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Selecting plants for a waterwise garden

Published on March 21st 2021
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In light of World Water Week, we're taking some time to reassess our water usage in the garden, ensuring that we use this precious resource in a sustainable way and optimising the little we have to grow gardens that thrive and remain lush in periods of drought.
Many gardens in South Africa in their current form originate from Europe. Having been able to manipulate the climate to adapt to our plant selections (like extensive watering during summer), we have drastically increased water usage in our gardens. Why not rather garden in harmony with our environment, selecting plants adapted to our specific climate?
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Selecting the right plants is one of the first steps to creating a garden that can cope with less water. If you're not sure where to start or what to plant? Continue reading to learn more!

Choose plants that suit your environment and climate

It is always better to make use of locally indigenous and other similar plants. These plants are adapted to our prevailing climate and can therefore withstand droughts and do not need continuous watering.
Winter rainfall plants have adapted to droughts by taking a summer "siesta" or rest. Garden with your environment in mind. For instance, if your garden is in a sandy area, transform it into a strandveld garden, if it is in natural fynbos, plant native fynbos species, or to a Karoo garden if you have a garden in, for example, Worcester or Robertson area.
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Reduce your lawn

Lawns are thirsty! To reduce the water needs of your garden, you can start by reducing your lawn and replacing it with indigenous drought-resistant groundcovers. There are so many suitable species, listed below are a few examples.


Gazania rigens

Silver Bush Everlasting

Helichrysum petiolare

Coast Arctotis

Arctotis stoechadifolia

Sour Fig

Carpobrotus spp.

Smelly Spur Flower

Coleus neochilus

Beesvygie (Afr.)

Ruschia spp.

Ice Plant

Lampranthus spp.


Cotyledon spp.

Jade Plants

Crassula spp.

Tender Geranium

Pelargonium spp.

A tree in a garden
Besides being waterwise, these plants also add vibrant colour to the garden. We are so used to large lawns but I have seen many beautiful gardens without the latter. There is also variation in the water needs of different lawn grasses. There are local cultivars (Cynodon dactylon) that are more drought-resistant than other grasses and some forms of Buffalo grass (Stenataphrum secundatum) are also quite drought resistant.

Trees and shrubs

Trees and established shrubs have deep roots and their roots are usually already anchored in the underground water table so they need almost no additional water. Established trees also create ideal conditions for shade-loving plants.
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Make use of suitable ground cover for dry shade

There are many ground cover plants for dry shade. The species mentioned below are extremely drought resistant.

Avoid fine gardening in summer and plant hardy perennials

The smaller annual- and summer perennials, i.e. your fine garden has greater water requirements and can be replaced by indigenous plants. We have so many extremely hardy native perennials. Here are some examples listed below:

Make use of bulbs

These include bulbs such as Small Chasmanthe (Chasmanthe aethiopica), Watsonia, Babiana, Freesia, March lilies (Amaryllis belladonna) and Lachenalia.
Also, Cape reeds (Restionaceae) are extremely decorative and require little water. These types are suitable self-sustaining plants that carry their water and food underground only to appear during the growing season.

Succulents: water-use specialists

Succulents store water in their leaves, stems or roots, to survive in drought times when water is no longer available. They are masters at saving water.
A close up of a plant
Plants with fleshy leaves or stems also indicate that they are geared for resisting droughts. Spekboom and the Jade plant are excellent candidates and can even be used as hedging.
Other succulent shrubs include the Kranz aloe, Bitter aloe, Mitre aloe, Fynbos aloe and the beautiful Fan aloe. Check out their plant profiles below.
A close up of a plant

Plants that grow quickly have greater water needs

We often hear the saying that native plants grow too slowly and are not colourful enough, these are myths! Colour in your garden depends on your preferences. We have tremendously colourful native garden plants. The world's number one home and garden plant is South African Pelargoniums. When travelling abroad during the spring you cannot help but notice balconies and parks overflowing with South African pelargoniums. Pelargoniums are drought resistant, have fragrant leaves, and create a beautiful show when in bloom.

You can judge a plant by its cover

Drought resistant plants have specific characteristics that indicate they are adapted to drought. These characteristics are easily recognizable and can be identified in a nursery. Apart from the above-mentioned fleshiness of the leaves and stems, it also includes plants with grey foliage, leaves that are linear, and hairy leaves. The grey foliage reflects the sun and the wax layer or the dense felt-like hair helps prevent extreme water loss via transpiration.
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Share your favourite waterwise plants using the hashtag #Waterwise in your post!

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Check out these Community posts for Waterwise inspiration:

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