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Creating a Garden Biome

Adrian Geary/ Landscape Designer/ Enrich Garden Design Studio

Creating a biome is not always easy and there are many aspects one needs to consider. Top of the list is soil. Often soil is taken for granted, one merely adds nutrients to the mix in the hope that this is sufficient. Soil holds the most biotic (living) factors within a biome and therefore creating a suitable biodiverse biome starts from the ground up- pun intended. Sometimes replacing the soil is the only option and a highly recommended one.   

Another important step is plant choices. This may seem obvious, but time and again the same plants are used to the detriment of fauna and flora. Biomes are created through companion plantings and mass plantings. There are two conflicting schools of thoughts here. A mass planting is not a monoculture of plants, but rather a grouping of plants that compliment others alongside. The reciprocal is often seen when amateur gardeners plant every type of plant that they see resulting in a smorgasbord of plants, often to the detriment of style and more importantly a natural garden.  A natural biome is not just about planting indigenous plants, nor is it about planting endemic plants. Yes, these are important, but they need to be considered in context with other aspects such as topography, micro-climate, specie choice, soil type and water availability, just to mention a few. An indigenous garden can be sterile if it does not provide a suitable home for insects, birds and animals. Yes, it may look good, but in the long run it will suffer.  

When creating a certain biome it is important to provide enough food, foliage and space for fauna and flora. Two favourites are grassland and woodland biomes. A woodland or forest biome will be more sheltered and open spaces will be surrounded by woody shrubs and trees. Varying degrees and heights of foliage is the key. Whereas, a grass biome will be open and expansive with a few shrubs dotted amongst large areas of grasses and bulbs. Insects, birds and animals need shelter and food, whether below ground level or in the tree canopy, the type of biome that exists will determine the type of fauna and flora that live within it.  

One of the largest biomes in South Africa is grasslands. This ranges from the Eastern Cape to the escapement and reaches as far as Lesotho. Creating a unique grassland biome can be difficult. A great way to plan a grassland biome is to limit specie choices to a bare minimum. Plant these species in large swathes where they fade and amalgamate into each other. If space is not an issue more species can be introduced. Feature plants can be used to accent these areas. Certain species would be repeated en masse creating uniformity to the biome.  Bulbs, or self-seeded annuals and biennials, can provide seasonal colour and some intrigue within the space. For very large areas it becomes rather difficult to ‘place’ plants and planting plans are often very sterile. Thus, directing your team of gardeners when placing and subsequently planting can be a great way to create a more ‘natural’ and random garden. What I have done in the past is directed each team member to a certain species and then allocated them a position within a landscape to place, declaring that each plant should be 500mm apart (depending on the plant) and should be grouped in groups of 17-20. This has proved very successful when planting areas of more than 5000m2.  

The smallest biome in South Africa is the woodland biome. Here tall trees and shrubs intermingle to form spaces filled with foliage. Organic matter is aplenty along the forest floor and these biomes tend to develop into wet, humid areas that promote microbial activity. Large trees such as Calodendrum capense, Celtis africana and the occasional Afrocarpus full large spaces where shrubs such as Halleria lucida, Dyospyros whyteanaMackaya bella and Ochna serrulata full the areas below. Personally, planting a mixture of Plectranthus, Clivia, Hypoestes and Streptocarpus among the trees creates a colourful mass of bird loving plants. Using elements of water, such as a fountain or water feature that exists at different levels, is a great way of encouraging bird life. Provided the water is relatively still and close to foliage birds will feel sheltered and safe. Similarly opening areas where the sun can filter in and warm the water creates a dynamic space within a landscape. 

The Grassland biome exists within a large area and therefore consists of many species with varying requirements. The iconic factor is a lack of shrubbery and tall trees, where space is predominated by grasses instead. When choosing species for a Grassland it is important to match species with the climate and area one is in. Grassland biomes need to encourage local and endemic fauna and flora to the environment. Harpochlora falx, Anthericum saundersiaeThemeda triandra Forssk and Melinis repens are choices often used to anchor the biome. Bulbs such as Chasmanthe and Watsonia add the seasonal colour. I often use the occasional Aloe or Kniphofia to add some interest. Sneaking in the occasional ground cover is important to break large areas of one species while allowing to transition to the next. When creating a grassland biome within a residential area choosing large bird loving species on the periphery is a great idea to encourage birds to visit. Strelizia, Gardenia and even Apodytes dimidiata are great options when framing a garden. Personally, a large fruiting tree, cut to size, often frames a garden beautifully without challenging the style and natural look of the grassland biome. A fruiting tree provides fruit for insects and birds as well as small animals too.