With the recent drought in South Africa, homeowners have become more savvy in the way they use water in their homes. Many have installed rainwater harvesting systems, whilst others have installed boreholes to utilise groundwater. These measures go some way to making us water-wise, but despite these measures homeowners may still wonder what to do about their gardens. Many gardens still incorporate one or more exotics 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, but this is not necessarily the case, and there are many plant 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. Deciduous bulbs and trees go dormant in winter, and can naturally survive periods of drought. And many grassland species are inherently water-wise, so incorporating these in your garden will help lower your water requirements.
Before we look at a list of possible plants, here are some other changes you can make to your garden to make it a more water-wise space:
- Reduce the size of your lawn, or create a lawn-free garden
Lawns may require up to 25mm of water per week in summer (in Gauteng) in order to keep them lush, whilst a water-wise bed will require much less water. So reducing the size of your lawn and changing it to an indigenous garden bed is a great way to reduce your water requirements.
- Zone your plants based on their water requirements
If you are going to make changes to your garden, try to zone your plants based on their water requirements. For example, if you want a rose garden or a food garden, dedicate specific areas for these plants so that you can water those spaces accordingly.
- Incorporate already existing natural habitats into your new layout
If you already have an existing indigenous grassland or woodland on your property, incorporate it into your new landscape. Think of it as your own private nature reserve, or an exclusion zone for wildlife. To make it accessible cut back some of the foliage and add pathways and seating areas so you can journey through and enjoy the space.
- Use mulch and do not turn the soil or rake up leaves
Mulch and fallen leaves act as a 'blanket' to protect your soil, helping with water retention, and eventually breaking down to become compost. Some people worry that leaves look 'messy', and ask their gardeners to rake them up and dig the soil. But this leads to poor quality soil, resulting in a lower water infiltration rate, drainage problems, soil erosion, and dust around the home. Instead of raking up leaves and digging the soil, leave the leaves in place (as happens naturally in our wild habitats), or cover the bare soil with groundcovers.
- Choose locally indigenous plant species
Locally indigenous plants - such as those growing in a nearby nature reserve - are already adapted to your climate, and once established will require little supplemental watering. So designing a garden using locally indigenous species will allow you to create a wonderfully water-wise space, as well as increasing the biodiversity of your area.
To get you started, here are some well-known South African plants worth considering when changing your ‘thirsty’ garden into a water-wise space. Keep in mind that these species occur in different parts of the country, so may not be locally indigenous to your area. Use the list as a guide, and remember that South Africa is home to a rich diversity of plants. My goal is not to limit your selection, but rather to get you started on your indigenous garden journey. Once gardening becomes an obsession (yes, it can!), speak to your local nursery about locally indigenous species you can add your home.
Herewith are 15 water-wise plants for your garden:
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.
These grass-like perennials have become ubiquitous on South African verges and in gardens. They are hardy, and once established require little watering or maintenance. A few varieties are available, including Dietes grandiflora with white flowers, Dietes bicolor with yellow flowers, and Dietes iridioides for shaded areas of the garden. They can be mass-planted to create beautiful backdrops to a bed, or used as filler shrubs for dry areas in the garden.
Tulbaghia (Wild Garlic) is one of the hardiest species on this list, and has become 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 can even be planted in a wetland to take up nutrients from the water. It is generally a fuss-free plant provided it is used in a sunny to semi-shade position, and clumps can be split after a few years and used elsewhere in the garden.
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.
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 grey-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.
This hardy, evergreen succulent has become 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, especially Grey Go-away-birds (Grey Louries). 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.
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. Popular naturally occurring species include Aloe arborescens (Krantz Aloe), Aloe marlothii (Mountain Aloe), and Aloe Ferox (Bitter Aloe). Note that many Aloe species suffer from a leaf scale which can turn the plants white, and homeowners should be proactive in removing this. Snout beetle is also a common problem, as it can damage leaves and the stem of the plants. To prevent these problems avoid overwatering your aloes, and consult your local nursery for eco-friendly solutions.
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 is a very low-growing groundcover, and although it requires some water to establish itself, it is ideal for areas where homeowners 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 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.
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 popular, but South African homeowners 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 on the patio or indoors.
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.
This clump-forming groundcover has tubular succulent green leaves, giving it a grass-like appearance. It spreads quickly, producing star-shaped yellow or orange flowers borne on tall spikes. It 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.
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 homeowners 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.
And finally, South Africa is home to a diverse array of indigenous grasses, many of which are some of our hardiest and most water-wise plants. Some grasses can be difficult to cultivate, but those that are available in nurseries usually make beautiful additions to residential and commercial gardens. Popular species include Aristida junciformis and Melinis repens (pictured above), but there are many others, so if you are wanting to create a water-wise garden then consider visiting your local indigenous nursery and trying a few species out. Apart from being water-wise, grasses will also give your garden a new foliage texture, adding contrast and a sense of movement as they shift in the breeze.