Clever ways with water

With water shortages already a seasonal way of life in many parts of South Africa, maintaining a beautiful garden is increasingly becoming a science rather than an art. But it can be done. The key to gardening successfully in a time of climate change is to make very drop count!

Rethink your garden layout and plantings:

  • Create different water zones in your borders by grouping plants with similar watering needs together. Plants can be grouped into those that are high water users, those that are medium water users and those that have minimal water requirements. Group the high water users near the patio - where you can see and enjoy them best - and the low water users in less visible areas. Position the medium water users in-between; then you can water each area according to its needs.
  • Reduce your water-loving lawn area. Taking into account your lifestyle and family requirements, is the existing lawn area really essential? Small odd shapes or long, narrow pathways of lawn are particularly water-wasteful. Replace with extended borders, paving stones, gravel or water wise ground covers.
  • Select plants that thrive in your particular climate. In this way you will be working with nature with regard to rainfall and temperature and the trees and shrubs will not require much watering once they are established.
  • Direct water from gutter downpipes towards those garden beds that need a lot of water.

Water wisely:

  • Water in the early morning or late afternoon to reduce water loss to evaporation.
  • In winter, water in the morning and water less often when evaporation rates are lower. Avoid watering deciduous plants when they are dormant.
  • Water less if the weather is cool and overcast or if it has just rained. Some irrigation systems have rain sensors, which automatically turn the system off if there has been rain.
  • Avoid watering your garden on windy days, when evaporation rates are higher.
  • A drip irrigation system is the most water efficient technique of watering.
  • Sandy soils require more frequent watering with smaller amounts of water because they don't hold water around the plants' roots. Clay soils absorb and retain larger amounts of water and need watering less frequently. Irrigate clay soils slowly as water infiltrates slowly. Loam soils are ideal as they have the right balance of water retention and drainage.
  • Make the soil more water retentive by regularly adding compost.


Watering borders:

  • Adjust sprinkler heads as the plants in the border grow and block the sprinkler spray.
  • Have different branches of the irrigation system going to the different water usage zones in the border and water each zone on an appropriate schedule for its needs.
  • Choose water smart shrubs, perennials and grasses for most of the border.
  • Increase the water retention of soil by regularly adding compost. In sandy soils, this ensures that water is held around the roots instead of percolating downwards. In clay soil, it increases the depth of the root growth.
  • Mulch the soil. This dramatically reduces water loss due to evaporation, so that less frequent watering is required. Mulch also, over time, enriches soil as it decomposes.
  • Add water retaining polymers to the planting soil - these hold water around the roots of plants.


Watering lawns:

  • Water lawns only when they need it. A lawn needs water if the grass blades do not spring back two minutes after being walked on and footprints are left, or if they take on a subtle bluish tinge.
  • Water deeply, and less often, to encourage deep root growth, which makes the lawn more drought resistant. In sandy soils, irrigate more frequently but not so deeply, as deep watering will percolate right past the root zone and be lost to the plant.
  • Aerate the lawn regularly to facilitate the penetration of water.
  • Lawns in shady areas need less water than lawn areas in full sun. Reduce irrigation in shady lawn areas by monitoring the soil moisture and irrigating accordingly.
  • Install a rain gauge. Check it after every rainfall and then reduce your lawn irrigation accordingly.


  • Avoid having trees in the lawn area. They deprive the lawn of water, especially shallow-rooting trees.
  • Water in the early morning. This allows the lawn to dry out during the day, making it less susceptible to diseases. It is also usually less windy at this time.


Watering containers:

  • Cover the surface soil in pots with a mulch to retain moisture.
  • Choose non-porous containers that retain water, such as glazed terracotta pots and plastic containers. Alternatively, paint the inside of porous pots, such as terracotta pots, with a liquid sealant such as marine or other waterproof paint, or line them with polythene with a hole cut out at the bottom for drainage.
  • Choose a potting mix high in organic matter, which will hold in water. In addition, add moisture-retaining polymers as per instructions, to the potting mix.
  • Group together container plants with similar watering needs.
  • Check the soil moisture before watering. It is better to slightly under-water than to allow the soil to become waterlogged. Don't worry if your plants wilt a little during the heat of the day. To test for moisture levels, push your finger into the soil up to the first knuckle joint. If the soil feels damp at that stage and sticks to your finger, the plant does not need water.

Place drip trays or saucers under containers of waterholic plants - these will collect surplus water, which the plant will draw up as the soil dries out.

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