Is it possible to maintain a lush garden (in a Mediterranean climate) without regular irrigation?

Maintaining a lush garden that does not rely on regular irrigation is an interesting mindset indeed. I decided to change mine when our well point dried up many years ago and, instead of trying to resurrect the well point (a potentially futile exercise) we decided we would design and work with other resources at our disposal. Using thousands of litres of municipal water was also not an option. Eight years ago, we were still allowed to use municipal supplies but the challenge was also to be more self-sufficient using resources that were more sustainable and less of an impact on ground water reserves. This also included a sense of giving back to the space and not just taking from it, to ensure long term sustainability and resiliency. Giving back meant using techniques which are quite rare in the mainstream gardening community (I will explain more re this in a minute). And no, it’s not hippy dippy stuff!

Lastly, I was determined to prove that “water wise” does not automatically mean cactus and rocks (Saying that, I also love cactus and rocks in the right setting. But you get the idea). Lush is certainly possible dependant on the set-up.    

Talking about set-up, in my previous blogs I explain the principles behind the initial set up of a resilient garden which is always key.

Create the right basis and environment before even thinking about plants. You need to give your plants the best possible starting block. Most people skip this and then wonder why it all fails…. and of course, when its time to plant, use the right plants (refer to my resilient garden plant list in a previous blog for ideas).

Once set up, here are a list of ways I maintain a lush garden on very little water:

Seeing the topic is the use of minimal water, let’s talk about what I do with this first. Everything needs water, there is nothing living on this planet that doesn’t need water. Seems ridiculous that I have to write this but you would be astounded how some folk actually think that certain plants don’t need any water at all. Even succulents and cacti need water, they have just adapted to be able to survive with less, that’s all.

Back to our set up, we water with harvested rain water and grey water only so we don’t have an irrigation system in the traditional sense (i.e. it’s not an elaborate system with timers etc.) as we don’t have the capacity to water everything so watering is very selective. We could certainly link certain areas up to a timed system if we wanted to but I prefer to water as needed and, in that way, I can monitor how much water we have left in the tanks and make sure I keep an eye on what’s happening in the garden.

Tip: Watering is infrequent but deep (this applies to pots and vertical gardens too). Drench well and infrequently. You want to drive plant roots down as deep as you can leading to stronger plants.

Soakaways

The non-mainstream technique I mentioned and that I feel is an essential on every property. Not something I have to do or maintain but I can’t leave out how much these contribute to the ongoing resilience of the garden. The soil is the best reservoir there is and you can certainly see the benefits. Our trees seem to have benefited the most and can attribute some of the young ones surviving our drought to these very simple structures. Merely a lined, gravel pit (approximately 1x1sqm) at the end of down pipes that helps extra water run-off soak into the ground. Simple to build and invisible once installed, you can even plant on top of them. We have three on our property. If you consider that 1mm of rain falling on 1sqm of ground is a litre of water, it’s amazing how much water you can contribute from run off of hard surfaces. I feel that we should be putting water back into the soil instead of constantly removing it which affects the water table and the trees that rely on it.

Myth: And no, the water you irrigate your garden with does not go back down metres deep and recharge groundwater. If you don’t believe me, water you garden for 15 minutes and then dig down into that soil. You will see only the top 10 to 15cm is wet.

Water zones

If you do want plants that tend to be a little more water hungry then plant them in one spot for easy watering or where they can be individually watered.  I have a grouping of plectranthus and Mackaya Bella (also a PomPon tree) close to my washing machine outlet which keeps them going nicely.

Our tank system set-up

We have about 8500 litres in capacity, 2 x 2500 on the side of the house (recently purchased in 2018) capturing most of the square footage of the main roof. These have a pressure switch and so I can open a tap and walaah!

Another 1000 litre and 2500 litre capture water from the garage roof on the other side of the property. These look after most of my hand watering needs (i.e. pots).

The tanks start to run dry around end March but they are filled up again shortly with April rains (we hope). There is debate on whether tanks are worthwhile to have in a winter rainfall area. If you had to water in a conventional sense then our capacity would be done in a couple of waterings but we use it so sparingly that it generally lasts us through the summer and luckily there are the odd showers in the summer months that give us a top up. We only had 3500 litre capacity up until 2018 so even managed on that!

Another plus with regard to harvesting rain water: Plants LOVE rainwater. You can water with borehole or municipal water till the cows come home and you will never see the results or the response from your plants that a rain shower can bring on. Why? Let’s not get too scientific but rain drops pull nutrients and minerals out of the air before they land, its living oxygenated water free from chlorine and fluoride or high metal content. It’s the way it has always been done. Need I say more.

