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Water-wise tips to prepare your garden for the festive season.

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Despite good rainfall in many regions of the country, the SABC reported on the 2nd of November that The South African Weather Service predicted that the recovery from the drought will be slow; and that despite predictions of above-average rainfall over large parts of the country between now and February, the drought conditions look like they will still continue to be with us for some time and it will take a while for empty dams to fill up again. This is not the best news for gardeners who want to spruce up their garden s for the festive season, or for those who are going away and fear losing some of their precious plants due to lack of rainfall. Unfortunately we can’t control the weather, but there is a lot which we can do to help our plants survive.

By following some drought-wise garden tips, you can have your water, and your garden too! Water saving is mostly common sense, requiring the use of simple techniques and a few adjustments to your thinking.  By changing your practices, you can easily save 20 to 40% on your water usage. Adapting to a water “crisis” by learning new techniques, which will stay with you even in times of plenty, will not only make you a better gardener but a better citizen for it too! Here are some simple procedures to help conserve water, and at the same time, promote a pretty yet healthy garden.

Rose XP Mediterranean Vinca. Picture courtesy Ball Horticultural CompanyRose XP Mediterranean Vinca. Picture courtesy Ball Horticultural CompanyRose XP Mediterranean Vinca. Picture courtesy Ball Horticultural CompanyColour in the garden can still be achieved during a drought as long as you don’t plant more than you can water, so if you are staying at home and expecting guests over Christmas, you can certainly plant some summer seedlings to brighten up your garden. If you are going away, mulch your beds and let them rest. To keep flowering annuals blooming and looking good, they should be watered more often than shrubs, and to a depth of at least 15cm. Those growing in containers may need extra watering. At this time of the year choose 'instant colour' flower seedlings which are reasonably well developed. Identify a few spots in the garden where a splash of colour will draw the eye, or plant up a few cheerful containers, placing them where they will be most appreciated by your guests. The garden centres stock up on tough seedlings during a dry season and can advise you on the best water-wise selection for your region and garden, whether it’s in sun or shade. Water-wise perennials which flower in December are also a great way to introduce colour into your garden. Perennials will provide colour this season and even more next season, saving you in the long run. If you want a peaceful and pleasant end result, do not overdo colours in your garden, and stick to a simple colour scheme.

Rose 'Garden Queen' Picture courtesy www.ludwigsroses.co.zaRose 'Garden Queen' Picture courtesy www.ludwigsroses.co.zaRose 'Garden Queen' Picture courtesy www.ludwigsroses.co.zaTo keep roses healthy during a drought you simply need to toughen them up! Although roses are known to be water lovers, a lack of precipitation will certainly reduce the number of flowers they produce during a drought, but it need not kill them. Actually, roses are quite capable of surviving drought - think of those very old specimens growing in abandoned gardens or graveyards - they have been surviving for years on their own! So, don't worry if you have to leave town and your roses go without water for a few weeks. When you stop watering, it forces them into semi-dormancy, but as soon as the rains arrive, or you start watering again, they'll begin to leaf out and bloom again.

Actually, you can water roses mush less frequently than you would imagine, but when you do, water deeply. For example, if you typically use 8 litres per plant twice a week, switch to 11 or 12 litres once a week. If you are unsure about how often to water, after you've watered really well, stop and wait. Don't do anything until you see the rose wilt and the little buds start to hang their heads. That will give you a baseline. So if it takes 10 days for your roses to wilt, then you know you should water every eight days or so. Newly planted roses will need regular watering until they are established.

Rosarians are unanimous in their belief that a layer of mulch protects the root system of roses. "Mulch, mulch and mulch some more," says Tom Carruth, a veteran rose breeder and rose curator at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California. "A thick application of mulch is an absolute necessity to conserve moisture and cool the plant's roots and soil." Apply a 5 to 10cm layer of mulch on top of the soil around your plants, and renew annually, by scraping away the old mulch and applying a fresh layer. Never apply mulch too deep and clear it away from the base of the plant stems. You can water and fertilise right through the mulch, and as it breaks down, it will release nutrients into your soil.

The bottom line, say the experts, is that you can't kill a rose from neglect or lack of water. "Roses are a lot tougher than people think, but you may have to accept fewer blooms in order to get your roses through the drought," says Lance Walheim, a Bayer Advanced gardening expert and author of "Roses for Dummies."

