Ten top tips to save water in the garden

Gardens are some of my favourite things, but can be like thirsty sponges that suck up hundreds of litres of water. Good for the mind, and the heart, your garden should also be good to the planet that it grows on. To save water in your garden is a great place to start. (If you are wondering why this matters, read this).

Actually, since I’ve started learning more, this topic has turned into one of my favourites. For one, water wise gardening provides the opportunity to create a wildlife oasis in your own yard. If you choose to go indigenous (more about why you should below) your garden will become a haven for all kinds of feathered and other creatures.

Then, the amount of plants you can choose from is astounding. Say goodbye to those bougainvilleas and bottle brushes. Instead, welcome shapely and colourfull succulents, aromatic, soft and velvety plant selections to your garden. Done right, xeriscaping also saves money, time and effort. A xeriscape, by the way, is a garden or landscape created to need little or no watering or other maintenance, often in dry areas. But, when times are dry, these beauties will make their exotic neighbours look bleak in comparison.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a garden to experiment with (one of the (few!) cons of working from the road). This brings me to my other favourite thing about the topic – water wise gardeners. They love talking about their gardens, and sharing tips about what works. So this blog is written with input from them, research of my own and visits to some of Rand Water’s water wise demonstration gardens here in South Africa.

Ironically, my best-loved interview took place in smoggy Joburg. Grey on a good day, public gardens give thousands of Joburgers a chance to grab a breath of fresh air. One of the city’s biggest green lungs is Delta Park, a 104 ha large public garden taken care of by resident manager (and avid gardener) Geoffrey Lockwood.

The garden includes a bird sanctuary, expansive lawns that extend over pleasant slopes and a less manicured wilderness area. The park also includes one of the mentioned water-wise demonstration gardens. Plus, all of this is located in South Africa, a country renowned for its long history with drought. All of this makes Geoff an excellent person to chat to about how to save water in the garden.

What is water wise gardening?

In a nutshell, there are four common principles to save water in the garden. First you have to grow plants which require less water and are adapted to local conditions. Second, you often have to reduce your lawn area. Third, you have to improve your soil’s water retention. Last, you have to water your garden correctly and only when necessary.

When done right, the benefits of water-wise gardening are many, says Geoff. “It provides the habitat for a whole lot of wildlife, is good for your psyche, is beautiful and you can keep it going through minimal intervention.”

However, he points out that “people have to do the research and get the right plants” to reap these benefits. To get you started, follow these ten tips to save water in the garden, and build a beautiful and sustainable green space along the way.

Tip 1: Plan before you plant

The water wise demonstration garden at Delta Park was looking a tad bleak when I visited, but learning why will help prevent the same pitfalls. Geoff says that one of the problems, is that the garden was established on shallow soils. “If your garden has shallow soils, you are starting on the back-foot, as water retention will be a problem,” he says. The key lesson here is that a water wise garden “takes planning and research.”

First, before you start revamping your garden, you must have a good idea of the character of the piece of earth that you have to work with. Find out what your soil is like and look at slopes, and the general lay of the land.

Fortunately, a lot of people working at nurseries today are very knowledgeable on issues like planning and water wise gardening. Visit a couple in your area to find a local expert to work with. You can even take them some of the soil in your garden for their advice, says Geoff. “Don’t be afraid to ask for help.”

Tip 2: Place plants with similar water needs together  

Now that you better understand the character of your property, divide it into zones. “Group plants with similar water needs together,” says Geoff. “Look at the layout of your garden too. Group plants with shallower root systems in places with shallow soil and identify frost zones, for example.”

Best is to grab a pencil and piece of paper to draw up a rough plan of your garden. You can include stuff like your living and play areas, and where your service lines and taps are located. You should also indicate existing trees and large shrubs that you’d like to keep. 

Gardener Trudi Rattray from Bronkhorstspruit advises using trees to your advantage. Place plants that need alternate sun and shade under their leafy canopy. The shade also helps reduce evaporation, and saves you watering too much.  

Now you can create your hydrozones or, those groups of place plants with similar water needs. Rand Water advises to place high-water zones close to the house, as well as special plants, to make hand watering during drought easier. Place low-water plants toward the perimeter of your yard. 

