Water-wise garden guru shares advice

Angela McQueen with her dog Pip. The garden at her home in Meadowridge is one of four which will feature at Open Gardens Constantia.  PHOTO: Nettalie Viljoen
Angela McQueen with her dog Pip. The garden at her home in Meadowridge is one of four which will feature at Open Gardens Constantia. PHOTO: Nettalie Viljoen

It is easy to give up hope on ever having a lush garden if, like this reporter, you too have spent hundreds of rands on plants and shrubs only to watch them wither and die.

Angela McQueen, the co-owner of such a lush garden (yes, unlike unicorns, they do exist) says a resilient garden is within anyone’s reach. And, with sufficient research and planning, it doesn’t have to cost you an arm and leg.

Over the past seven years, using her working knowledge of indigenous and exotic drought-tolerant plants and her husband’s (Alister) knack for, well, “making things”, they have established a lush-looking garden that relies solely on greywater and harvested rainwater.

Angela’s little slice of paradise is one of four diverse gardens – each practising sensible water management – which will feature at Open Gardens Constantia on Friday 18 October and Saturday 19 October.

Steps taken to earn this Meadowridge garden the water-wise stamp of approval include over four cubes of mulch (two truckloads) to cover the soil in a thick layer for water retention and cooling, a simple greywater system (a tank with a float switch), four water tanks with a combined capacity of 8 500l to capture rainwater, and four soak-aways/French drains to hydrate deeper soil structure and retain water on the property.

Plants were also grouped according to water needs and suitable indigenous, as well as drought-tolerant exotic plants, were used. When it came to the trees on the property, large trees were retained and not trimmed back to provide shade. “The fallacy exists that trees are not great in water-wise gardens. Trees are essential in so many ways. Plants are more resilient and require less water if their roots are cool,” she says.

And for Angela, when it comes to gardening, “resilient” is the keyword. A resilient garden can survive change beyond the normal, and then recover well. Many of the measures taken in their garden were inspired by her interest in permaculture design – the development of agricultural ecosystems intended to be sustainable and self-sufficient.

She also implements these principals in her garden consulting and plants sourcing business called Small Space Gardens. In her blog (www.smallspacegardens.co.za), she gives four basic principles to achieve a water-wise garden.

. Do as nature does. A plant will most likely thrive if you can duplicate the environment in which it has evolved. Also mulch, a lot.

. Water. Permaculture teaches the four S’s: slow it, spread it, sink it, and store it. Soil is the best water reservoir there is. Try and keep all water that comes to your property in your property by using gullies, swales and planting hole basins to prevent runoff and to give it time to soak into the ground.

. Plants. Choose the right plants for your soil type and select plants naturally geared to survive drought.

. Group plants with the same water needs. For example, if you have plants that need a little more water such as Plectranthus, then plant these in one suitable location and ensure they receive your greywater regularly.

Once you have set up the basic infrastructure and design of the garden following these principles, the next step is choosing your plants. “You don’t want to buy plants on impulse just because you like the look of them. You may end up wasting your money. Do your research first,” she advises.

She suggests driving or walking around your neighbourhood to see what type of plants are thriving in your area and where they are situated. Some plants thrive in full sun and others decidedly not

“Common plants are common for a reason, it means they are hardy stalwarts that stay around when others fail. Many ‘old fashioned’ varieties like Mother-in-Law’s Tongue (Sansevieria) or Hen and Chicken (Chlorophytum comosum) are coming back into ‘fashion’,” Angela says.

And finally, work systematically. “Starting or restoring a garden can be overwhelming. After sketching a general plan, start in one bed, make your plant list and work your way around,” she says.

For hacks on how to get hold of free or cheap plants, read Angela’s blog or visit her garden during the Open Gardens event.

Money raised will go towards food garden projects through the organisation’s Sozo Foundation and Soil for Life.

Tickets are R70 in advance or R80 at the gardens and include Soza barista coffee or tea and eats.

V Tickets are available from www.webtickets.co.za or call 021 712 5668.

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