El Niño ready 3: The Water Warrior Way

We’ve got some time from now (August) until summer when El Niño’s heat and dryness is predicted to reach us in full swing. Estimated to last for 9 to 12 months, it is to prepare a resilient garden and make the necessary changes to our habits and water collection infrastructure.

Having read article 1 and article 2, the topics of Earth Custodian and Water Warrior should be familiar tools to have for gardening in a heatwave. In this 3rd article of Life is Garden’s El Niño Preparedness Series, we will be digging our spades into some practical ways that you can save and efficiently manage your water consumption to keep your garden thriving.

To recap, a Water Warrior is part of the Earth Custodian’s everyday gardening habits - from water-wise practices to wildlife protection and rainwater harvesting. The Earth Custodian is both a mindset and ethos upgrade that recognises the gardener as more than just a plant grower, but an essential service individual who is conscious of the big-picture footprint their water habits have.

To be a Water Warrior means that we have ‘woken up’ to the accountability of our household’s water consumption and how our daily habits impact the country as a whole, as well as surrounding wildlife and the precious balance of Mother Nature. By extension, becoming a Water Warrior also means that we do not transfer all resource and infrastructure responsibility to municipalities and government.

 

In this article, we’ll be answering the following questions:

  • How can I affordably collect and store rainwater now?
  • How can I grow a resilient garden?
  • Is hydrozoning right for me?
  • How should I be watering my containers, beds, and lawn?

 

Before we dive in, this article is number 1 of 3 in Life is a Garden’s El Niño Preparedness Series. We recommend that you read them in chronological order for a comprehensive understanding. Together, these 3 articles will leave you well-informed and equipped.

Article 1: El Niño - the new climate cycle 

  • What is El Niño and why the change from La Nina?
  • What has Africa learned from El Niño in the past?
  • What can South Africa Expect? 
  • How will El Niño impact the home gardener?

 

Article 2: Gardener or Earth Custodian? 

  • What is the Good Gardener Ethos?
  • What is my conscious gardening advantage? 
  • How can I be a wildlife guardian and habitat creator?
  • How can I look after my family?

 

Article 3: The Water Warrior Way (you are here)

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1. How can I affordably collect and store rainwater now? 

We are fortunate to still be receiving rain in most parts of the country. Making the most of this free water source is crucial now in prepping for possible water shedding.

 

NOW is the time to:

  • Begin planting drought-tolerant plants and establish indigenous habitats for wildlife. Also, include small bodies of freshwater so that your visitors can come to recognise your garden as a safe and reliable resource stop. 
  • Harvest and store as much rainwater as possible. 
  • Take stock of all containers, barrels, buckets, and tanks you have available. Tally up how much water you are realistically able to store at a time and how you would go about utilising your harvested water for the garden. In other words, how will you get your stored water to your plants? Can you store enough water to sustain the garden for a week? How will you prevent unnecessary evaporation? Are you able to keep your containers sealed in a shaded area? Are there any cracks or leaks that need attention? 
  • Examine the available tools and infrastructure your home and garden have in place for optimal water use and storage. Greywater collection and water tanks are very handy (discussed later). Consider your budget and how much you have available for new products. 
  • Carefully take note of how your garden is laid out and consider how you will get water to further parts of the garden during water-challenged times. 
  • Begin noting how you have grouped plants together and think about whether their watering needs are similar or different. We will be looking into hydrozoning in part 3 of this article. 

 

Now that the gardening juices are flowing, below are some practical ways to harvest and store water according to your budget. We highly recommend that all Earth Custodians begin their wildlife guardianship and Water Warrior preparedness soon so that you can see which methods particularly work for your garden and make any adjustments. We hope that all our gardeners will have systems in place that still allow for all your favourite flowers to bloom and all your garden visitors to have a reliable home.  

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Free solutions 

  • Collect empty 2l and 5l bottles for rainwater storage. 
  • Place all buckets, bottles, and large containers you have in the rain, which you can then use to fill the collected plastic bottles with. Remember to seal your bottles and store them in the shade. A simple plastic funnel may come in handy to avoid spillage during water transfer. 

 

Budget options 

  • Purchase a large barrel to collect water from roof gutters in conjunction with using empty bottles. A lot of water can be harvested from gutter run-offs during a nice downpour. 
  • Remember to also purchase or DIY a cover for the barrel to prevent evaporation. You can use multiple barrels to collect from all available gutters on the roof and carport.  It would be a good idea to do some gutter maintenance while you’re at it to ensure all pathways are open and clean without any leaks. 

