Pioneers Project

The Pioneer Project is focused on the first step in most of our greening activities. This project aims at improving, implementing, streamlining, and dissemminating knowlege around how to convert a disturbed space into a baseline fynbos garden through the use of pioneer species.

In nature, pioneer plants are those plants that show up first after a fire or other disturbance, and create a safe and comfortable environment for other plants to start growing. Think of pioneers as a scab on any injury to the fynbos landscape. Pioneers are hardy plants that can establish in harsh environments, and once they have settled in they provide protection from sun, rain, and wind. They improve the soil health by shading the soil and preventing water loss. They also hold the soil in place preventing erosion and root disturbance, and add soil bacteria and fungi to the site that help provide extra nutirents, vitamins, minerals and water to the plants.

Pioneers create an ideal nursery environment for more sensitive species. Introducing pioneers to a site is the first step in fynbos ecosystem recovery, and after this one can continue enriching the fynbos patch with other plant species.

At Communitree we have been practicing the implementation of pioneer gardens since 2017. Lots of our sites were overgrown with kikuyu grass and after removing this invasive species we had to introduce pioneers to prepare the patches for other fynbos plants. We have been supported by other projects and people who have shared their knowledge around which pioneer species are useful to start with. Our home nursery volunteers have been a great help by growing the right plants, and this project is also linked to our Sour Fig Challenge, which is one of the pioneer species that we use.

This project will be an ongoing endevour by Communitree. As we add new gardens to our garden network, we will continue to require a procedure to set up a pioneer garden. Most gardens will pass through this "pioneers phase" as they are being developed. We will continue to research, practice, and report on our experiences in the pioneer project.

Below we share the various steps that are part of our pioneer project, as well as a list of pioneer species that we have successfully worked with in our gardens.

Soil preparation

Before planting the plant species that are best for specialist sunbird and monkey beetle species, we need to prepare the site and the soil because the specialist sunbird plant species that will be planted in year two or three, such as ericas and proteas, are more sensitive to soil disturbance, pH and nutrient level and need this corrected before they are planted. Soil preparation should be done by April/May when the rains come and plants are ready to be planted out.

The process is as follows:

  1. Remove any non-indigenous biomass – leaves, weeds, grass etc.
  2. Check soil for rubble. Remove if necessary. If it is really old it will have already leached into the soil and there is no point removing it
  3. Loosen soil if mechanically compacted
  4. Add a small amount of very well digested compost if the soil is very depleted ~ only 5% of the soil should be compost. More than this and you will encourage shallow root growth that is maladaptive to long dry summers where plants will need very deep roots, many meters deep.
  5. Add a layer of ground cover - a living mulch. A layer of ground cover of the species listed under pioneers helps to:
    1. to create a nursery environment for young growing plants and more sensitive plants
    2. to protect the soil from erosion
    3. to prevent resprouting weeds
    4. to add mycorrhizae to the soil
    5. to stabilise the soil to prevent root damage from soil disturbance
  6. And/or add mulch or wood chips, especially with a portion of pine-based material, as this mitigates for alkalinity brought in by cement. Because the mulch is woody, it adds carbon to the soil. Fynbos favours higher carbon levels in the soil while weeds favour higher nitrogen. Many weeds from the pea family also fix nitrogen, further favouring weed growth. Mulch will also help protect the soil from water loss and thus help plants through hot dry summers.
  7. Secure bed and pathway soil. Add logs, rocks, bricks, or tyres to the side of garden beds and pathways to make sure the soil is stabilised. Add a layer of sawdust, water and stamp on it a few times until flat to make a neat and protected layer of soil, with little watering needs.

~ Avoid bushy plants such as bitobos, chrysanthemoides and searsia (Strandveld) as they become places to hide, or space them very widely and trim back very harshly each year.

Thank you for the input: Ceinwen Smith (Ingcungcu), Caitlin von Witt (Fynbos Life), Dalton Gibbs (City of Cape Town), Joanne Eastman (Friends of Rondebosch Common), Julia September, Pat Holmes (City of Cape Town), Patrick Dowling (WESSA)

Plant species selection

An important part of the soil preparation process is the planting of pioneers after removing alien vegetation cover, a year 1/first phase activity, which largely fulfills goal 2: to improve the plant cover, plant number, and species number of locally indigenous plants at each patch. In the years that follow, the plant species richness is enhanced with plant species that more directly support goal 4: to improve the abundance and species richness of sunbirds, monkey beetles, bees and flies, are added.


Work every one to two months as a team on weeding, or if you are working individually, work on small bits of weeding continuously. Always target weeds that are about the seed, and at a minimum remove their seeds before they are released.

  1. Before planting into potential bed areas, remove or spray mat-forming weeds such as the grasses kikuyu and kweek (April: intro to soil ecology). Make sure you get as much of the roots out as possible as these will remain under your plants and resprout very soon with the rain. Pulling them out later will disturb your freshly planted plants.
  2. After the first or second rains, target the annual grasses (May: intro to annual weedy grasses). Follow up with a session if need be (June - July: follow up on annual weedy grasses).
  3. After the last rains, target the annual grasses again so that the last are removed before they set seed. No new ones will come up for the rest of summer, until next year when the seeds in the soil will come through (Nov: test on annual grasses).

It is best to follow up any weeding by covering the freshly exposed soil with a groundcover, mulch, or if in a pathway, dampened and compacted sawdust is best. If you don’t have any of these materials, the next best thing is to push the soil back in and pat it back down as disturbed and loosened soil is easily colonised by a fresh batch of weed. Covering the soil is best because it keep the soil from losing water, keeps the sun from baking the soil, and keeps the weeds from sprouting up by denying them light. They grow where the light hits the soil.


Species Notes
Arctotheca calendula Easy to grow
Arctotis stoechadifolia Easy to grow
Carpobrotus acinaciformis Easy to grow
Carpobrotus edulis Easy to grow
Gazania rigens var. rigens Easy to grow
Gazania rigens var. uniflora Easy to grow
Eriocephalus africanus Easy to grow
Metalasia muricata Easy to grow
Pelargonium capitatum Easy to grow
Pelargonium cucullatum Easy to grow
Tetragonia fruticosa Easy to grow
Seriphium plumosum Easy to grow
Solanum africanum
Plectranthus neochilus Easy to grow

This work is made possible, in part, by the following organisation(s).

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