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GARDENING: Restoring nature’s balance

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Ecological restoration helps ecosystems recover from damage and degradation, and the principles can be used to create more sustainable and biodiverse city gardens. For the first time Africa hosts the eighth world conference on the topic in September,

The eighth World Conference on Ecological Restoration will be held in Cape Town from September 22 to 27. The conference is held every two years and will, for the first time in 2019, be held on African soil. The Society for Ecological Restoration (SER) was incorporated in 1988 as a global community of restoration professionals from countries across the world.

Through the science, practice and policy of ecological restoration, SER works to sustain biodiversity, improve resilience in a changing climate and aid in the restoration of threatened or degraded land. The SER2019 conference in Cape Town aims to foster knowledge sharing and debate strategies for ecological restoration.


What is ecological restoration? It is “the process of assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged or destroyed”. When ecosystems are damaged by natural disasters or disturbances – such as drought – a process of natural succession takes place. In the case of human development, intervention is needed to assist succession.

Principles of ecological restoration include the control or removal of invasive flora and fauna, the return of native species and the control of soil erosion. Landscapers belonging to the South African Landscapers’ Institute (Sali) are at the forefront of ecological restoration.

Last year, JPJ Landscapes won Sali’s top award for the Best Environmental Landscape Work.

The award honoured their restoration of a quarry site, located in the picturesque Midlands town of Hilton, KwaZulu-Natal. Six years ago, the Hilton Quarry was derelict. Landscape designers Judy Panton-Jones and Siya Gumede were handed an immense challenge.

LPJ Landscapes received an award for the work restoring restore Hilton Quarry. Picture: JPJ Landscapes/SALI

The 14ha site was overrun with alien invasive species which needed to be removed before the task of restoring the natural vegetation began.

“We brought in loads of compost, manure and mulch to upgrade the quarry floor. As we built up the soil structure, wild grass species, bulbous plants and other indigenous species endemic to the area emerged,” says Panton-Jones.

“The company follows a firm rule – emerging plants are not removed until they are identified,” she says. Weed species are eradicated, but other plants are allowed to propagate. “This has resulted in biodiversity of plant species at the Hilton Quarry, attracting many more butterflies, insect species, birds and other fauna.”


A small pond attracts birds and other wildlife. Picture: Eco Balance Landscapes/SALI

Suburban gardeners have much to learn from landscapers skilled in ecological restoration, sustainable landscaping and an understanding of how plants survive and thrive in nature.

According to Professor Karen Esler, head of Department of Conservation Ecology and Entomology at the University of Stellenbosch, our gardens are unlike natural areas in many respects.

This includes water availability, the addition of nutrients (compost and fertilisers) and the balance of associated species, such as pollinators, that in the natural environment help to maintain healthy populations of indigenous species.

“By planting gardens with species native to the area, inputs such as water and nutrients can be reduced and pollinators encouraged,” says Esler.

“If successful, gardeners can create green spaces that provide ecological services, like air purification, temperature regulation, groundwater recharge, recreation and even improved human health.

“Planting native species in gardens helps to soften an otherwise hard habitat, providing habitats for birds and other wildlife that would otherwise be excluded.”


Large amounts of compost, manure and mulch were brought in to upgrade the Hilton Quarry floor. Picture: JPJ Landscapes/SALI

What other practices can we adopt to create a garden that restores sustainability and biodiversity to the local ecosystem? Use grass clippings, fallen leaves and vegetable peelings to make your own mulch and compost. Then add this organic matter to beds for plant nourishment and to improve water filtration. 

Remove invasive alien species from your garden. Replace them with locally indigenous species or hardy pioneer plants to prevent soil erosion. Plant trees for screening and shelter for birds; consider the impact of climate change.

City gardens provide habitats for birds such as the Cape canary. Picture: Anton Bredell

“So many aspects of plant growth are tied up with atmospheric carbon as well as temperature and water regulation. Already we are seeing major changes in natural communities,” says Esler.

“We have to become waterwise in the Cape as we know the climate is warming.” Landscape your plants in water zones, keeping those plants with higher water needs at a minimum, preferably in containers near the house.

Create swales, berms and depressions, known as “earth-shaping”, to harvest water or allow water time to percolate into the ground, rather than rush past your garden into drains.

City gardeners also need to become urban farmers and grow their own vegetables. “This can help in the healing of the planet,” says Esler, who enjoys produce from her own garden.

“Food is close to the table which means the carbon costs associated with transport are reduced, food security is improved and there are massive health benefits to eating freshly picked and preferably organic food.” 


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