Grey water system

Ours is a very simple system of a barrel sunken into the ground containing a submersible pump with a float switch and a simple filter that keeps any large matter out of the water. A hose is attached to the outlet and I move it around as needed. We only use between 60 and 100 litres of water per day (as its just my husband and I) so it’s not a great deal of grey water but we manage to keep the back yard going nicely. A larger household obviously has a better output so really a resource that should be used.

We are careful with the products we use in the basins and showers and stick to plain soaps without fragrances and non-toxic cleaning products. I have used the odd bit of bleach when cleaning mildew etc but this is minimal. Our grey water has kept our back yard going for 13 years and all I can say is that plants LOVE it! Grey water is very bacteria and nutrient laden, it may contribute to the natural bacteria in the soil that plants rely on. It smells so let it run out onto the ground, not spray up into the air and ensure its not used on edible plants. You can add beneficial bacteria that help with the smell if it really bothers you.

Bottom watering

Water saving tip: Put your smaller pots in a drip tray filled with water and let the plants soak up water from the bottom of the pots. This helps with two things; water is not wasted as run off and it promotes deeper root growth which makes for a stronger plant. This is our version of a Saturday night pool party!

Olla

Water saving tip: A sunken unglazed clay bowl that allows slow seepage of water into the surrounding soil.  A method used for thousands of years to conserve water. You can purchase these at www.kommetjieceramics.webs.com or www.ollapots.co.za

Mulching

Aside from the couple of truck loads that we brought in for set up, I don’t buy a lot of mulch at all. I try to utilise the green matter that the garden produces. We are very grateful for the big trees (Cape Ash) on the land as they generate a lot of mulch through their leaf drop. Remember I mentioned a forest concept, a forest produces its own nutrients and soil covering, let your plants and trees do the same. Healthy soil is covered soil. Don’t sweep them up!

Tip: Chop and drop! When pruning, I often just leave the cut leaves and limbs on the ground as mulch. You can cover it with a layer of prettier mulch is you are worried about aesthetics.

I use a chipper to break down larger branches and prunings and use this in the garden as well. Chippers are expensive machines but you could buy one amongst friends, family or neighbours and share it as you don’t use it that often.

No dig method

Aside from the hole to plant a new plant or initial adding of compost, I do not touch my soil after that. It seems to be very common practice for gardeners to till or loosen the soil around plants on a regular basis “to make it more receptive to water”. Let me tell you why this is the worst idea. When you disturb the soil around plants, it disrupts the soil micro-organisms essential to plant health, it disturbs their roots, (ironically) dries the soil out and makes it difficult to retain a mulch layer. This type of digging does not happen in nature (aside from infrequent movement of animals), why do it in your garden then?

Pruning

Some plants HAVE to be pruned to keep looking their best or else they go all leggy and scraggly. Plectranthus ecklonii and Ribbon bush for instance, prune back hard in winter to promote fuller growth in spring and compost or chip the branches.

Fertilising

I don’t use a lot of added fertiliser. Fertiliser (especially chemical fertiliser) promotes the rapid growth of plants. Plants that grow rapidly require more water to support their size. Slow and steady wins the race. Build resiliency into a garden by using natural ways to create nutrients for your plants. They derive this from mulch and even the rain. If you do use fertiliser, use good quality organic fertiliser (like Talborne Organics) as it releases nutrients slowly, gently supporting plant and soil health, not just rapid plant growth that cannot be sustained.

Fact: Chemical fertilisers feed the plant and not the soil. The basis of a resilient garden is healthy soil which then leads to healthy plants.

Pest control

I won’t use toxic pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. Not only is it dangerous to ourselves and our environment (not to mention how these products are produced and disposed of), I feel it is totally unnecessary to use harmful substances when there are wonderful non-toxic products on the market as well as a wealth of info on alternative methods on the internet. Saying that, even organic products can affect beneficial insects too, so be mindful of how you use them. I love the Biogrow range and use Bioneem if I have a biting insect problem. I use when it really is a problem, otherwise I feel a healthy garden should show signs of insect activity. If you are having constant fungal or pest issues with certain plants it may be a time to reevaluate whether that plant is suited to your set up and should be replaced with something stronger.

Composting and vermicomposting

I don’t have a lot of space to compost but I do use a lot of the garden waste for this. Kitchen scraps are vermicomposted using a worm farm. We recently built the “Hilton” of all worm farms in an old bath I bought from a friend who was renovating. Works brilliantly and the worm pee or juice is fabulous as a mild fertiliser for indoor and outdoor plants. Worm castings is by far the best soil conditioner around.

Tip: Wood ash from our fireplace and braai gets distributed in the garden as its full of nutrients. It is quite alkalising though so not great for acid loving plants like Clivia or Mackaya Bella.

Propagation

Many water wise plants are super easy to propagate and some even have baby offsets that can be easily replanted or put in pots until they are big enough go into the ground. Free plants, what’s not to love!

Here’s to far more resilient gardens!