Friday, April 19

Rethink and redefine

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Time is running out for gardens as we know them. Try to simplify, become more water-wise and prepare for rainy days

The severe drought has resulted in extreme water restrictions causing many plants in our gardens to wilt and die.

But we gardeners are a resilient lot and while we wait for rain, the rain will surely come, we can use this time to learn from the current situation and to rethink our gardens – to redefine them for a more sustainable future.

This does not mean our gardens have to be barren. What it does mean is we need to adjust previous conceptions about what makes a garden and then simplify.

The drought busters

If the thought of remaking the entire garden seems overwhelming, begin in a simple way by removing dead or dying vegetation, weeds, alien invasive plants and generally neatening the existing garden. You will also find this leaves more space for each plant to attain its full potential.


The drought has also created another serious problem – the danger of fires and we need to reduce the risk of blazes by creating a sustainable landscape. This can be achieved by clearing spaces and establishing hard landscaping around dwellings and selecting fewer flammable plants.

Be aware of places on your property that offer protection in time of fires, such as patios, swimming pools, bricked, paved or concrete areas, and concrete or stone walls able to deflect some of the heat. In high risk areas, fences, archways, pergolas and trellises should be constructed from non-inflammable material rather than wood and mulches should be inorganic near buildings.

Gravel chips make an attractive mulch around echeveria. Picture: Loren Shirley-Carr


Black and white photographs are useful for assessing strengths and weaknesses in a garden and are better than coloured pictures.

Perhaps there is a need for more permanent structures? These are the walls, fences, driveways, paths, water features and paved areas. Whether the garden is exposed or enclosed will determine the style and the plantings. A wall will help reduce the effect of wind in an exposed garden. A honeycomb wall or palisade fence is preferable to a solid wall which creates turbulence and restricts the free flow of air.

From home to garden

An open patio can be made more sheltered by partly enclosing with a trellis. If you no longer need a lawn as a play area for children or pets, and enjoy entertaining, consider increasing the size of your existing patio, building a fire pit, or converting a secluded corner in your garden into a romantic hideaway.

Back to basics

Gardening begins with good soil. Improving it will accelerate the health of plants enabling them to grow stronger, flower more prolifically and be less prone to disease. Compost amends and enables soil to better absorb water.

Covering the soil with an organic mulch of bark chips or nuggets, coarse compost, peach pips, nut shells or pine needles conserves moisture and reduces run-off and soil erosion. Leave space around plant stems to avoid rotting. Some Mediterranean plants may be less liable to rotting if an inorganic mulch of gravel chips or stones is used.

Use pebbles to channel water run-off for slower filtration. Picture: Lukas Otto


The garden will appear more spacious if you simplify the number of plants and favour water-wise local varieties suitable for your conditions. Divide your garden into different water-use zones and group plants with similar water needs. Grow those needing the most water near the house and in containers on patios.

Ask garden centres and nurseries for advice. They, too, have experienced water restrictions and are experts in advising which water-wise plants will be suitable for different areas in your garden. “One drop” plants are those with low water needs, “two drop” plants are those with medium water needs, and “three drop” plants have higher water needs.

Looking ahead

The most important lesson for the future of our gardens is to learn from the drought and to make a commitment to save and use water wisely and responsibly, to invest in rain tanks, recycle household water into grey water, and collect water run-off to create a rain garden. Prepare now for the coming rainy season.

Rain water run-off from roofs and impermeable surfaces happens in parking areas, pavements, roads and paved areas, collecting chemicals and debris and depositing this in the nearest storm drain, and from there into nearby streams and low-lying areas.

If water run-off from hard surfaces such as driveways, paths and paved areas is channelled into soil, it becomes a sponge, allowing water to permeate slowly into the soil and filter to lower-lying areas. These areas are ideal for a frog-friendly pond with sloping sides, or a bog garden for moisture-loving plants.

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