 

Permanent set-ups 

  • Invest in a rainwater tank that you can connect directly to your gutter/irrigation system. There are a few popular brands on the market with good reputations. Look for water tanks with pre-filtration options as well as suitable guttering and piping to transport the rainwater to the tank. 

*For more info on how rainwater tanks work, check out this link: https://www.rainharvest.co.za/2014/02/how-do-rainwater-tanks-work/ 

  • Install a greywater collection system. For this, your family will need to convert (if not already) to only using biodegradable soaps, shampoos, and detergents. Thankfully, times have finally caught up and the availability and variety of these products are very convenient. A greywater system is an investment for life and when paired with a rainwater tank, the garden and family can enjoy a newfound independence and freedom. 

*For more info on how greywater systems work, check out this link: https://elemental.green/complete-beginner-guide-to-greywater-systems/ 

*To see what eco-friendly cosmetics, hygiene essentials, and cleaning products are out there, check out Faithful by Nature and Wellness Warehouse (stores across SA and large online catalogues). Each stocks an incredible variety of products - from household cleaning to baby care and pet goodies. Many of their products are from locally-made sources and have fair-trade, cruelty-free, and Earth-friendly stamps of approval! 

https://www.faithful-to-nature.co.za/ 

https://www.wellnesswarehouse.com/

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2. How can I grow a resilient garden?

In addition to the above practical ways of harvesting and storing rainwater, there are a few other ways to ensure your garden thrives during the possible year-long El Niño cycle. Beyond the scope of gardening, changes to our in-house water use will also need to be made so that we can adopt a full-spectrum, holistic approach to our Water Warrior practices. 

*The Western Cape Government has put together this informative how-to document that lists plenty of ways you can save water in your home as well as how to manage water restrictions: https://www.westerncape.gov.za/general-publication/saving-water-your-home  

Life is a Garden and The South African Nursery Association (SANA) will continue to support you with relevant information and everyday solutions to El Niño-friendly gardening.

Check out these articles that address specific climate-appropriate practices:

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3. Is hydrozoning right for me?

Yes, most definitely! One of the best heat-resilient gardening strategies is to hydrozone your landscape. This is a Water Warrior practice where you group plants of similar water requirements together. You may have to do a bit of admin in the beginning, but once you have made the necessary transplants, this landscaping technique will save you both time and water. 

Hydrozoning also allows you to keep better track of your watering schedule and it prevents over/underwatering of plants. You can set your irrigation system to only water certain beds as opposed to the full garden that isn't actually at risk of dying any time soon. For example, a mixed bed with aloes and canna lilies are not the best match as aloes are low water and canna lilies are high. You can see that a bed like this would not be water-efficient as the aloes will be receiving unnecessary water.

The key is not to get rid of your beloved canna lilies, for example, but to provide these plants with a bedding bestie that has similar needs. Your Garden Centre will be able to give you great advice on which plants to pair up. If you are unsure about your current bedding companions, post a picture on Life is a Garden’s SA Seasonal Grow Guide group on Facebook and our experts will help you identify the plants and make helpful companion suggestions. 

 

Here are some top hydrozoning tips: 

  • For water-efficient, forget-me-friendly beds, group drought-hardy classics like aloes, plumbego, and bird of paradise together. Relocate all other plants according to their similar watering needs. Mulch well
  • Medium-water plants may require more water than usual during a heat wave, so unless they are specifically drought-tolerant, you may want to ensure they are also all grouped together to avoid any casualties. Mulch well.
  • Transplant all your water-loving plants from beds into larger containers, all together. In other words, rather avoid beds with mixed watering need plants and rather group all your thirsty babies in one larger pot where they can be watered simultaneously. Mulch well.
  • Avoid planting in multiple small containers as these dry out a lot faster. 
  • For patio and balcony gardens, the same approach can be used where you reduce the number of smaller containers and specifically group plants according to their watering needs. Have fun redesigning your stoep to flow from heat-loving to wet-feet-loving. Remember that mulching containers is equally important across all plant varieties.
  • We understand that some beds are well-established and that not all plants can be moved. In these cases, make use of bottle drippers and wick watering, which we will discuss more below.
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4. How should I be watering my containers, beds, and lawn?

a. Bottle soaking for outdoors (hydrated for 3 to 4 days)

Suitable for: Larger beds (use multiple bottles) or containers in full sun to semi-shade.

Equipment needed: Empty wine bottles or any sturdy bottle with a small mouth. 

Preparation: Ensure there is space to place the bottle that won’t damage foliage or roots

Method: Fill the bottle with water and then, while covering the opening with your thumb, flip it upside-down and quickly shove the bottle near the base of the plant (removing your thumb just before). Push the neck down to make sure the bottle is secure and reinforce with stones if needed. 

