Rooftop gardens and living firebreaks Sunset-scaping with aloes

May’s Topic: Sunset-scaping with aloes
Theme: Rooftop gardens and living firebreaks. 
Industry Expert: Ruthe Gray
Garden Centre: Ndundulu Aloes based in KwaZulu-Natal.

Have you tried growing aloes on your roof? What about around your property as a living firebreak? Ndundulu Aloes has shared some fantastic advice on this exciting topic that’s sure to inspire you and leave you well-informed. Take your aloe passion to new heights and learn about some gorgeous new varieties the Sunbird Aloe range has to offer.

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1. We loved browsing your website and looking at the lovely selection of Sunbird Aloes you have. What inspired you to begin growing aloes? Why this species specifically?

I started to grow indigenous aloes out of necessity after moving to an old farm where the garden was neglected, old and overgrown.  After clearing out a lot of dead trees and trees planted in the wrong places, I looked at the framework of the garden. 

In summer, the temperatures can get up to 56°C.  There was no irrigation in the garden and plants were scorched by the heat and the blazing sun. 

After 3 years and the farm taking priority, I started to plant Indigenous aloes.  They could cope with the climate here in Northern KZN.  I started with 20 hybrids from the Sunbird Aloes range in 2015.

With their four different flowering seasons, this meant that I could naturally provide food for the wildlife in the garden.  From there, the garden was redefined, with new Sunbird Aloes beds, berms and barriers. We only had 2 sunbird species in the garden before planting the aloes: olive and the scarlet chested.  Within 4 years, we had 11 different sunbirds, which were recorded on the same day by a visiting bird group.

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2. We all know aloes offer the benefit of being waterwise, a wildlife favourite, and popping with colour. Lesser known perhaps is that they can be used as firebreaks. How would a gardener go about setting this up and are there any specific methods of planting or important factors to consider? 

“Fire-safe Landscaping”, to quote the Western Cape Disaster Management, is the new buzzword in creating a defensible space between your home and flammable vegetation. All aloes hold moisture in their fleshy leaves, allowing them to resist flames and slow down the spreading fires. They also do not contain any fire-fuelling resin or oils, as in some trees and other plants. 

Consider the following: 

  • Your first line of defence against a fire is your boundary.  Go for rambling/multi-stemmed aloes and verities with a compact growth habit. Plant your chosen aloes on mass, a minimum of 0.5 m wide, along your boundary to create a barrier slowing down the fire.  
  • Plant different aloe beds between your boundary and your house to create an effective breakup of your lawn, slowing down the spreading fire.
  • Plant aloes within 1.5 to 3m around your house as a second barrier, slowing down any fire that has jumped. Here you can create a berm, layering the different aloes to suit your personal style.  Avoid using flammable mulch.  
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3. Please give us your top 5 Sunbird Aloe picks for planting to use as living firebreaks along berms and in flame-deterring island beds.

  • Aloe ‘Bush baby yellow’ produces a long-lasting supply of beautiful yellow flowers. The plant itself is a striking green with well-structured rosettes. It will also bush (produce multiple rosettes). A mature plant is capable of flowering for 6 months without a break in flower production. This characteristic places it in the ‘superior hybrid’ category, and makes it a sought-after landscaping subject for group or border plantings.
  • Aloe ‘Apricot’ has unique pinkish-orange flowers that are carried on upright racemes and branched inflorescences, sometimes as many as 7 during their winter flowering season. The plant is renowned for its long flower period and will have its first flower at a very young age. It will reach its full flowering potential from about 5 years after the first flower, by which time it can already have grown a short stem.
  • Aloe ‘Flame’ has a flower column that rises from this long-leaved, medium to large cultivar that is rather astonishing. In my rockery, the first flaming inflorescence of 3 long-flowered, massive, red-to-pastel-coloured racemes reached its last flowers in late autumn. From the centre of the rosette, the next 9 inflorescences were pushing hard to open their flowers in early winter. This elevated “Flame” to the elite club of super hybrids capable of producing 10 inflorescences from one rosette in a season.
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  • Aloe ‘Koljander’ is an unusual, medium-sized hybrid of a very rare yellow flowered Aloe Suprafoliata. It is stemless, has beautiful grey leaves and plenty of tall flowers, not unlike its rare parent. Aloe ‘Koljander’ flowers from autumn to late winter. It occasionally produces stem shoots and is well suited to either container or open rockery planting. Although the plant is classed as medium, it can be quite robust under suitable growing conditions, with very tall and long-lasting inflorescences.
  • Aloe ‘Moonglow’ boasts wonderfully compact, pale-yellow flowers appearing on this medium-sized, slow-stemming aloe from an early age in mid-winter. A mature plant has one of the best flowers to plant ratios of all hybrids in the collection. It can deliver the same superior flower display year after year.
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4. Another lesser-known use for aloes is rooftop gardening – we love this! Please tell us more about the factors that determine or hinder a successful roof grow. Can anyone with any roof do this? Why should gardeners even consider growing aloes on the roof?

Flat roofs as opposed to angled roofs are best used for rooftop gardens.  Flat roofs can offer a depth of 6 – 12 inches of growing depth. Green roofs can be divided into two types: 

  1. The vegetation-covered or inaccessible roof, where the soil and plants form another layer of the roofing system.
  2. The rooftop garden or accessible roof that can become an outdoor space. 

 

Green roofs and rooftop gardens can provide many benefits, including

  • Reducing sound reflection and transmission
  • Reducing heating and cooling energy costs, by providing a layer of insulation on buildings.
  • Reduces the spread of wildfires.
  • Increases the life of the roof, reducing landfill impact.
  • Improved air quality and absorption of carbon dioxide. 
  • Minimises stormwater run-off and supports rainwater collection systems.
  • Increased habitat for essential pollinators and wildlife

 

Always consult your engineer or architect to properly determine how much weight your roof can hold, and how that weight should be dispersed on your roof.

 

You need to consider the following:

  1. Calculate the loading capacity of your roof. 
  2. Plan for drainage from rainfall and from watering plants. 
  3. Plan for access to the roof membrane for maintenance and repair.
  4. Choosing the right plants for the extreme microclimate of your roof.

 

Sunbird Aloes are a popular choice for a green roof because of their flower performance, ability to grow in a shallow medium, as well as their low-maintenance and low water use. 

Small to medium aloes have shallow roots and are able to tolerate drought, high precipitation, intense heat, high winds, sea spray, and possible pollution.  

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5. Please give us your top 5 Sunbird Aloe plant picks for a rooftop garden, and what makes them special?

From the Sunbird Aloes range I recommend Aloes ‘Oribi Gorge’ (s), ‘Candy floss’ (s), Maggie’s magic (s), ‘Spots n dots’ (m), and ‘Red dwarf’ (m). These aloes flower at different times of the year, providing an extended flower season and more food for our wildlife.  

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6. Are there any specific pests or diseases aloe growers should be aware of? Where can gardeners get more information on this?

Aloe pests and diseases are generally climate-related and are very broad. An aloe lover will have different problems based on where they live. For this purpose, I produced a very broad-based FREE PDF document available on my website: www.ndundulualoes.com

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If you’re in town, go check out the Ndundulu Aloes exhibition garden or attend one of Ruthe’s complimentary talks. Enjoy a tour of the stunning gardens and be inspired by the dramatic foliage and architectural shapes. To find other GCA Garden Centres in your area, access our directory here: https://www.lifeisagarden.co.za/category/garden-centres/

 

Images provided by Sunbird Aloes

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