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Follow the "Seven Principles of Xeriscape Gardening" and you will have a beautiful, water wise garden

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Water-wise gardening is not only for dry areas; nor does it mean that you can only plant indigenous plants, cacti and succulents. Water wise gardening implements the basic principles of Xeriscape gardening, with the most important one being  the practice of selecting plants with water requirements corresponding to the local rainfall patterns and climate where they are to be planted, as well as for their drought tolerance; significantly reducing the need to water. This water efficient method of gardening can be adapted to many different types of gardens and using the principles of Xeriscape gardening will allow you to plant and maintain your annuals, perennials, vegetables, shrubs and trees in the most water wise manner possible.


As our population grows rapidly, water is becoming a scarce and expensive commodity and planning a water wise garden is becoming a necessity and not an option. Xeriscaped gardens can reduce water consumption by 60% and will increase property values. Water wise gardening works well for those of us who wish to conserve water and cultivate an ecologically friendly method of gardening. It is also beneficial for people who do not have the time to maintain a water-consuming garden. Planning a water wise garden may take some time and research but is well worth the effort.

Xeriscape provides practical solutions to various climate and landscape concerns. It includes placing plantings and structures where they can be used to cool a home in the summer or warm it in the winter. These are also used to block strong winds and to provide shelter from rain and snow, as well as to control surface drainage. 

Indigenous plants have more resistance to pests and diseases than introduced exotics and including indigenous plants from your area will decrease your pesticide use. If you want to include exotic plants in your garden, choose those that will adapt best to the climate in your area and group them according to their watering needs

Xeriscapes can be beautiful as well as drought-tolerant and by using a variety of leaf, flower and berry colours; together with textures and fragrance, can create a delightful garden for the senses.  Even during times of drought and water restrictions, xeriscape gardens retain much of their beauty while conventional, water-thirsty landscapes suffer.

Each year, as the growing human population encroaches on wildlife habitats, more and more plant and animal species disappear. A more natural landscape has less impact on the environment and by following the Xeriscape principles, together with a careful selection of plants; you can lure birds, bees, butterflies and other wildlife back into your garden.

Xeriscape design is based on sound horticultural practices. Follow the "Seven Principles of Xeriscape Gardening" and you will have a water wise, yet beautiful landscape. If you are planning on doing the work yourself, remember to "keep it simple" and to set realistic goals for yourself.

1) Planning and Design

Planning your garden is vital for success and will only work if you are practical and totally realistic about your design and the needs of your family; so before you pick up your shovel, pick up your pencil first. Jot down some notes on what you require, like an entertainment area, vegetable patch or playground for children etc. Try to include solar lighting, rainwater tanks, a worm farm or other sensible green ideas. Don't forget the essentials that are not so exciting, like washing lines, compost and garbage bins etc. Take note of what you have inherited, like a beautiful view, that you don't want to block out, or your neighbours Jacuzzi; that you do want to block out. Don't forget power lines and neighbours trees etc. Take careful note of slopes and potential drainage problems.

Now measure your garden and draw it onto a piece of graph paper, choosing a scale like 1:100 which simply means that 1cm = 1m, or 1:300 - 1cm = 3m. Now create a scaled drawing of your garden and include all permanent features like buildings and pathways; as well as existing plants or trees that you want to leave in the landscape. Once you are happy that your scale and placements are correct, mark them in permanent ink. Next, using a pencil, roughly draw circles where you want to include new features. These can be erased at will, until you are happy with their final positioning. You are now ready to roughly sketch the beds with your pencil. When you are happy with the shape of your beds you can ink them in and you are ready to start making your plant selection.

Before selecting your plants take into consideration how exposed or sheltered your site is and your soil type, annual rainfall and general climatic conditions like frost, salty winds etc. All these factors will greatly influence your choice of plants. It is vital that you identify sunny and shady areas, so clearly mark your plan with its north, south, east and west beds and take notes on exactly how many hours sun each bed receives in the summer and whether it is morning, afternoon or hot midday sun. Remember that certain areas may receive little or no sun in the winter. If you supply this information to a good garden centre they will be better able to help you select the perfect plants for all your beds, saving you a lot of money on replacing unsuitable plants. Once you have your final selection of plants, take note of their height and spread at maturity and draw them onto your plan, to scale. Templates are available to achieve this with ease. Once you are happy with their placement you can mark them permanently on your plan.

Make use of the xeriscaping concept of zoning, in which plants with similar sun and water needs are grouped together in specific zones. If you have a large garden, design it so that the highly visible areas have irrigation, but the rest of the garden has broad areas requiring little maintenance or watering.