Troubleshooting: If you see that the water is not moving or perhaps your soil is very clay-like, glue a mesh screen over the mouth to prevent soil from clogging the bottle opening.

b. Bottle dripper for outdoors (hydrated for 4 to 7 days)

Suitable for: Larger beds (use multiple bottles) or containers in full sun to semi-shade.

Equipment needed: Plastic water/juice bottles (size dependent on your area/container) and a drill with a thin drill bit. 

Preparation: Dig a hole near the plant that will be large enough to bury the bottle up to its neck, take care to avoid damaging roots. 

Method: Drill three holes at the bottle of the plastic bottle and 3 holes on each side then pop it into the prepared hole (add more holes for large bottles). Gently level the soil around the bottle and fill it with water. Your plants will receive a spread-out, long-term gentle watering as the soil dries out. 

Troubleshooting: You may wish to test this method in larger beds to ensure your water bottle is big enough and that you have drilled enough holes as the correlation between bottle size and holes is important. Secure the lids on water bottles to prevent unnecessary evaporation.

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c. Shade plants wick watering (indoor/patio - up to 5 days hydration) 

Suitable for: Container plants indoors or in shaded areas. 

Equipment needed: A long shoelace or cotton rope, a jar/bottle/glass (250ml +)

Preparation: Ensure there is space to dig 5cm down without harming foliage or roots.

Method: Fill your chosen jar/bottle/glass with water and take it close to your plant. Place one end on the rope inside the glass so that it reaches the bottom, and dig the other end of the rope about 5cm down into your pot plant. This snazzy capillary action will prevent drought stress and ensure water reaches the roots of your plants. 

Troubleshooting: Make sure that there is slack on the rope and that it is not tightly stretched from the glass to the pot. Also, ensure that there is no way the rope could slip out or be blown out of the glass.

 

d. Thirsty plants bath (up to 7 days hydration)

Suitable for: Moisture-loving container plants.

Equipment needed: Bathtubs, basins, and shallow buckets with low sides.   

Preparation: Ensure your thirsty pot plants have had some root grooming and that the bottom of the container bases are nicely cleared and unobstructed. 

Method: Place your pot plants inside your chosen bath/basin/bucket and fill the space with enough water to submerge about a quarter of the container. The soil will continue to soak up water through the container drainage holes and remain moist.

Troubleshooting: This method is only suitable for very thirsty plants that need constant moisture. Other plants may experience root rot – disaster.

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So now you have collected rainwater and your plants are hydrozoned and mulched well - excellent! You have also set up your wick watering and bottle dippers - amazing! Another effective El Niño weapon is water-retaining crystals, which you can get at one of SANA’s GCA Garden Centres.

Water-retaining crystals or hydrogels increase the water-holding capacity of soil while providing a continuously available reservoir of water where plants need it most – in the root zone. You can use this product everywhere in the garden, from the veggie patch to beds and baskets. Read more about water crystals here: https://www.rhs.org.uk/soil-composts-mulches/water-retaining-granules

In addition to all the above super Water Warrior strategies, here are some additional pointers on how to implement conscious watering practices.

  • Quickly eliminate any competition for resources by removing all weeds and invasive plants, which can be detrimental to your garden's ecosystem and water availability, especially invasive trees with deep roots that cause havoc for the water table. Check out this list of invasive plants here: https://invasives.org.za/fact-sheet/
  • Allow the lawn to grow a little longer than usual. This will shade the roots and help conserve water by decreasing the amount of evaporation. Water the lawn once a week at night with your collected rainwater. Infrequent soaks will be more effective than frequent sprinkling as they will encourage roots to search for water deeper in the ground.
  • Rather water plants less frequently but when you do, ensure a good, deep drench. You can see why reducing smaller containers and hydrozoning is important.
  • Water containers and your non drought-hardy-beds late at night so that water doesn't evaporate in the heat of the day before it can reach the roots.
  • Most drought-hardy beds (when hydrozoned correctly) really only need water every 2 weeks.
  • Prioritise young plants and seedlings as more established plants will survive longer periods without water.
  • Use baths, basins, and buckets to soak containers in instead of hand watering that often wastes a lot of water when it flows from the drainage holes.
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Final thoughts

With SO MANY Water Warrior practices available, you can rest assured that the flower show will go on! All GCA Garden Centres and Home Stores part of SANA will be working together to bring you more products, landscaping inspiration, resources, plant suggestions, and expert advice that supports sustainable gardening during the drought.

Get the support, inspiration, and educational tips you need by joining Life is a Garden on these social media platforms:

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