Green Living, sustainability

how to garden sustainably: a guide to water-wise plants

Ashley van Dyke

2016-2018 saw one of the worst droughts in South Africa in decades, and the repercussions are still being felt across industries from agriculture to sanitation. The way we think about using water in our homes and at work has been changed irrevocably. SmartStone Port Elizabeth and Stone etc. have pooled their ideas to present some handy tips on water-wise gardening. 

"The rule of thumb is to plant indigenous plants in your garden,” advises Stone etc. founder and keen gardener, Mimi Rupp. “Indigenous plants are accustomed to our climate and survive our often harsh conditions.”

1. Choose water-wise plants

A good place to start is the way in which you select plants for your garden. By looking out for certain characteristics, you can make a well-informed decision towards creating a water-efficient outdoor space. Here's what to look out for: Small or needle-like leaves. This minimises the surface area for water to evaporate. Examples are ericas, most acacias, rosemary, origanum and thyme. untitled-design Few leaves. Some plants reduce water loss by dispensing with leaves altogether, or shedding during drought. Examples are the karee tree, acacias and buffalo thorn. Hairs. These fibres slow down air movement past the stomata, which reduces water loss. Examples are the silver tree, lamb’s ear, beach salvia and helichrysum. Grey foliage. These types of leaves deflect the sun’s rays, keeping it cooler which in turn, reduces water loss. Examples are lavender, artemesia, arctotis and giant honey flower. copy-of-600px-x-400px-untitled-design Closing leaves. The leaves of some plants close when they are water stressed. This reduces the amount of leaf exposed to sunlight and reduces water loss. Examples are acacias, Jerusalem sage and rock rose. Waxy leaves. These leaves prevent moisture loss. Examples are euonymus, kalanchoe and Indian hawthorn. Succulent leaves. In these types of plants, water is stored in thick fleshy leaves to be available when necessary. Think of crassulas, aloes, echevarias and vygies. copy-of-copy-of-600px-x-400px-untitled-design   Lighter leaves. When ‘stressed’, plants with lighter leaves on one side, turn the lighter side upwards to reflect the sun away. Examples are wild olive tree, gazanias and indigenous buddlejas. Volatile oils in the stomata. These substances form an extra protection against water loss.This is common in Mediterranean plants, an area which has hot dry summers. Examples are rosemary, lavender and sage. Plants with a strong internal skeleton. This natural framework supports the leaf and prevents wilting during dry spells. Examples are strelitzia, restios, agaves and New Zealand flax. water-wise plants

2. Planting water wise plants strategically 

Group plants with similar water needs together and water these zones separately. A layer of mulch over the bed will keep soil moist for longer, and adding compost increases organic matter which improves the soil’s nutrient level and water-holding capacity.

“In planting indigenous plants, you have the added benefit of abundant wildlife that will visit your garden,” advises Rupp. “Birds, butterflies and dragonflies are all attracted to South Africa’s water-wise plants and create added visual interest to your outside space.”

3. Water-wise your lawn

Large areas of lawn are not climate appropriate in South Africa, and the trend is now moving away from the excessive use of lawn.  

Photograph by Warren Heath. water wise plants Photograph by Warren Heath. As seen in HL August 2015.


But if you do have a lawn, cut grass at a higher level than usual to encourage deep roots and drought tolerance. Set mowers to cut at these heights: Kikuyu: 4-6cm Fine grasses (cynodons): 3-4cm Cool season evergreen grasses: 5-7cm Never remove more than one third of the leaf blade. Grass is weakened if it grows too long between mows, so mow when the grass is about one-third taller than the recommended height. By doing this less leaf growth is removed, and the lawn is less stressed, thus needing less water. This post was supplied by SmartStone Port Elizabeth and Stone etc. Featured image by Warren Heath.