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Exploring the Durban Garden as a landscape style

Written by Georgina Lockwood on behalf of Life Green Group. 

KwaZulu Natal is often referred to as the ‘Garden Province’, and you”ll often hear local landscapers talk about a particularly green garden as  being a “Durban Garden.”  What is a Durban Garden? When was the term Durban garden coined, and by who?  Life Landscapes, the landscape division of Life Green Group, has decided to explore the Durban garden as a landscaping style.

The grass is always greener in the coastal town of eThekwini – Durban’s sub-tropical climate makes it hot and humid, so naturally everything grows, faster, bigger and more of it. Coastal plants typically need to be salt-tolerant and as a Durban landscaper you don’t necessarily need to worry about water-wise.

life green group durban

© South African Tourism

Tropical Gardens versus Durban Garden landscape style

Tropical gardens originate from equatorial climates and when putting together a planting list landscapers focus on the colour, texture and shape of the leaves. Landscapers also have to pay attention to the mulch and watering as rainforest plants need water.

tropical garden landscaping style

© Brew Books

A Durban garden has a less of “a welcome-to-the-jungle effect” than a tropical garden design. The city of Durban has seasonality, so in order to ‘bear the palm’ with a Durban garden style, garden maintenance and seasonal planning are required, more so than a tropical landscape.

There is a lot more structure and thought that goes into a Durban garden, than a tropical one, according to Environmental Issues and Sales director Oscar Lockwood. A fundamental difference between a Durban landscape and tropical one would be a Durban garden has lawns, and the lawns must be immaculate.

How to create a Durban garden

“The concept of a Durban garden may have begun purposely or unintentionally in eThekwini because practically it worked;  but I personally like the Durban landscaping style utilised in other parts of the country, not just Durban” – Oscar Lockwood

A  Durban garden can be constructed on other areas of South Africa, depending on the climate, namely: Pretoria, Limpopo and Mpumalanga and parts of Johannesburg.

Durban Architecture

Durban is known for its Mediterranean Spanish architecture often seen on the Berea and Victorian Natal veranda buildings, both these styles of architecture lend themselves to a tropical Durban garden design. eThekwini  is also home to Art Deco buildings. According to Frank Reitz, Environment Heritage Officer, the strong geometric of the art deco buildings compliment the tropical vegetation.

Durban’s North coast has some of the country’s biggest developments,  so Life Landscapes has decided to look at the traditional Durban garden in order to keep the traditional charm of eThekwini.

Indigenous trees for a Durban garden

There are countless trees that grow in Natal, but for the sake of this blog we are focusing indigenous  trees with fountain crowns that give a palm-like effect that is so quintessentially Durban.

South Africa’s indigenous palm tree species

When landscaping it’s not only about the plant’s appearance, but the sounds too- there are few sounds that compare to the ruffle of the palm leaves in a sea breeze. The grey stems of these biblical trees compliment the city’s architecture, and quiet literally, provides the pillars of a Durban garden, and are therefore essential.

  • Ilala palm (Hyphaene coriacea)
  • Kosi palm (Raphia australis) – largest leafed plant in the world and attracts palm-nut vultures.
  • Pondoland coconut (Jubaeopsis caffra)
  • Wild date palm (Phoenix reclinata)

If you like palm trees… A Durban garden should always have a cathedral of palms planted in the flowerbeds and the lawn, especially the lawn.

© Lip Kee

© Lip Kee

Natal Wild Banana (Strelitzia nicolai)

Is an eThekwini garden must have, and it handles coastal conditions and brings sunbirds to the garden.

Large-leaved dragon tree (Dracaena aletriformis)

This is a stunning leafy-palm-like plant with great lime green leaves and white stems. It does not get too big so will make a good tree for a smaller area or planted adjusted to a larger palm trees.

planting list for a Durban garden

© JMK

Cycads of eThekwini

There are a couple of endemic cycads to Natal. All cycads are protected species and require permits. The Natal cycad (Encephalartos natalensis) flourishes in Natal and is will suited to a Durban garden.