Reduce the amount you water - most gardeners tend to overwater anyway! If you will be going away in December it is vital that you harden off your established trees and shrubs before you leave – overwatering them before leaving is not going to help them, but will rather stress them further if the drought persists. Start by gradually reducing the frequency, and the amount you water your shrubs and trees - you will be surprised at how easily plants adjust to less water. This also hardens the plants off during dry seasons, as lots of new growth requires yet more water. You want to keep the plants alive and healthy while restricting growth until the drought is broken. Watering very early in the morning or in the evening when there is less heat and wind, will reduce water lost to evaporation. When you do water, give the plant a really good soaking - this is much better than frequent, shallow sprinklings - allowing the water to penetrate deeper into the soil and encouraging deeper roots, which are much more resistant to prolonged drought conditions.  

Established trees and shrubs whose roots are relatively deep should survive on one or two deep irrigations to a depth of at least 30cm, several weeks apart in spring and summer. And, if the drought is very severe, many can survive with no watering at all, because these large-rooted plants are able to draw on reserves of moisture deep down in the soil. If they should really start to look like they need watering, established plants are great candidates for watering with “grey water”. Grey water is the recycling of 'waste' water that is generated in homes and commercial buildings through the use of water for laundry, dishes, or for bathing. Grey water differs from “black water” which is waste water used in toilets and designated for sewage systems. If the drought is most severe, water established plants only if you can see that they really need it, or once they begin to wilt.

For small or newly planted evergreens, anti-transpirant plant sprays (available from garden centres) can be sprayed onto the leaves to help prevent water loss, so if you will be away, this, together with a good mulch around the roots of your plants,  will certainly help smaller evergreen survive. Erecting windbreaks around young plants will also help if they are sited in a windy area.

Many perennials and woody plants may wilt, shrivel-up and go semi-dormant if they cannot be watered much, but most should survive until the rains come. This is especially true if they were healthy and well-watered prior to drought conditions. If you will be away, mulch and water your perennials well just before leaving.

Shade plants that grow under large evergreen trees and shrubs need extra care in a drought because they are competing with the trees for water and food. Also, plants growing under structures like the overhang of a roof, may not receive rainfall, so don’t forget to check them often.

Vegetable Garden. Picture courtesy www.gardenworld.co.zaVegetable Garden. Picture courtesy www.gardenworld.co.zaVegetable Garden. Picture courtesy www.gardenworld.co.zaVegetable gardening can be water-intensive, and water restrictions should be taken into consideration when deciding on starting an edible home garden. Plant only what you need for your family and try to select drought resistant varieties. Compost acts as mulch and adds nutrients to soil, so dig generous amounts into your beds before planting. Water your newly transplanted seedlings regularly for a week or two after they go into the ground, after which they should be able to fend for themselves, except during severely hot and dry spells. Water deeply and infrequently, rather than a little every day. If you are going on holiday, harvest as much as you can before leaving; clean and mulch the beds, and hope for the best.

Herbs are great water-wise plants which will survive happily with little water and fuss. Mulch and water them well before leaving - even if they wither a little, the plants will quickly recover when watered again. If your herbs are growing in containers, move them into a more sheltered and semi-shady area of the garden, and group them together to form a small microclimate. Do not place them underneath evergreen trees or shrubs whose dense foliage will prevent rainfall from reaching them.
Collect household water and that from the downspouts of gutters. Water from gutters is easily diverted into flower beds and every downpipe and shed roof should be helping you to disperse or store up any rainwater which may fall. If you can’t afford a rain tank, any large container like a large garbage bin can store fairly large quantities of water. Also, collect wasted household water in a bucket when adjusting the hot and cold water in baths, showers and basins. You will be surprised how much you can collect, which would normally go down the drain.  When good rains fall, stop watering for a few days, except for those plants growing near structures or underneath plants which prevent the rain from penetrating to the ground.

A raintank is a good investmentA raintank is a good investmentA raintank is a good investmentInstall a drip irrigation system, coupled to a rain tank to utilise any rain that might fall. This method of irrigation can be used to irrigate trees, shrubs, flower boarders and vegetable gardens. Drip irrigation works well for garden beds where the plants have similar water requirements.

A neat garden always looks better, and a well-groomed garden will leave no obvious indicators to would-be burglars that you are not at home; so weed your beds and keep them weed free, as weeds also compete with more desirable plants for water. Continually disturbing the surface of the soil will result in it drying out much faster, so when weeding,  try to disturb the topsoil as little as possible, by avoiding digging or hoeing and turning over the soil. Rather pull the weeds out by hand wherever possible, using a small fork. The bright side is that under drought conditions, weeds won’t grow as fast either!
Avoid heavy pruning, and if you do need to prune a few shrubs, do so lightly, because foliage will help to keep the soil underneath the plants cool, and when plants are stressed and not growing vigorously, pruning often stimulates side shoots and more young growth, which requires more water. If you are going away but want to neaten up your plants, prune very lightly.

