Water-wise gardening enables the gardener to create an attractive, colourful garden that uses far less water than a water-thirsty garden. This is also a move towards a more natural “African” style of gardening nurtured by the growing awareness of South Africa’s unique flora: indigenous plants have become fashionable.
- Grow the right plants – choose indigenous, drought-resistant plants that are adapted to the local conditions. Prioritise planting with “native” species of plants that occur naturally in this region and keep your garden free of alien invasive species. Try to do most of the planting in the beginning of the rainy season so that the plants have time to establish themselves before the dry season. You will need to feed indigenous plants, as the soil becomes leached and nutrient deficient over time, especially in the Western Cape. An organic, balanced, slow-release fertilizer can be used every six weeks in the growing season.
- Group plants according to their water needs – water thirsty plants need regular watering in summer so they are best grouped together. Special plants with high water demands should be close to the house, entrance or living areas so that they are easy to water and can be enjoyed daily. The plants with a low water requirement usually also need less maintenance.
- Prepare the soil well - whatever the soil type (sand, clay or loam) the quality and water-holding capacity can be improved by adding plenty of compost. Compost enriches soil with nutrients; encourages earthworm activity; and improves soil aeration and drainage. Soil improvement is an ongoing activity: ideally compost twice a year. Organic matter that can be used for compost: manure, straw, lawn clippings, garden refuse, pine needles. This promotes the growth of healthy plants which will require less water and be more disease-resistant than plants that are underfed. Before planting, it is essential to dig in large amounts of well-decomposed compost.
- Much more mulch - lay down a thick layer of mulch between the plants. Mulch should be at least 7 cm thick. It helps to keep the soil cool and reduces water evaporation, run-off and soil erosion and prohibits the growth of weeds. (Remove weeds by hand, never turn over the soil.) Different materials can be used as mulch such as compost, bark, leaves, wood chips, straw, peach pips or pine needles. Organic mulches have the advantage of adding nutrient to the soil as they break down but have to be replaced regularly. Inorganic mulches like pebbles or stone chips are effective hard-landscaping materials.
- Keep lawns to a minimum – to maintain a lush green lawn during the dry months requires a lot of water regularly. This is “mission impossible” with the implementation of the City of Cape Town’s Level 2 water restrictions. Watering is allowed only on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays for a maximum of one hour either before 09:00 or after 16:00. First replace areas of lawn which are not growing well, such as shady areas or along footpaths – use mulch for informal footpaths. Then decide how much lawn space you need for outdoor entertaining, children and pets and replace the excess with hardy groundcovers or a water-wise flower bed or interesting paving. To ensure the remaining lawn withstands periods of less watering use fertilizer to encourage root growth (potassium rich) rather than leaf growth (nitrogen rich) and hope that it stays healthy to bounce back after the drought.
- Water correctly – watering depends on the soil type, irrigation equipment, the weather and the plant species. Determine the soil type, whether sandy, clay-like or loamy soil. With sandy soil, the water drains quickly beyond the reach of the plant roots so this requires short, frequent watering. Clay soil has a high water-holding capacity, so it is best to give a deep watering less often and especially water trees and shrubs well so that the roots are encouraged to grow deeper. Only water early morning or evenings when evaporation is at its lowest and avoid watering during windy periods and, of course, only water your garden when necessary. With Level 2 water restrictions, watering is not permitted within 24 hours of rainfall that provides adequate saturation.
- Provide shelter from wind and sun - create different areas in the garden to enjoy by planting indigenous trees for shade and hedges and shrubs to act as windbreaks.