Gardening with water restrictions: the most over-looked free water resource

Gardening with water restrictions: the most over-looked free water resource

Cape Town is experiencing severe water shortages. Yet the City receives two to three times more water (rain) than its annual requirement, so where does it go? It runs off roads, paved areas and roofs and literally goes down the drain: into storm water pipes and out to sea.

While people are scrambling for tanks and boreholes, it seems we have forgotten the importance of infiltration: capturing water runoff and allowing it to seep into the ground. The soil is in fact our largest and least expensive ‘tank’, one that provides moisture to plants for weeks or even months after it has rained. Furthermore trees and shrubs are like living pumps: moving water from the ground, providing moisture and cooling the air – nature’s free air conditioning.

Rainwater harvesting can be done with simple earthworks – swales, berms, depressions, and other landforms – that capture and ‘plant’ the rain, instead of letting it run off the site. Earthworks serve to reduce erosion, and are a convenient passive form of irrigation that requires no tanks, mechanical pumps, valves or irrigation systems. They function whenever rain falls, and water flows – especially helpful on mountain slopes and for ‘oily’ or hydrophobic soils. Earthworks take some effort to install but require very little maintenance. They can be used anywhere – in public landscapes, gardens, schools, street planting, parks and farms. So let’s not waste this free water resource and ensure we maximize the potential of available rainfall.

For an excellent practical guide on how to create successful earthworks for rainwater harvesting consult Brad Lancaster’s ‘ Rainwater harvesting for drylands and beyond’ ( His advice is to start with long and thoughtful observation, and plan a small and simple intervention in the highest point of the property. The purpose is to slow down and spread the flow of water so that it can seep into the soil. Another important principle is to always plan the overflow route and manage surplus water as a resource. You can use earthworks, planting and mulch to create living sponge(s) in the landscape.

In summary the most logical, cost-effective strategy to maintain a garden or landscape is:

  1. FIRST harvest rainwater and runoff with appropriate earthworks so that it infiltrates the soil.
  2. Next set yourself a goal of zero storm water runoff: consider storing rainwater in tanks and treating for use in the house.
  3. Then consider treating and reusing your grey water in the landscape.
  4. Borehole water is a valuable but finite resource that is at risk of being depleted by an ever-growing number of well points and boreholes. Consider it as a last resort to be used under exceptional circumstances and e.g. for food gardens.

If you love gardening there is no need for big capital outlays, no waiting for plastic tanks, no fossil fuels required – just time honoured farmer’s logic.  Rain is the highest quality source of irrigation water – all you need is careful observation, some planning and a spade to utilize it. So grab a spade, and start small and simple!


Brad's drawing

The stewardship path to abundance. This site passively hydrates itself by productively planting the rain with the on-site harvest and infiltration of rainwater and runoff. This reduces downslope flooding and water contamination. Grey water is directed to plants in times of no rain. Wells, creeks, and rivers are recharged. Leaf drop/mulch is also harvested and cycled back into the soil and plants, further increasing fertility and water-holding capacity. 

Image & caption from Brad Lancaster’s


Summer Gold

West coast summer is all about yellows, russets, sun-stressed reds and many shades of brown. Leaves wrinkled or tightly rolled into a ball – or lying crisp and curled in carpets under summer deciduous shrubs. Lichens fruiting madly. Here in the south the heat of summer creates a world which is reminiscent of a northern hemisphere autumn. In contrast our ‘fall’ is a time of rejuvenation and greening in response to the first rain.

To be fair, my eye was drawn to only one side of the plant spectrum – among these sun stressed species there were almost lush and green karee bushes (Searsia lucida, S.glauca) and sea ghwarries (Euclea racemosa). These hardy evergreens create a wonderful foil for the golds and browns of deciduous species.

To me there is great beauty in the stark seasonal changes of strandveld – as gardeners and landscapers we can drawn inspiration from this natural palette of ultra hardy plants.


DSCN6525DSCN6535Deciduous Zygophyllum morgsana about to loose the last of its leaves

DSCN6550Ballota africana (Kattekruie) with tightly rolled leaves

Below: Pretty seed pods of Zygophyllum morgsanaDSCN6545A carpet of leaves forms natural mulch on the soilDSCN6536

DSCN6541DSCN6529Sun-stressed Mesembryanthemum alatum which seems to be growing from seed, no matter how dry it isDSCN6526

Palette: Highveld grassland

During a recent visit to Random Harvest Nursery I had the privilege of visiting a restored grassland. About 25 years ago this piece of the farm was a dense stand of alien invasive Black and Silver Wattles. Linda de Luca and her mother decided to remove the forest and allow the grass to re establish itself, initially for grazing purposes. Then about 12 years ago, their interest in grassland deepened and they decided to play a more active role in restoring the grassland.  The result is spectacular: a little piece of climax high veld grassland in the heart of Gauteng, and only a stone’s throw from the bustling centre of Johannesburg.

Drifts of golden Helichrysum in a matrix of  grasses

Drifts of golden Helichrysum in a matrix of grasses

It was an overcast day after a few days of rain – the grasses were lush green and flowering, in their prime. Eragrostis curvula, Eragrostis capensis (heart love grass) and Themeda triandra (red grass) were a few that I could name. in this matrix of finely textured green were splashes of yellow Helichysum, and the striking tall inflorescenes of prickly Berkheya.

