In the face of an escalating global water crisis, it makes sense to drought proof your garden.
There are a number of ways you can do this, from making good plant selections to taking steps to conserve and reuse water. Food & Trees for Africa (FTFA) works with communities across South Africa to improve their food gardening approaches.
Some of the simplest and most effective ways to drought proof your garden can be applied to both food gardens and decorative gardens alike.
Choosing drought proof plants
The use of water-wise and drought tolerant plants helps to reduce the need to water your garden. These types of plants store water in their stems, leaves, and/or bulbs and roots underground.
There is a distinction between water-wise and drought tolerant plants. The former usually originate in areas that do not have high rainfall, and survive well even with irregular watering. The SA Garden Guide highlights succulents, aloes, and cacti as good examples of water-wise plants. It notes that drought tolerant or drought resistant plants, on the other hand, typically flourish with regular watering but are still able to withstand periods without water. They may do this by losing leaves and becoming dormant.
The exact species you use will depend on your region. In most cases, your best bet – particularly if you live in an arid or semi-arid area – is to select plants that occur there naturally. It is essential to avoid alien and invasive species, as these are often major drains on water resources.
Nurture your soil
Composting not only increases soil’s water retention but also helps to prevent over-saturation of the soil in heavy downpours. This is because it helps water to filter down through the soil, preventing the formation of water puddles that otherwise may rot plant roots.
Mulching protects the surface of the soil from drying out by slowing evaporation and water runoff. Mulch also makes soil more drought resistant by reflecting a lot of the sun’s heat. Gardens that are mulched exhibit increased nutrients and better soil structure. Improving the health of the soil prevents nutrients from being washed away and keeps the surface of the spoil permeable.
Reduce lawn area
Short-cut grassy lawns increase water loss. The presence of longer grass and a plant canopy of varying heights helps with shading your garden and improving water retention.
Rather than having a large expanse of lawn directly exposed to the sun, consider breaking it up into smaller sections. They can be surrounded by or interspersed with rockeries, plants, and trees that will assist with shading sections of the lawn.
Allow any lawn areas to go dormant during the hottest months. Many lawn grasses are adapted to dealing with summer drought; they will turn brown because they store water reserves in their roots, but with minimal watering will survive the peak heat periods.
Optimise your water use
Greywater systems can redirect household wastewater into your garden, although usually this water cannot be used for food gardens.
Rainwater harvesting is another way of retaining water and reducing your reliance on municipal water supply. Rainwater collection tanks can be hooked up to roof gutters or other impermeable surfaces to collect and store water for future use. This has the added benefit of reducing surface runoff during heavy rains.
Start drought proofing your garden now
The good news is that it’s never too late to drought proof your garden. Just a few small changes can start you down the path. In time these will lead to a more sustainable and resilient garden, especially as the negative effects of climate change increase. Along with techniques for flood proofing your garden, this will help to protect your garden against the vagaries of more extreme climate and weather events.