha (from Mexico) and Euphorbia wulfenii (native to the Mediterranean) are good examples of this.’
Although just two years old, this colourful garden has a long-established air. Every part of it provides an experience of discovery, with perpetually shifting vistas as you wander along its pathways. Pavers are softened by erigeron daisies, while crassulas, euphorbias and sedums combine in a tactile clash of greens and greys.
And when you get to the wetland, once a neglected bottom-of-the-garden space, it’s a different world entirely. Filled with water lilies, giant papyrus and oxygen grass, this peaceful green lung removes all traces of the city. ‘The garden as a whole has become a magnet for bird and insect life,’ says Steyn. ‘Tilapia flourish in the wetland, effectively controlling the frogs and mosquitoes.’
Above all, this enduring highveld landscape is a garden for all seasons. Baby blue salvia bloom in summer, followed by the plumes of flowering grasses in autumn, the emergence of flowering bulbs in winter and the addition of colourful water lilies in spring. ‘The house has an abundance of glass doors and windows, so all sides can open up to the exterior,’ Steyn says. ‘The lines between indoors and out have been completely blurred.’
To contact Tim Steyn, email firstname.lastname@example.org.