Working on a limited budget is no excuse to not draw a garden plan because you can always implement the garden in stages. Good garden planning always pays off in the long run.

2) Soil Amendment

Soils can vary from one part of the garden to the next. No matter what soil type you have, and especially if you have sand or clay, the addition of organic matter (compost) will greater improve your chances for success. If the soil is hard and compacted, dig the compost in as deeply as you can. If this is done properly from the start, you shouldn't have to dig the soil over again, as this disturbs the natural cycle of the soil. Incorporating organic matter into the soil is important for a number of reasons, including water retention. Lack of initial soil preparation is a major reason for plants not thriving. Good soil is a must for plants to develop deep-root systems which can endure drought. Clay soil is dense and does not allow oxygen to penetrate or water to be readily absorbed, making it difficult for roots to grow and causing wasteful runoff. Sandy soil allows the water to drain off too quickly for the plants to absorb it effectively. To correct these problems you need to improve the soil. Alternatively you could choose plants that thrive in sandy or clay soil, but then your plant selection will be restricted. 

3) Reduced Lawn Areas

Most lawns require a lot of water, fertilisation and upkeep, so carefully consider how much lawn you really need and use it only  where it is really prudent. Evaluate your garden and eliminate grass in long narrow strips, replacing it with paving or decking, hardy perennials and groundcovers. Do not use grass to secure soil on slopes, where it may be difficult to irrigate and water runoff could be a problem; rather select plants with low water and maintenance requirements. Do not plant grass in high traffic areas or shade, unless you sow a special shade variety.

4) Efficient Irrigation

Gardeners tend to water more than we need too, and installing the correct irrigation system will water your plants efficiently and reduce water evaporation, saving you a fortune on water bills. Water deeply but less often, as deep soakings encourage deep root growth, enabling plants to thrive between watering. There are several ways to water your garden, from various sprinkler systems to drip irrigation and soaker hoses. Sprinklers are good for covering larger areas like lawns but remember that up to 70% of light and fine droplet water applications will simply evaporate, so rather use coarse droplet sprayers that spray near to the ground. Avoid watering on windy days when evaporation rates are higher and always water in the cool of the early morning or late afternoon. A drip irrigation system will supply a continuous drip for a longer period than if you were to run your regular sprinkler heads. It is used mainly to irrigate trees, shrubs, flower boarders and vegetable gardens. Drip irrigation works well for garden beds where the plants have similar water requirements. If you install a timer system, reset it according to the seasons and frequency of rainfall and check your spray heads regularly to ensure that they are not spraying unnecessary surfaces like driveways and other hard surfaces. When good rains fall, stop watering for a few days, except where plants or structures such as walls, roof overhangs and large  trees and shrubs have prevented the rain from penetrating. 

5) Appropriate Plant Selection


Zone your garden by having high, medium and low watering areas, and group your plants accordingly. Do some research and choose your plants carefully. For the greatest savings in water and especially if you live in a very dry area, choose mainly drought hardy plants. With efficient planning and irrigation, water loving plants like lawns, roses and vegetable gardens can be included in a water wise garden. Weather you decide to go totally indigenous or want to include exotics in your design, grouping them according to their watering, soil and sun requirements is vital for success.

6) Use of Mulches


Mulches minimize evaporation, retard weed growth, slow erosion, and help prevent soil temperature fluctuations. Good mulches include compost, bark or wood chips and straw. Mulch has the added benefit of decomposing over time, thus improving the soil. Replenish your mulch once or twice a year but do not apply it thicker than a couple of centimetres and never heap it right up against the stems of your trees and shrubs. Rocks and pebbles can be used, but in hot gardens large expanses of rocks or paving should be avoided because they will retain heat around your plants, especially if they are sited in full sun. 

7) Good Maintenance

Proper maintenance of your irrigation system by checking sprayer heads regularly and adjusting your water flow throughout the seasons will conserve water.  Weeds use a lot of water and keeping your garden weed free will also help. Mowing your lawn to the correct height is important because if it is mowed too short, it dries out quickly, thus requiring more water. Proper pruning, weeding, fertilization and maintenance will preserve and enhance the quality of your Xeriscape garden.

A landscape adapted to the environment will require less maintenance, less fertilizer, and reduce the use of pesticides and other chemicals. By using the principles of Xeriscape, you can be assured of an attractive, healthy landscape that uses just the right amount of water.

See our Handy Articles Section for lists of: water wise, groundcovers & small plants; medium-sized plants; large plants & climbers and water wise trees. You need to sign up as a member to have access to this section of the website - read more here...

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