Get water wise for a year round, beautiful garden

OCTOBER 20, 2016

Droughts are a major feature of the South African climate due to its location, topography, and below-average rainfall. Living in a country vulnerable to drought requires citizens to do their part in mitigating the impacts of these droughts.

We all know what to do in the home to reduce water use, but the plants you use in your garden can also limit your water consumption, and still have a beautiful outdoor space. “The rule of thumb is to plant indigenous plants in your garden,” advises Stone etc. founder and keen gardener, Mimi Rupp. “Indigenous plants are accustomed to our climate and survive our often harsh conditions.”

Water wise gardens focus on plants that thrive with little water and have certain characteristics that make them water efficient. By knowing these characteristics, you will be able to make a well informed decision around what you should and shouldn’t plant. Look for:

  • Small or needle-like leaves. This minimises the surface area for water to evaporate. Examples are ericas, most acacias, rosemary, origanum and thyme.
  • Few leaves. Some plants reduce water loss by dispensing with leaves altogether, or shedding during drought. Examples are the karee tree, acacias and  buffalo thorn.
  • Grey foliage deflects the sun’s rays, keeping it cooler which in turn reduces water loss. Examples are lavender, artemesia, arctotis and giant honey flower.
  • Hairs slow down air movement past the stomata, which reduces water loss. Examples are the silver tree, lamb’s ear, beach salvia and helichrysum.
  • Succulent leaves where water is stored in thick fleshy leaves to be available when necessary. Think of crassulas, aloes, echevarias and vygies.
  • The leaves of some plants close when they are water stressed. This reduces the amount of leaf exposed to sunlight and reduces water loss. Examples are acacias, Jerusalem sage and rock rose.
  • Waxy leaves prevent moisture loss. Examples are euonymus, kalanchoe and Indian hawthorn.
  • When ‘stressed’, plants with lighter leaves on once side, turn the lighter side upwards to reflect the sun away. Examples are wild olive tree, gazanias and indigenous buddlejas.
  • Plants with a strong internal skeleton support the leaf and prevents wilting during dry spells. Examples are strelitzia, restios, agaves and New Zealand flax.
  • Volatile oils in the stomata forms an extra protection against water loss. This is common in Mediterranean plants, an area which has hot dry summers. Examples are rosemary, lavender and sage.

Planting water wise plants

Group plants with similar water needs together and water these zones separately. A layer of mulch over the bed will keep soil moist for longer, and adding compost increases organic matter which improves the soil’s nutrient level and water-holding capacity.

“In planting indigenous plants, you have the added benefit of abundant wildlife that will visit your garden,” advises Rupp. “Birds, butterflies and dragonflies are all attracted to South Africa’s water wise plants and create added visual interest to your outside space.”

Water wise lawns

You can thank the British settlers who brought their ideas of lawns to our shores, but large areas of lawn are not climate appropriate in South Africa, and the trend is now away from the excessive use of lawn.

But if you do have a lawn cut grass at a higher level than usual to encourage deep roots and drought tolerance. Set mowers to cut at these heights:

  • kikuyu: 4-6cm
  • fine grasses (cynodons): 3-4cm
  • cool season evergreen grasses: 5-7cm

Never remove more than one third of the leaf blade. Grass is weakened if it grows too long between mows, so mow when the grass is about one-third taller than the recommended height. By doing this less leaf growth is removed, and the lawn is less stressed, thus needing less water.