Fertilise only if necessary, as feeding encourages new growth which in turn will require more water. Rather, feed selectively, choosing only those plants which you really feely need it, like roses or flowers in containers; vegetables, or other special plants in the garden. If trees and shrubs are mulched regularly with good organic materials they do not need much fertiliser anyway!

Replace unnecessary lawn with paving. Picture courtesy www.gardenworld.co.zaReplace unnecessary lawn with paving. Picture courtesy www.gardenworld.co.zaReplace unnecessary lawn with paving. Picture courtesy www.gardenworld.co.zaLawns are always the single largest user of water in the landscape and many gardens have large expanses of lawn which are almost never used but require considerable time, effort and resources to maintain. Use turf only when it serves a purpose, such as for play or entertainment areas; and consider replacing some areas of lawn with ground covers, mulches, decks and walkways. If you cannot replace lawn, and also cannot water it as often as you should – relax and take a more laid-back approach to your lawn, it will look after itself!  Lawn grasses stop growing during drought, but they don’t die that easily. Even if your lawn turns totally brown, when the rains return new growth will quickly appear again. Also, let your grass grow taller, longer growth creates its own shading and protects the blades from sunburn, while retaining moisture more efficiently. It also encourages deeper roots and reduces weeds.  Stop feeding your lawn if you cannot water, and if you have a tiny lawn and can still water, fertilise very sparingly, and only if necessary.  When you do mow your lawn, collect the clippings to mulch your beds - during very hot weather the leaves will dry quickly and can be used as mulch within days.

Water LilyWater LilyWater LilyInvest in some aquatic plants for your pond - between 50 and 75 per cent of the surface of a pond should be covered in plant growth. This will help curb rapid evaporation and help prevent a build-up of algae. However, even with the correct amount of plant cover, pond water will still evaporate and need topping up. Collect rain water for this because it is gentler on wildlife and fishes than tap water. Top up before going away and you may even want to divert a downpipe into the pond, but then you must have an overflow system as well.

Mulching is great for water conservation and can reduce watering by about 60%. Mulches can either be organic or inorganic, but organic mulches have the added advantage of slowly breaking down and adding nutrients to the soil. This improves soil structure and drainage, and encourages earthworm and soil microbial activity.

Biodegradable mulches include leaf mould, compost, well-rotted manure, bark chips, nut husks, and even pine or other cones.  Even shredded newspaper, covered with a layer of soil works well, and if you live in a rural area you may be lucky enough to be able to procure straw based mulches, or spent hops (poisonous if eaten by dogs); lucerne, cane type mulches, or even seaweed and sea shells. Palm peat is also a good soil conditioner and can be worked through the soil. Bark and nut or shell based mulches are great organic choices and freely available from garden centres and some hardware stores. Macadamia, pecan nut, and peanut shells also look stunning in the garden. Milled bark is also most attractive, and available in various grades, from fine through medium, and coarse.  An advantage of bark and nut shell based mulches is they take longer to break down, so you don't have to apply them as often. These materials can also be used in containers.

Non-biodegradable mulches don’t break down to boost the fertility or structure of the soil; but they will suppress weeds, conserve moisture; and are almost maintenance free. Beautiful finishes and textures can also be achieved with these, depending on the medium used. These types of mulches are perfect to use in areas like pathways, near patios, water features, swimming pools and entranceways, where their beauty can be admired. There are so many decorative aggregates to choose from; like tumbled glass in an array of wonderful colours, river pebbles in all sizes and shades, slate, shingle; and even gravel. These materials can also be used in containers.

Aztec Red Velvet Verbena. Picture courtesy Ball Horticultural CompanyAztec Red Velvet Verbena. Picture courtesy Ball Horticultural CompanyAztec Red Velvet Verbena. Picture courtesy Ball Horticultural CompanyOutdoor pots are one of the most troubling garden features during a drought because plants growing in the ground can sink their roots deeper in search of water during times of drought, but those in pots are entirely dependent on you. If you are planting into new pots, make your life a lot easier by purchasing generous-sized pots - small pots heat up quickly and also dry out quickly, so go as big as you can afford. Pottery containers which are glazed on the outside will also help retain moisture, as will plastic pots. Water-retaining granules which swell up when wet and release their water when the soil is dry are marvellous for pots and well worth the expense.  If you are going away, add these granules to some potting soil or compost before mulching your pots. Also, move your pots to a sheltered, semi-shaded position, where they will still receive rainfall. Group them together to create a little humid microclimate between them; water thoroughly before leaving, and they will stand a much better chance of survival, depending on how water-wise they are.

