We live in a country where water resources are limited and the threat of water restrictions is ever present. It is therefore not surprising that a common concern for many South African gardeners is the conservation of water.
These tips will enable you to protect this precious resource by establishing your own low maintenance, cost-effective waterwise garden.

The key elements involved in waterwise gardening include the following:

1. Knowing your soil

To find out what type of soil you have, perform a simple soil test. Dig down about 15 cm and lift a small sample into a glass jar. Add twice as much water as soil and allow the sample to stand, undisturbed, until the water clears.

The organic matter floating at the top of the water indicates the soil’s humus content. The richer the soil is in humus, the better the soil is at absorbing and retaining water, reducing water run-off and protecting the valuable topsoil.

If your soil is high in clay or sand it is necessary to apply compost frequently until the soil’s structure begins to improve, after which you can apply it less regularly.

The presence of soil borne creatures, such as earthworms, indicates a healthy, fertile soil. They recycle the organic matter in the soil and in so doing develop fertile soil. By moving through the soil they enhance aeration and drainage. To encourage them, keep your soil well mulched and add chopped organic material such as garden refuse and kitchen waste.

Avoid using pesticides and artificial fertilisers, as these are toxic to earthworms and other helpful organisms living in your soil.

2. Mulching

Mulching describes the practice of covering the soil with a layer of organic or inorganic material. Mulching is done primarily to reduce water evaporation from the soil, which it does by acting as a barrier that prevents the moisture in the soil from being transferred to the atmosphere.

This layer also inhibits weed germination and growth as it prevents sunlight getting to the seeds in the soil, thus the seeds remain dormant and eventually die.

Earthworms and other insects rely on mulch for protection from the extremes of the seasons and on organic mulch as a source of food. Providing them with their requirements ensures their continued and beneficial presence.

Mulches should be approximately 8 cm deep and can consist of organic material, such as pine needles, bark chips, straw, nutshells and fallen leaves, or inorganic material such as chipped stone and pebbles. Both are equally as effective and can, to an extent, be incorporated as part of your overall design theme.

3. Plant choice

Consider your climate when selecting the plants to be utilised in your waterwise garden. A good idea is to plant up a large part of your garden with endemic plants because they generally require less water than exotics.

Although you may think that this would make your garden look duller in winter, some indigenous trees have interesting bark patterns that can be incorporated as a feature.

You can also screen these sections by planting some evergreen species, ensuring that your garden remains aesthetically pleasing and functional throughout the seasons.

Plants that have adapted to survive on very little water can be recognised by the following characteristics:
· Hairy leaves
· Small or needle like leaves
· Closing leaves
· A waxy cuticle
· Grey foliage
· Lighter underside
· Fewer leaves
· A strong internal structure
· Succulent foliage
· Strong, deep root systems

4. Watering

Watering, possibly the most important aspect to a successful waterwise garden, is most effective if you water at the correct time of day and adapt your watering routine during the seasons. Appropriate plant groupings are also important in ensuring the least amount of water is wasted during watering.

· In summer, water early in the morning when evaporation levels are lower.
· In winter, watering periods should be shorter and later in the mornings.
· Group plants according to their moisture requirements – you could save up to 80% of your overall water usage by ‘zoning’ correctly.
· A professionally installed irrigation system is extremely economical in water usage as well as being convenient and timesaving.

By following these basic tips, you could save an immense amount of water over time, thereby contributing to saving the environment; all this without breaking the bank, destroying the theme of your garden or wasting your time.
You will also encourage soil friendly insects as well as other wildlife resulting in a natural, bio-diverse paradise on your doorstep.

Information supplied by Jo-Anne Hilliar Landscape Design Consultants ‘ (031) 765 8517 / 082 447 4824.

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