Berkheya radula (Boesmansrietjie)

Berkheya radula (Boesmansrietjie)

I was lucky to have Carol Knoll as my guide – she had just published an excellent article on the restoration of this grassland in Footprint Limited magazine. As we walked through the grassland, we were like kids in a candy shop, excitedly pointing out little herbaceous gems under our feet.

Carol Knoll giving me the species names

Carol Knoll giving me the species names

Veronica species

Veronica species

Tulbaghia leucantha (Wild garlic)

Tulbaghia leucantha (Wild garlic)

Monopsis or Lobelia species

Monopsis or Lobelia species

Carol showed me how the Milkwort was alive with insect activity – ants, beetles and of course butterfly pollinators.

Xysmalobium undulata (Milkwort)

Xysmalobium undulata (Milkwort)

The star flowers remained firmly closed, in the absence of sun, but below is a picture I took in the same grassland last year.

Hypoxis hemerocallidea (Star flower) was not going to show its bright yellow flowers on this dull overcast day

Hypoxis hemerocallidea (Star flower) was not going to show its bright yellow flowers on this dull overcast day

Hypoxis hemerocallidea (2)

As we left the restored grassland, I saw a dense stand of Hyparrhenia hirta and wondered how this local but weedy invasive species was kept in check? I found the answer in Carol’s article which describes how the Hyparrhenia was cut and removed before it seeded, and used to make compost for the nursery. In addition, the grassland is regularly weeded to remove pompom weed, tall verbena and Plantago.  To increase biodiversity and provide different conditions, the grassland is burnt every 3 years, and slashed annually, with one third slashed in autumn (March), one third in spring and the remainder left untouched. Quite a regime, but it has yielded excellent results.

In addition to the spectacular increase in plant diversity, the restored grassland has provided a habitat for the Giant bullfrog and many species of butterfly, including the Eyed Pansy.

Pelargonium luridum (Waving pelargonium)

Pelargonium luridum (Waving pelargonium)

As I left – in great haste – to catch my plane at Lanseria airport I spotted a Waving pelargonium – a fitting end to my grassland visit.

Inspiration from Strandveld

A recent visit to Church haven, on the West Coast of South Africa, reminded me of the beauty of strandveld in spring. These tough plants which grow on sand or limestone, and survive the harshest of coastal conditions, erupt into a riot of flowers and colour. It is a sight to behold.


If you are looking for water-wise plants which will survive long dry summers, harsh windy conditions and poor sandy soils, this is just the palette for you! Not many of these plants are available (yet) – but with growing interest and demand from the public this can change. My dream is that every region has its local nursery, stocked with local indigenous species, grown by locals. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were some nurseries along the West Coast which stocked this Strandveld Palette  and these plants were widely grown in all the sea side towns (Langebaan, Paternoster, Saldanah, Lambertsbaai) – instead of the ubiquitous palm trees and Manitoka?


This Kankerbossie (Cancer bush, Lessertia frutescens) is just one of many attractive species, not only ornamental but with medicinal properties. It is a weedy type, preferring disturbed areas, like roadsides, and seeding itself freely. Fast-growing and flowers prolifically with red pea flowers, which are followed by unusual balloon-like seed pods.



Kattekruid (Ballota africana) looks like it would fit right into a cottage garden – yet growing here under tough coastal conditions. It is a well-known Khoi remedy: an infusion of the leaves was used to treat a variety of ailments including fever, flu, asthma, stress and thrush.



Spinnekopblom (Ferraria crispa). This is a classic fly-pollinated flower – purplish black with an unpleasant scent – designed to attract carrion flies. I noticed the flowers only last a day, and they don’t smell nearly as strong as Hoodias and Stapelias – it would make the most unusual garden jewel!



Melkbos (Euphorbia mauritanica) is available in the trade, and gives a lovely vertical texture to a Strandveld planting, with its upright succulent stems. The lime-yellow flowers in spring are an added bonus.



I couldn’t get enough of the sweet tasty berries of the Bietou (Osteospermum moniliferum) – delicious! Neither could the birds…



Zygophyllum morgsana looking pretty with seed pods blushed red. I have hardly seen this plant in cultivation – apparently difficult to propagate.



The Beach Sage or Strandsalie (Salvia africana-lutea) – now this is a popular landscape plant which is widely available. I love the pale orange to russet flowers, which attract sunbirds. Each flower has a maroon calyx which remains on the bush for months afterwards, and the geometrically arranged aromatic grey leaves are distinctive.



No Strandveld garden would be complete without Sour fig – Carpobrotus species. An excellent pioneer for open areas, to stabilise sand or to cover an embankment. The juicy fruits are a favourite among locals.



Another favourite, and widely available landscape plant – Wild Rosemary. Actually this coastal species, Eriocephalus racemosus, is less widely known and sold than it’s inland counterpart, Eriocephalus africanus.  Wonderfully fragrant: use it like rosemary to flavour food. Recently I added it to sliced mushrooms while I was frying them – couldn’t get enough it, we had it 3 days in a row!