🐾 Maybe the reason I love animals so much, is because the only time they have broken my heart is when theirs has stopped beating.

Sunday, 3 July 2016

Winter, Bonsai and other ramblings

It took a while for summer to admit to defeat, pummelling us with heat wave after heat wave even well into autumn and autumn was decidedly short-lived, dumping us straight into icy weather with lots of snow all over the country, Here in Tarlton (Gauteng, South Africa), we suffered low temps of only 11C during the day, with the nights and early mornings well below freezing point. And to make matters worse, we even had some rain. Rain in winter is not in the scheme of things here in Gauteng, we're a summer rainfall area. I was worried about my succulents, but I needn't have been, they didn't seem to mind the rain, it's frost that's deadly to them. And luckily we've not seen much of that yet. We just have to get through July and then the worst is over. Even my Chooks aren't particularly impressed with the cold - Kiep comes in every day for a stint in from of my gas heater, laying down, spreading her legs and wings, soaking up the heat and looking a lot like road kill!

And much to Jacko's chagrin, she commandeered his blanket in front of the heater, spending most of the morning until it was time to go outside for a snack.

Don't get me wrong, I much prefer the cold to the heat-waves we've been having, and I am extremely grateful to have a warm roof over my head, something many people don't have. Situated barely 100 miles (160km) south of the Tropic of Capricorn, you might expect Johannesburg, South Africa's commercial capital, to be bathed in tropical heat all the year round. But this city of 4m inhabitants lies 5,500 feet (1,700 metres) above sea level and it is now mid-winter. So although the middle of the day is generally warm, with clear blue skies and a sun too hot to sit out in comfortably, the nights can be bitterly cold, with temperatures dropping below freezing. But apart from the fancier hotels and some upmarket office blocks and homes, almost no one has central heating—or adequate heating of any form for that matter. South Africa’s several million strong homeless population was particularly hard hit as temperatures plunged to record lows in many parts of the country and in May 2007, at least 17 people died from exposure, highlighting the country’s chronic housing shortage.

But winter is also the time when all my Aloes start flowering and when nature provides extra sustenance to her wildlife through nectar in these beautiful flowers. Every winter my garden is flooded with Sunbirds and nectar-loving insects, bringing great joy to my heart. Winter is also when nature gets rid of the old and weak, preparing the landscape for new life in spring.

Last spring I did the unthinkable - I planted my 1983 Natal Fig bonsai in the garden. I got him as a 3-year old in 1982 and for 33 years I've been tending him, neglecting him, tending him again, pruning him wrong, taking him to an expert to be fixed, pruning him wrong again, putting him outside every spring and carrying him into the house every late-Autumn for the winter. A symptom of the neglect is that he got very big. He has been in the same pot for years without me taking him out and trimming his roots to maintain a reasonable size. Getting heavier and heavier, it became a major job for two men to move him inside every winter and spring. His trunk is beautiful, thick and gnarled, with aerial roots hanging down the one side, anchoring him more firmly to the ground.

But as time went by, he started showing real signs of neglect. When I looked at this photo of him (above) which I took last July 2015 (winter) inside my flower room, it was clear to me that he was at the end of his tether and beyond saving. My heart broke. But now I've got this short-coming that I can't kill anything, not even an un-saveable plant, so in September last year (Spring), I chose a protected spot in the garden and plonked him in a well-prepared hole and said to myself, "que se ra, se ra". Deep in my heart I'm suffering because I've got this suspicion that this winter might kill him, being an Eastern Coastal Belt Forest resident of South Africa.

After a month in the garden, there was already a vast improvement, as can be seen in the pic of him in the garden. Most of the branches had already filled up with new leaves and he was looking bright green and much healthier. In the meantime I've read up a bit more about about this tree and it turns out that the versatile Ficus natalensis (also known as "Mutuba" to locals) is wind and drought resistant and tolerates temperatures from -5C – 30+C. It occurs naturally in both moist woodland and dry open areas of the country and is evergreen, which did not seem evident when I had him in the pot, as he lost a lot of his leaves every winter. With a height of 5m-20m and a spread of 4m-8m, I might just have to change my garden when he gets bigger, if he survives our severe Tarlton frost.

My "gardening skills " ego has been dealt a great blow with the "loss" of my Bonsai, as Ficus natalensis is one of the most widely used species by Bonsai enthusiasts. The fat stem and intricately gnarled roots are perfect for achieving a variety of popular Bonsai styles. This species grows ’banyan’ roots naturally which can be showcased as dramatic air-root or root over rock styles. The Natal Fig grows fast and is quite forgiving if incorrect watering methods are applied, making this the ideal choice for the novice enthusiast. So how "novice" am I ........? 


  1. When I think of S. Africa I never imagine snow. Like the look of those globe garden lamps. Hope your rescued tree makes it through the Winter.

    1. Neither do we John, snow is just not something that happens here! On top of the mountain ranges, yes, but in our gardens? No! I put those 3 globe lamps in when I designed the garden 12 years ago and can you believe I've only changed one globe in all those years? I too hope my bonsai makes it through the winter John, if it does, I'll certainly be throwing a party for him!



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