Useful tips for hydro-zoning your garden from Rand Water: 

  • High water use:
    • Lawns, vegetables, water loving plants and container plants
    • In winter, water 2 – 3 times every fortnight
    • In summer water 2 – 3 times a week
    • Eg. Camellias, azaleas, arums
  • Moderate water use:
    • Plants needing more water than is provided by the rainfall in your area
    • In winter, water once a month
    • In summer, water once a week
    • Eg knophofia, gardenia and roses
  • Low water use:
    • Plants that thrive mainly on rainfall
    • In winter, water once every two months.
    • In summer, water once a month
    • Eg. Karee, abelia, clivia
  • No water use:
    • Hardscaping (patios, paved areas, driveways)
    • Established, local indigenous trees and shrubs
    • Succulents
    • Eg crassula, portulacaria, aloes  

Tip 3: Go (very) local 

The best way to ensure that your plants adapt to the local conditions, is to plant local species. According to Geoff, this does not just mean selecting plants indigenous to the country but, “locally indigenous”. At Delta Park, this means indigenous to the Highveld area.

This was once unheard of. The park owes its existence to the expansion of Johannesburg’s sewage scheme during the 1930s. At the time, rural farmland on the outskirts of the city was transformed into the Delta Sewage Disposal Works (for a great read on the history of the park, read this article by Jane Carruthers or this article by the Delta Park Environmental Centre).

“A lot of what was originally planted was exotic plants. When we took over the management, they assured us that indigenous trees and plants would never grow here. There were many cork oak trees and chestnuts.” Geoff explains that the alien trees were originally put to work. These thirsty trees were planted on areas where water needed to be drained, and were very efficient, though as they were deciduous, they were only effective during the seasons that they carried leaves.

Today we know that planting indigenous is not only possible, but preferable. “Indigenous plants increase biodiversity,” says Geoff. “A wildlife friendly garden is where visiting birds and animals can become breeding residents. To do this you need to create a complete habitat which offers food, water and a safe environment, and one of the best ways to do this is to choose indigenous plants.”

Personally, over and beyond the water saved, I think the opportunity to create a wildlife-friendly garden is one of the best reasons to choose locally indigenous plants for your garden. 

Plus, during times of drought, your garden is highly likely to survive. Capetonian Jason Mingo puts their choice to go indigenous down as the main reason their garden survived the recent severe drought, and bounced back to flourish again afterwards. 

Tip 4: Choose plants that have adapted to drought

If you choose to go locally-indigenous or not, for a water wise garden, choose plants that have adapted to drought. A walk around the water-wise gardens in Delta Park, and the Pretoria National Botanical Gardens, will give you many fun and rewarding options to choose from.

Of those available, succulents are probably to most renowned water savers. These drought busters store water in their thick, fleshy leaves. Plants with small leaves are also a good choice. Smaller leaves mean that there is a smaller surface for water to evaporate from (look out for Acacia species).

Strelitzias are popular inhabitants in gardens all over South Africa. They are strikingly beautiful – a hardy-looking plant that looks like it can stand the test of time. These looks don’t lie. These plants have strong internal structures that support the leaf and prevent wilting when water becomes scarce, allowing the Strelitzia to stand strong where other plants droop under the heat. Look for similar structured plants for the same results.

Many of the plants in the demonstration gardens also have soft and hairy leaves. This soft fuzz helps reduce water loss because it slows air down as it moves over the leaf (like the Leucosidea). Another character trait of plants that know how to keep cool are light colours. Greyish or blue-green leaves reflect the rays of the sun, helping to keep the plant cools and lose less water (like the ever-popular echeverias). The options to choose from really are endless. One of my favourites to add to the list are plants with aromatic oils, like lavender. The oils in some plants form a protective covering around the leaf, reducing transpiration.

Tip 5: Water smart

Geoff says the best time to water is in the early evening, as this is when the least evaporation and the highest infiltration takes place. “Do not water your garden in the middle of the day,” he says.

If you are irrigating your garden, drip irrigation is the most water-efficient method, though a word of warning: The drip irrigation system at the Delta Park water wise garden is regularly nibbled on by rats. As such, Geoff says that they’ll have to look for a natural rat control system before they bring it back online – something that you might want to think about before you implement yours.

Also have a look at this short article from Save Our Water over in San Francisco on things to keep in mind before you install an irrigation system. I also found this video handy for a quick overview and tips to install a drip irrigation system: 

If you are a gardener with a tiny space (like, pot-sized) remember that containers can dry quickly, especially on a concrete patio in full sun. Give these a thorough watering once a week, until it runs out the drainage holes. On other days, apply smaller amounts of water.

On the other hand, don’t over-water your pots either. The soil should not feel soggy or have water pooling on top. Feel the soil to determine whether or not it is already damp before watering.

