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Beginner’s guide to growing a fynbos garden

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As an avid gardener, attempting a fynbos garden was an idea I never really entertained.  In my mind, they belonged in the wild and therefore will only grow and thrive in the wild.  Little did I know.  I have no background in botany, ecology or conservation yet I currently hold the future of our Cape Floral Kingdom very close to my heart thanks to my newfound basic knowledge and understanding of locally indigenous flora. So how did I go from knowing a bare minimum about our locally indigenous flora to now having a vested interest in it? 

As a botanical fine art photographer, I felt compelled to learn more about what I was capturing. Since 2021, I have been part of the Cape Flats Fynbos Nursery volunteer team under the supervision of Erin Cowie, retail section manager and LIFE garden consultant.  The Cape Flats Fynbos Nursery is a FynbosLIFE project founded by Dr Caitlin von Witt, who specialises in environmental conservation through the agency of locally indigenous wild flora. Well over 350 local plant species grown strictly from Cape Town lowland genetic stock are produced at the nursery. The word LIFE means Locally Indigenous Flora Education.  The word hybrid is like a swear word there.

So, let me share with you what I have learned by answering the most frequently asked questions.

What is fynbos?  

Fynbos is not a singular plant like the protea.  It is part of a family but not just one family.   It consists of a variety of plant families and although they are characterized by the three families proteas, restios and ericas, their shapes are all uniquely different.  

fynbos families

Fynbos is made up of a variety of plant families

Where does the name derive from? 

Directly translated, fynbos means “fine bush”, derived from the Dutch word “fijnbosch”.   It’s quite aptly named when looking at how most of the plants have the appearance of a thick shrub (small bush) and developed small, yet hard, leathery leaves to adapt to our harsh coastal winds, dry summers and wet winters. 

What makes fynbos fynbos?   

Fynbos is a very unique biome that is famous for its exceptionally high species richness and endemism. Combined, there are an impressive 9,600 species in all fynbos families.  With its astonishing endemicity, roughly 70% occur nowhere else in the world.  All of which is confined to the Fynbos Biome. With its most dominant displays in the Cape region, it is no surprise that Cape Town has been named the most biodiverse city on the globe.

planting your fynbos garden

Are all locally indigenous plants fynbos? 

Fynbos is the South African biome that stands out from the rest because of its extraordinarily high diversity and endemism. Even though the Cape Floral Kingdom consists predominantly of fynbos, it also contains a variety of other equally important vegetation groups. 

Here are two vegetation groups well worth investing in…for all the right reasons.  Distinctly different from the evergreen-looking fynbos is the grey-looking renosterveld vegetation. Although also part of the Fynbos Biome less than 2% of renosterveld vegetation types are formally conserved, resulting in renosterveld being one of the most threatened vegetation groups in the world. 

Cape Flats Dune Strandveld is an Endangered vegetation type endemic to the coastal areas around Cape Town. It plays an important role covering and stabilising sand dunes in False Bay and on the West Coast. 

Want to learn where this vegetation is being conserved? Read our article on ecosystem restoration in Cape Town!

Can anything grow in lifeless soil and windy conditions?  

Absolutely, but only provided it is meant to be there!!  Does your soil appear to be hard, dry, infertile, stoney, or brittle? Or does it feel grainy and fine? Perhaps it is clayey or slightly moist and darker. It all sounds equally dreadful doesn’t it?  However, that is exactly what locally indigenous plants love!!! 

metalasia muricata

Metalsia muricata, a Cape Flats Dune Strandveld species can withstand dry sandy, windy conditions.

Establish your soil type and you’ll have an idea of what type of plants would grow in your garden.  Better yet, visit us at the Cape Flats Fynbos Nursery to learn more about Cape Town’s different veld types such as Cape Flats Sand Fynbos (Critically Endangered, endemic), South Peninsula Granite Fynbos (Critically Endangered, endemic) and Cape Lowland Freshwater Wetlands (Critically Endangered vegetation type), to mention a few. Choosing plants for your suburb’s original veld type will make all the difference in your garden.

Tips to plant a healthy fynbos garden

Before dashing off to buy a variety of plants, here are a few basic things to jot down. 

  • Your suburb location 
  • Soil/sand description
  • Wind direction
  • Seasonal and daily sun direction
  • Garden size/ available space
  • Description of any alien or invasive plants in your garden

The more information, the better!

In the meantime, here are some tips I’ve found invaluable!

  1. Plant during rainy season only, starting early winter from May/June.  
  1. Get proper guidance before making a final decision as fynbos do not like to be fussed about.  Get some assistance at Cape Flats Fynbos Nursery in choosing a variety of locally indigenous plants according to the veld type that will adapt easily in your garden.  
  1. Ask questions! Good questions to ask would be about planting distance as fynbos prefer being grouped — like in their natural wild environment.  Ask for tips on pruning to encourage a more natural-looking bushy appearance.  And let’s not forget the watering specifications. Different types of fynbos plants have different watering requirements. Fynbos only become fully water-wise once well established
  1. Once you have your amazing selection of plants, you can start planting!  It’s very important to get them in the ground almost immediately after purchase as they do not like to be moved around. As they are sensitive to root disturbance, make a concrete decision about where you want them positioned.  

  1. Once firmly secured in the ground, place a layer of woodchip mulch (roughly 5-10cm) on the surface. This will ensure the roots remain cool and lock in moisture.
woodchips to secure your fynbos

Secure your plant with layer of woodchip mulch

  1. Avoid using fertilizers, bone meal, mushroom compost or any DIY home-made compost (an absolute no-no for fynbos).  
  1. Water every second day for the first two weeks to help the plants settle. Thereafter follow the suggested twice-a-week watering guide for roughly three months after planting (while also keeping an eye on winter rainfall).  Continue to water during the summer season until the plants are established.  
  1. The most important part is to take absolute pleasure in the gradual transformation of your new garden while simultaneously helping preserve our Cape Floral Kingdom – one plant at a time.  

Keen for a more detailed guide for first-time locally indigenous gardeners? FynbosLIFE’s founder Dr Caitlin von Witt has written “Veld Type Greening Guidelines for the Cape Town Lowlands” which provides guidance on where to start, as well as plant species lists keyed according to veld type. Contact info@fynboslife.com to receive a copy. 

erica verticillata

Erica abietina subsp. atrorosea (a Cape Peninsula endemic)

What are the benefits of a fynbos garden? 

As stated on the FynbosLIFE website;

“Not only are these urban biodiversity gardens ecological assets for wildlife and water conservation, but they are also aesthetically pleasing and offer us opportunities to observe, understand and conserve our faunal and floral heritage.  Gardeners in turn become local biodiversity custodians and stewards of one of the world’s hottest biodiversity hotspots, the Fynbos Biome”.

Eri-Kah van Breda at fynbosLife nursery

Editor’s note: if you want to follow Eri-Kah’s photography and activities, you can view her portfolio on Pinterest or follow her on Instagram!

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