Creating a hardy backbone

Any garden or landscape needs a backbone to ensure a low-maintenance landscape, which is expected by homeowners. This can be in the form of plants or architectural features. These will form most of the low water zones and some of the medium water zones in the garden. While evergreens may seem the obvious choice for year-round interest, they’re often not visually interesting enough to stand alone. Shrubberies are ideal for a backbone as they should look good all year round and can be made up of a mixture of textures and colours, as well as deciduous and evergreen plants. Having a structure that remains in place saves water, as regularly establishing new plants requires more initial watering. Maintenance is also reduced because yearly replanting is avoided.

Deciduous trees and shrubs, on the other hand, may add visual impact for several seasons – new foliage in spring as well as flowers, berries and vibrant leaf colour in autumn, before becoming bare in winter. A winter garden may not offer the obvious appeals of summer, but a carefully designed backbone can still provide sufficient interest to draw your eye through the garden.

A substantial backdrop of growing plants helps to enhance the beauty of these dormant areas. Select trees and shrubs specifically for their interesting dormant shapes and colour, such as the parsley tree (Heteromorpha arborescens), American sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) and river bushwillow (Combretum erythrophyllum). Frame specific dormant trees with evergreen plants and ensure that the view of the tree will be exposed to the skyline to improve emphasis.

Use winter-flowering bulbs under trees to add colour (these bulbs require limited, shallow watering.)

Benefits of a hardy backbone:

  • Winter-fallen leaves from deciduous trees serve as mulch and later decompose to add organic material to the soil.
  • Flowering indigenous shrubs like Cape honeysuckle (Tecoma capensis) attract birds and bees into the garden.
  • Using hardy plants as a backbone reduces the amount of time spent watering the garden because once these plants are established, they require less water.
  • A backbone can be used as a barrier against wind movement and noise. For example, Cape plumbago (Plumbago auriculata) acts as an insulation material against frost and heat.
  • Backbone plants create a natural environment for biodiversity. Some backbone plants, such as weeping sage (Buddleja auriculata) create a canopy that reduces the rate of water loss during hot days.
  • As we all strive to preserve our natural resources, the challenge is to create a landscape that is aesthetically pleasing without using an excess of resources.

Landscapers and property owners should work together to reassess the landscapes on their properties to see if there is an opportunity to make them water wise.

The Gardener