Tip 6: Let go of the lawn

Lawns are water guzzlers, and though most water-wise garden call for a reduced lawn, there are other options. Delta Park boasts enormous lawns – none of which are watered at all. This means that they turn brown during the dry winters, but recover again with the summer rains. “Go for indigenous lawn types or ground covers,” says Geoff.

Delta Park Johannesburg lawns
The lawns that Geoff takes care of at Delta Park, Johannesburg.

If you do have a lawn, try and retain the water in it. Trudi says she never rakes leaves off her lawn, as these keep the lawn moist long after watering. This brings us to another key to save water in your garden: mulch. 

Tip 7: Mulch more!

Mulch is any material that can be placed on the surface of the soil, preventing the water from evaporating before it gets to the plant roots. It’s quick, easy and cheap to use, but hugely important to anybody that wants to save water in the garden. “This is integral for the water that gets into the soil to actually do its job,”says Geoff. Popular types of mulch includes wood chips and leaves, but Geoff says anything would do, even rocks or newspapers. “There are various tricks that you can research too, like dry straw,” he says.

The benefits of mulching go beyond keeping the water in the soil to the benefits of your plants. As the mulch decomposes, the organic matter processed by bacteria create fertile conditions for other integral living organisms such as earthworms, which then make a happy home for other creatures like birds. Wood chippings are often made from alien invasive plants, so you can help to put these unwanted species to good use. Bark chips are often used for a more formal look.

If you don’t want to keep topping up your mulch, go for pebbles. Combining different types can create an interesting effect in your garden, while they are non-biodegradable. 

Even for a semi-serious gardener, the importance of mulching cannot be stressed enough. Mulch will prevent weeds from growing. It makes for richer soil, as you are feeding your beds with organic material (without much effort). It also stops falling raindrops from compacting your precious soil, and organic mulch regulates soil temperature.

Tip 8: Compost is king

Compost is good for the nutrition of your soil, and for its capacity to hold water. Ideally, your garden should have soil that both drains well, and holds water well. Compost helps your soil do both. 

Adding compost to sandy soil will help slow the water down. In more dense, clay soils, compost help creates pockets to fill with water and air. When the soil ideal for the plant roots to get to the water, you water less frequently.

Don’t forget your pots when it comes to adding some love in the form of compost. Container soil should be high in organic matter too. 

Tip 9: Make use of the rain

Installing a rainwater harvesting tank on your property will provide you with a renewable supply of natural water with minimal impact on the environment. Regardless of the implementation cost, you should save money on your water bill, and have some extra water on hand during times of drought.

Installing a rain water tank is not hard, says Geoff, though it would take a little bit of modification to your drainage system.

The rainwater harvesting system installed at the Pretoria National Botanical Garden water wise demonstration garden.
The rainwater harvesting system installed at the Pretoria National Botanical Garden water wise demonstration garden.

There are many kinds of systems to choose, from highly involved and complicated systems to simply placing a barrel under a gutter. When choosing your system, consider the cost, if you can maintain it yourself, what size you need according to local rainfall patterns, how you will access the stored water, and where on your property you can place it, in order to make the best use of runoff.

Tip 10: Be smart about your pot placement

Place your potted plants together so the leaves of the plants can provide shade to keep each other cool. This will reduce water loss. Shelter from the wind will also help prevent evaporation.

Whether you have an established garden or are planning a new one, the more water wise you make it, the easier and cheaper is will be to maintain. Plus, I’m convinced your gardening satisfaction will increase ten-fold. 

If you have any tips to save water in the garden please let me know.  Or, what about some pics of your gardening success? I’d be happy to share it on the blog. 

Otherwise, I’m always saving new ideas on plants, layout, xeriscaping and more on my Pinterest board on the topic. Check it out!

Comments 6

    1. Post

      Yes! The more I learn, the more I realise that saving water (and lots of other stuff along the way) doesn’t need to be big steps, changes or spending. Sometimes the easy, and less obvious, stuff can make all the difference you need.

    1. Post

      Kaylee hi! You are completely correct. The beauty about writing about stuff like this is that, hopefully, knowledge like this plants a seed (excuse the pun) that might make somebody think differently, that might make someone live a little differently, that might leave to big improvements to the planet. Baby steps, no? Thanks for checking in!

    1. Post

      Christina hi! A flower farmer!? How wonderful! Congratulations. If possible at all, please check back in and let me know how you get along, and if you have any water wise tips to share. Or just send a pic of your flowers. Especially if there are any indigenous species lurking about 🙂

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