An increase in water scarcity and accelerated population growth in the Cape has resulted in the need for new insightful landscaping techniques and styles. Although xeriscaping (dry gardening) is not a ‘new’ concept it’s definitely ‘new’ in terms of traditional gardens found in South Africa and more importantly the Cape.
As landscape designers we tend to ‘steal’ concepts and approaches from areas that have proved their worth when it comes to style, creativity and techniques. Areas that have had similar strains on their resources, especially water, such as: Australia, Chile and California, provide us with ample inspiration and material for our Cape Gardens. However, one of the hardest tasks remains- to educate the public on the use and intrigue of these dry gardens. The Country gardens of Great Britain, the Formal lines of Classic French gardens and the tropical gardens of Hawaii and South America have had universal appeal and in the past, with selective plant choices, a borehole and an automated irrigation system, these gardens were possible in South Africa. In fact even now, with a decent designer and plant expert, one could replicate various garden styles of the world. However, as we head towards drier climatic conditions and changing weather patterns it is in one’s best interests to plan for the future. A point to ponder is that not all indigenous gardens are xeriscape/dry gardens. In fact, many indigenous gardens require a lot of water. Similarly, many plants obtained from nurseries have been cultivated in ‘ideal’ conditions and need to be hardened off before they can be weaned off their ideal water requirements. In short, these plants actually need a fair amount of watering in their early months. Another misconception is that all fynbos is water-wise. This is indeed false. I would encourage all plant lovers to study their area (and garden) in detail before mimicking styles from other areas as each garden has unique environmental factors that determines the ideal plant choices for one’s garden.
What is a xeriscape or dry garden? In short Xeri is derived from the greek word meaning dry. This style of landscaping refers to landscaping that can tolerate drought and minimal water. In many cases the foundation of xeriscaping is the practice of water conservation and its management in areas prone to limited or no water.
A dry garden does not mean only a succulent or gravel garden. Through selective plant choices and detailed designing a gorgeous garden can be envisaged and installed. A xeriscape garden could be achieved by following three simple criteria, namely:
1) Plant choice: Using plants that thrive under warm and dry conditions are important. This does not mean one has to sacrifice beautiful ornamental grasses for dull cactuses/aloes- although cactus gardens can be unbelievable. Rather one needs to be selective of the plants one chooses. Plants such as Lavenders, Agapanthus, Euphorbias, Some Pelargoniums, Sedums, Rhus, and Salvias, just to mention a few, all thrive in drier conditions.
2) Watering regime and Hydrozoning: A concept whereby plants needing higher degrees of water are placed together, those needing less are placed behind and so it continues. Many plants will need to be planted in the winter months so that they can establish themselves before the high and dry temperatures impact on growth and development. Grey watering systems are a huge plus, provided they are planned and managed. [Grey water gardens will be touched on in another article].
3) Removal of lawns: There are many alternatives to lawns and nothing screams “drought!” more than acres of dead turf. A lawn frames the house and in many gardens it is the link between house and plants. It is therefore one of the most crucial parts to any landscape. Extra care should be made to adapt ones lawn to suit the availability of water. A sin in many people’s books- Synthetic Lawn– is becoming increasingly more ‘life-like’ with over 14 options currently on the market and subsequently is becoming increasingly popular- nothing beats a year-round green lawn, with little maintenance required and a long lifespan. Alternatively, change your lawn to groundcover- such as planting Thyme, Delosperma, Trifolium, Cerastium, and Dymondia and/or broaden your plant beds to encompass the old lawn space.
Do not wait for rain before you decide on your garden style. Yes, it may come and you may even have a beautiful garden for a season or two. But a closer inspection of the prevailing weather and shifting climatic conditions paints a unique story. Capetonians will need to adapt to the changing climate by adopting different landscaping ideologies and move towards more viable landscape designs such as xeriscaping.