Indoor pot plants can also be a problem if you have no one to water for you while you are away, but there are a few solutions.  Special watering bags are available from certain outlets which will water your plant for you, but you can make your own DIY watering system by grouping your pot plants together on a sink rack with a bidum liner or an old blanket underneath them.  Part of the liner is immersed into a sink full of water, allowing your plants to draw water as they need it, without having them standing in water. Never allow your potted plants to stand in trays of water for long as this is sure to drown them. It is also important to leave some curtains or blinds open to allow the natural light to reach your plants.

Picture courtesy www.gardenworld.co.zaPicture courtesy www.gardenworld.co.zaPicture courtesy www.gardenworld.co.zaMaintaining your swimming pool during a drought is possible, and before you say goodbye to your swimming pool for the holidays there are a couple of preparations you can do beforehand to help prevent a host of problems. Firstly, some interesting studies have recently come out concerning swimming pools and exactly how much water they really consume, and the results were very interesting to say the least! Due to the prolonged drought in California, swimming pools have become a target for those who think the classic backyard oasis wastes water, and some water districts prohibited new pools from being filled and limited how much water existing pools could use. But some of those agencies are now back tracking on these rules as analyses by various water districts, along with scientific studies, conclude that pools and their surrounding hardscapes use about the same amount of water as a lawn of the same size! In fact, over time, pools might even use less water. And, with the use of pool covers, experts say water evaporation can be cut by almost half, making pools significantly less wasteful than grass, and about as efficient as drought-tolerant landscaping. The Santa Margarita Water District conducted its own water-use analysis and found that although pools require thousands of gallons of water to fill initially, they use about 8,000 gallons less water than a traditional landscape after that. By the third year, they found that the savings add up, and a pool’s cumulative water use falls below that of a lawn. Water agencies such as the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power have also come to similar conclusion - a properly maintained spa or pool uses significantly less water in a season than watering a lawn of the same size. So, what can pool owners so to save water?

Cover-up - a properly maintained pool or spa cover is an important safety element and can also reduce evaporation and water waste by 95%. Be vigilant and repair any leaks immediately. Pool evaporation is usually about 2.54cm every week. To figure out if your pool is losing more water than it should, make sure the water is halfway up the tile at the proper water level. Place a bucket on the top or second step and fill the bucket so that the water in the bucket is level with the pool water. Mark the level in the bucket with tape or a marker. After a day, look at the water level in the bucket. If it’s higher than the pool, you’ve got a leak. If you’ve got a leak, check the backwash valve, filter band clamp and any other fittings for equipment leaks. If you can’t identify the leak, call in pool maintenance professionals. Recycle - use captured rainwater to replace water lost to evaporation in spas and pools.

Before going away on holiday check and adjust your pH, the correct pH should be in the range of 7.4 to 7.6; and the free chlorine should be a minimum of 2 to 3ppm. Add a monthly chlorine floater to the pool, and for added protection from algae, apply a dose of algae inhibitor. If you are experiencing problems, it may be worthwhile to take a water sample to the professionals for a water analysis. They will advise you concerning the balance of your water and provide any chemicals you may need to add, like a shock treatment. Brush all the walls thoroughly and clean the weir and pump baskets. Backwash the filter well - proper maintenance of pool water reduces the frequency of backwashing. Also, replace your aging sand or DE filtering system with a cartridge filter that does not require backwashing, will save water. Top up to the highest level you can before leaving on holiday, and set the time clock to run your pump and filter for about 12 hours per day.

Sunflower 'Ballad' Picture courtesy Ball Horticultural CompanySunflower 'Ballad' Picture courtesy Ball Horticultural CompanySunflower 'Ballad' Picture courtesy Ball Horticultural CompanyI hope you found the above suggestions useful and will take up the challenge of gardening in drought conditions. You will learn invaluable water saving techniques which will help you to conserve water even when the rains return and our dams are full again. Worldwide, water scarcity has become a real problem and it’s not going away, so the sooner you learn how to manage water efficiently the better off you will be when the next water crisis hits. Besides, imagine how much you can save on your water bills

Last but not least, have a safe journey and a wonderful festive season.


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