Top 14 water-wise plants for your garden

With the recent drought in South Africa, home owners have become more savvy in the way they use water around their homes. Many have resorted to installing rain water harvesting or grey water systems (properly filtered) in order to irrigate their gardens, whilst others have installed boreholes to utilise groundwater. These techniques go a long way to making us all ‘water-wise,’ but despite these measures, home owners may still have the problem of how to adequately water their gardens. Many gardens still incorporate one or more exotic species that may require higher than normal watering cycles, and this is where the use of indigenous, water-wise planting can be beneficial. It is sometimes assumed that water-wise planting means only using succulents or aloes, but this is not necessarily the case, and there are many species that may not be considered ‘succulent’, but are nonetheless beneficial in their own way to help you conserve water in your garden. Groundcovers, for example, can spread to cover the soil, thereby helping to conserve water by reducing evaporation. In addition home owners can also reduce the size of their lawns, replacing these areas with shrubs and groundcovers that do not require as much water to keep them alive and flourishing. There are even home owners who have done away with lawn entirely, creating lawn-free gardens that dramatically lower their watering requirements, as well as reducing their maintenance costs.

To help you on your way, we’ve selected 14 indigenous plant species that are worth considering when changing your ‘thirsty’ garden into a water-wise, wildlife haven:

Aptenia cordifolia

This beautiful succulent groundcover is a favourite for retaining walls and dry patches of soil where other plants may struggle. It is rich-green in colour, with dainty pinkish-red flowers and can spread rapidly, helping to cover an area in a short space of time. It can be used to stabilise soil in areas which may be susceptible to run-off or erosion, or can be used as a lawn replacement for difficult to reach areas. A golden-coloured variety is also available.

Dietes spp.

These grass-like perennials have become ubiquitous on South African verges and in gardens. They are very hardy, and once established require little watering or maintenance. A few varieties are available, including Dietes grandiflora with white flowers, and Dietes bicolor with yellow flowers. They can be mass-planted to create beautiful backdrops to a bed, or used as filler shrubs for dry areas in the garden.

Tulbaghia violacea

Tulbaghia (Wild Garlic) is one of the hardiest species on the list, and has become very popular with gardeners and landscape architects around the country. It has a long-flowering period, and when mass planted creates a stunning display with its pinkish-mauve flowers. It can survive extended dry spells as well as heavy rain, and is generally a fuss-free plant provided it is used in a sunny to semi-shade position. Clumps can be split after a few years and used elsewhere in the garden.

Agapanthus praecox

Agapanthus is one of the most popular plants in South Africa, and is cultivated world-wide. The beautiful blue or white blooms look stunning during the summer flowering season, and help to liven up an otherwise dull area of the garden. The evergreen foliage provides colour throughout the year, and the plants can withstand a fair amount of neglect. Once again, Agapanthus forms clumps, which can be split after a few years and reused elsewhere in the garden.

Plectranthus neochilus

This aromatic succulent perennial is ideal for a rockery or retaining wall where it holds a neat shape and provides a wonderful colour contrast with its greyish-green foliage. Purple-blue lobster-shaped flowers add to its appeal. Cuttings root easily and can be used elsewhere in the garden as filler groundcovers, or mass planted to form a beautiful border to a bed. It is hardy and water-wise, and care should be taken not to over-water it which may result in the plant becoming ‘leggy’ and losing its neat shape.

Carpobrotus spp.

This hardy, evergreen succulent has become very popular in landscape architecture, and is frequently used as a replacement for lawn on verges. At the coast it is used to stabilise sand-dunes, and can be grown in areas where other plants may struggle. Cuttings root easily, and the triangular shaped leaves and fruit are favoured by birds. It generally prefers sunny to semi-shaded areas, where it will spread rapidly to cover bare soil. Common species include C. edulis with yellow flowers, and C. deliciosus with pinkish-purple flowers.

Aloe spp.

Aloes are hardy, beautiful species that can be used as shrubs or as structural plants in water-wise gardens. Numerous species exist in Southern Africa, and a number of hybrids have been cultivated for the market. Care should be taken not to over-water aloes, which may increase their susceptibility to disease. Popular species include Aloe arborescens (Krantz Aloe), Aloe marlotii (Mountain Aloe), and Aloe Ferox (Bitter Aloe). Note that many Aloe species suffer from a leaf scale which can turn the plants white, and home owners should be proactive in removing this – consult your local nursery for a solution.

Strelitzia reginae

Strelitzia reginae is one of South Africa’s favourite exports, and is cultivated worldwide – it has even become the official flower of Los Angeles! Strelitzias are hardy, and once established can withstand long dry spells and a fair amount of neglect. Plants can be grown in both sun and shade, and provide a beautiful structural display when in flower. Flowers resemble the head of a crane, hence the common name Crane Flower or Bird of Paradise, and both the leaves and flowers can be used in a cut-flower display.

Dymondia margaretae

Dymondia is a very low-growing groundcover, and although it requires some water to establish itself, it is ideal for areas where home-owners want to replace lawn with a low-maintenance, water-wise solution. The grey-green foliage provides a wonderful effect, and yellow daisy-like flowers add to the display. Dymondia works well between pavers in a sunny area, or planted in a bare patch of soil in the front of a bed. It is drought resistant and will tolerate a small amount of foot traffic – all in all a wonderful species for the water-conscious gardener.

Asparagus densiflorus

Asparagus groundcovers are hardy, drought-resistant bedding plants. They prefer semi-shade conditions, but will survive in full sun or shade, and can be used to good effect in a planter on a patio. The ‘Meyersii’ variety (Foxtail Fern) is perhaps the most well known of the cultivars, with its fox-tail like fronds, whilst the ‘Sprengeri’ variety is useful as a spreading groundcover to help prevent soil erosion.

Sansevieria spp.

Popularly known as ‘Mother-in-laws’ Tongue, Sansevieria species are hardy plants ideally suited to shade conditions. They are frequently used indoors, and recent studies have shown that they can act effectively as air purifiers. The exotic species/varieties have become quite popular, but South African home owners should look towards using some of the local species, such as S. hyacinthoides, S. aethiopica, and S. pearsonii. Large clumps can be split and reused elsewhere in the garden or in spare containers for the patio or indoors.

Drimiopsis maculata

The Leopard Lily is a deciduous bulb that makes a wonderful groundcover if mass planted. It prefers semi-shade conditions, but will survive in sunny areas and can handle a fair amount of neglect. Use it to liven up a dry, semi-shaded corner of your garden, or add it to a mixed container. It has beautiful spotted leaves (hence the common name), and produces tiny white flowers on long stalks which are pollinated by moths at night.

Bulbine spp.

These clump-forming groundcovers have tubular succulent green leaves, giving them a grass-like appearance. They spread quickly, producing star-shaped yellow or orange flowers borne on tall spikes. They can be mass planted for a water-wise border, or added to a verge to cover bare patches of soil. Cuttings can be taken and planted at the base of young trees to assist with water-retention and to help prevent accidental damage from weed-eaters.

Chlorophytum comosum

Popularly known as Hen-and-chickens, Chlorophytum comosum can be used to good effect to cover bare soil in semi-shaded conditions in your garden. Mass planted they make a stunning display, and work beautifully on a semi-shaded embankment or on a retaining wall. The variegated varieties also brighten up those dull spots in the garden, whilst the green variety adds a beautiful, lush forest effect. Some home owners prefer to cut the ‘chickens’ off the mother plant, but it is often preferable to leave these in place as they will soon root themselves and help to spread the plant around your garden, thereby helping to prevent soil erosion and aiding water retention.