Plants can't be 'waterwise', but you can

Andrew Unsworth on how water - or the lack of it - is dictating gardening trends

17 September 2017 - 00:00 By Andrew Unsworth
Succulents are the biggest trend at the moment.
Succulents are the biggest trend at the moment.
Image: iStock

People used to say that on the highveld we should not even think of summer rain until Paul Kruger's birthday, but as none of us still remembers that it was October 10 (I looked it up) there is no impediment to hectic gardening in September, when people flock to nurseries and garden centres after realising their gardens look a bit drab.

Cape gardeners are obviously excluded from this generalisation: on a daily allowance of 87 litres per person, thoughts do not turn to petunias, unless they are plastic.

With winter rains, perhaps they need an alternative birthday to wait for. March 3 (Julius Malema) or March 9 (Helen Zille) would be a bit early, as would Jan van Riebeeck's on April 21. Nelson Mandela's on July 18 would be more auspicious and optimistic, but right now that's a long wait.

Back to the rest who can think of planting now, because after all gardens must be at their colourful best for summer braais, and certainly for Christmas. You could call it the horticultural version of the mad rush to gyms just before the Christmas break when people want to look good on the beach.

In both cases it could be a bit late: just as in gym the best performance in your beds (flower beds) takes time. Gardening is certainly the ultimate lesson in delayed gratification, because you plant for the future: the season ahead and even further.

Of course, you can buy time in nurseries, and they cater for the modern demand for instant gratification - at a price. Seedlings can look good almost instantly, hence the display tables of annual plants right now, all in bloom.


Fashions in gardening do change. Once upon a time people loved zinnias, dahlias and gladioli. More recently people packed their summer gardens with impatiens, but due to disease and their need for plenty of water they have all but been replaced by pansies, petunias and others.

Water, or the lack of it, is redefining gardening. Plants can't be "waterwise" despite the labels, only drought-resistant. Gardeners can and have to be "waterwise".

Indulge to your heart's content, but remember to always prepare your soil for the best results: that means as much compost as you can. It also saves water, as well-composted soil retains it.

Limit seedlings to pots, containers and smaller areas you can water. Many perennial plants - that is, those that are permanent - can cope with drought better than annuals.

But the biggest trend at the moment: succulents. In the past they were sidelined at the back of nurseries, now they are burgeoning into a huge selection of different species and varieties.

Aloes are especially popular, and although we have a huge range of indigenous ones, plant breeders are adding more and more exciting hybrids with incredibly tempting colours.

Many succulent plants can be easily grown from cuttings that have been begged, borrowed or worse, but you get bigger and perhaps more interesting ones by buying.

There's a wide range of indigenous aloes to choose from.
There's a wide range of indigenous aloes to choose from.
Image: iStock

Gardening with grasses is also an exciting new trend, and nurseries are catering for it with a vast selection, both indigenous and exotic. They can survive with little water.

Gardening guru Keith Kirsten recently showed me his huge meadow garden, where the veld grasses have been allowed to reclaim their land.

With far less space, I have just planted a grass garden myself, and plan to add more seeds from veld grasses that catch my eye, anywhere.

I included things like mini kniphofias (red-hot, or in this case, yellow, pokers) and indigenous lilies with grass-like leaves. Even in the limited space of, say, a townhouse garden, you can have huge fun planting a grass garden with plants of different heights and colours.

Unless you have a dog or a kid with a ball, mown lawns are becoming so passe. Dig it up, save the water and sell the lawn mower.