Tree fern (Cyathea dregei)

Tree ferns need shade and add a prehistoric look to the garden. The South African tree fern does particulalry well in Kloof or Durban gardens that are not on the coast. The tree fern is also protected.

indigenous tree fern for a Durban garden

© Andrew Massyn

South Coast Cabbage tree (Cussonia nicholsonii strey)

Keeping in line with the fountain shaped crowns the Natal cabbage tree adds a grey tinge to a Durban garden. South Africa is home to a variety of cabbage trees, if you are creating a Durban garden in Gauteng the Highveld cabbage tree (Cussonia paniculata) is frost resistant.

highveld cabbage tree

© JMK

Fountain tree crowns are not effective shade trees so if you would like to add one of the following eThekwini trees the Erythrina species is iconic of Natal especially the broad-leaved coral tree (Erythrina latissima) and the common coral tree (Erythrina lysistemon).  The forest fever berry (Croton sylvaticus), Natal Maghogany (Trichilia emetica), flat-crown albizia (Albizia adianthifolia) and all Ficus species work incredible well too. The Umzimbeet (Milletia grandis) is endemic to Natal and is very auspicious in Zulu culture along with the Erythrina. If you are creating a Durban style garden somewhere else in South Africa, then use an  regional endemic alternative for shade.

Planting list for a tropical Durban Garden

More than just sugarcane grows in Natal. To create the Durban garden look you need to be thinking elephant ears and large-leafy foliage. We are not focusing in shrubs and flowers that would be more suited to a cottage garden.

what is a durban style garden

Plectranthus species

Indigenous Pletranthuses thrive across South Africa and have some large attractive variegated leaves. Plectanthuses are known to bring butterflies to landscapes.

Forest lily (Veltheimia bracteata)

The deciduous bulb is a fast growing and thrives in the shade or semi-shade. It also flowers in winter making it an interesting garden specimen.

Bush lily  (Clivia miniata)

Clivias are endemic to the forest floors of Natal and is an extremely popular garden plant worldwild.

Great white strelitiza (Stelitzi augusta)

The Strelitizas all have that boat-oar leaf that makes them appealing for a tropical garden.

South African fern species

The maidenhair fern (Adiantum capillus-veneris), toothed Fern (Christella dentate)  and Knysna fern(rumohra adiantiformis) are all indigenous fern species with beautiful leaves and would well-suited to a Durban garden. Cape smilax (asparagus asparagoides) have a fern-like feel to them.

The Garden province landscape accessories

Although, not indigenous, staghorn ferns, air-plants and orchids add an nice touch to palms and tress in a Durban garden.

A lotus pond makes for a fantastic Durban garden accessory. If the landscape has a bog or a pond  wild rhubarb (Gunnera perpensa) has a lovely leafy-lotus effect. Don’t forget to add fish, preferable indigenous fish, to stop mosquitoes breeding in the still water.

Work with the humidity not against it – the hot and humid vibes make Durban the ideal home for moss and lichens. Instead of trying to remove them encourage moss to grow on the garden wall. The old world plants are good indicators of a healthy environment.

Durban garden

Some not so bad exotics plants  to use in a Durban garden landscape

Life Landscapes gardens responsible!  The majority of KwaZulu Natal has a warm tropical climate which means category one weeds (invasives) can take root quickly, decimating local eco-systems. These exotic plants are suited to a Durban style garden without impacting negatively on the environment:

  • Fiddle leaf fig – this East African ficus does incredibly well indoors or on the veranda
  • Bromeliads – add large leafy foliage and a tropical look to the garden of planted in groups
  • Delicious monster – it’s not exciting but it is the icon of the tropical garden
  • Red vein banana – fast growing, highly decorative and dies off quickly. It’s a fast fix for an establishing Durban landscape.
  • Coconut palm tree – just for good measure
  • Foxtail palms – one of the most attract palms
  • Blue palm – grey leaf, not a common plant but has a unique look.
  • Ravenala palm – also has a fun fresh feel to it. They are famous at Raffels Hotel in Singapore.

Durban garden

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