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GARDEN: Shrubs are a good choice for a water-wise garden

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When planting these bushes, consider those plants that can survive with little water once established and make sure they suit your conditions and support the local ecosystem

World Water Day is celebrated on March 22 and coincides with South Africa’s National Water Week taking place from March 18 to 24. Both campaigns are geared at motivating citizens to take responsibility for their water usage.

As gardeners, we need to adapt and change our gardens to use water more sparingly. Shrubs serve many purposes in the garden. They provide a strong foundation, holding the garden together through the seasons.

Choose water-wise shrubs to cut down on water use. Shrubs also act as a backdrop, a windbreak, privacy, a hedge, and provide colour and form, protection for wildlife and nectar for pollinators. Choose a shrub to fit the space, taking into account its mature height and width.

Fynbos shrubs

What could be easier than to choose water-wise fynbos shrubs that grow on your doorstep and are an integral part of this ecosystem? If you have sandy, slightly acidic soil and good air circulation, proteas, pincushions and shrubby ericas will attract sunbirds and sugar birds.

Proteas and pincushions attract sun birds and sugar birds to the garden. Picture: Lukas Otto

The buchu family, Agathosma crenulata and A. ovata have aromatic foliage, as do confetti bushes Coleonema album, C. pulchellum and C. pulchrum with pink or white flowers.

The fynbos sages also have aromatic foliage. The rough blue sage (Salvia chamelaeagnea) has reddish-purple bracts. According to the rules of botanical nomenclature, hyphenated names are illegitimate, so blue African sage (S. africana–caerulea) is now Salvia africana, and golden sage (S. africana-lutea) is now Salvia aurea.

Windbreaks and hedges

Evergreen and deciduous shrubs, upright or mounding, anchor the garden, providing a boundary, a windbreak or hedge, and a safe haven for small creatures.

Water-wise shrubs for this purpose include the butterfly bush (Buddleja salviifolia) with wrinkled leaves and white to lilac blooms, pride of De Kaap (Bauhinia galpinii), a large scrambling shrub with brick-red flowers, and Indian hawthorn (Rhaphiolepis indica), evergreen with small, glossy leaves and pink or white flowers.

Attract birds, bees and butterflies with the flowers of the butterfly bush (Buddleja salviifolia). Picture: Newplant Nursery

The dune crow-berry (Searsia crenata) is a windbreaker and is drought-tolerant with roots that bind soil. Prune the lower branches of the hopbush (Dodonaea viscosa) to form a drought- and wind-resistant shrub, with roots that stabilise sandy soils.

Nectar-rich Cape honeysuckle (Tecomaria capensis) can be grown as a screen or hedge. Cultivars in lemon, gold, salmon and red tend to be smaller, making them suitable for low hedging.

Internal hedges

Low clipped hedges are strong elements in a garden, informal landscaping, as screens, framing beds and edging pathways. They are useful for enclosing a secluded corner and lessening wind damage.

The dark green needle-like aromatic foliage of upright rosemary and the saltbush (Rhagodia hastata), with small grey-green leaves, respond well to clipping, as does the confetti bush (Coleonema pulchellum) with tiny pink flowers and aromatic leaves.

Heavenly or sacred bamboo (Nandina domestica) is not a bamboo and its roots are not invasive. It is valued in the landscape for its slender growth, is ideal for screening, for a narrow passageway alongside a house and alongside a water feature.

Lacy, fern-like foliage is green in summer with pink new growth deepening to copper in winter and red autumn berries. The spekboom (Portulacaria afra) is a sprawling shrub whose rounded succulent leaves retain moisture, and roots that bind the soil.

There are other forms, including a low-growing ground cover, a variegated form and P. ‘Aurea’, a compact, upright form with reddish stems and rounded leaves that go bright yellow in the sun.

A tapestry of greys

Shrubs with grey foliage reflect sunlight, and those with woolly hairs, waxy or small leaf surfaces reduce transpiration, making them an excellent choice for water-wise gardens.

Matte grey, silver-grey, silver-blue and grey-green in a variety of textures and forms can be used as background plants, fillers and edgings. Plain grey is cooling in summer and is elegant with white and green. Silver-grey foliage lights up dull corners and twilight gardens.

The grey-green, finely-cut lavender-scented foliage of santolina forms low mounds, making it a great filler in the border and in other parts of the garden. With fragrant silver-grey or grey-green foliage and purple, mauve, pink or white flowers, water-wise lavenders are a classic choice for formal gardens and are equally at home in modern landscapes and cottage gardens.

They can be clipped as low hedges, grown in sunny well-drained borders, in herb gardens, along paths and in containers. African wormwood (Artemisia afra) has finely divided fern-like leaves of an overall grey colour and grows into bushy mounds; shrubby Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’ is a woody perennial with a shrub-like growth habit, forming mounds of ferny silver-white foliage that works well with all colours.

Silver foliage blends well with hues of green. Pictured, the fern-like Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’. Picture: Neil Hepworth

Wild rosemary (Eriocephalus africanus) is an aromatic shrub with needle-like silvery-grey foliage. In winter, the shrub is covered in small, white flowers that attract bees.


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