How to create a low-water garden
Trying to maintain a verdant garden can be difficult, especially in extended bouts of dry weather. The trick is to choose plants with low-water requirements for your space, without compromising on the aesthetics.
A low-water garden can have a rich tapestry of colours and textures. For inspiration, Trystan Graham, co-director of Outdoor Establishments, suggests looking to the Australian bushland. “A warm palette of earthy colours and dry foliage can be a stunning addition to the garden,” he says.
Plus, it provides an excellent foundation to which you can add perennials to fill gaps and provide interest. “Succulents, such as agaves, flowering aloes and echeverias, provide sculptural forms and bursts of colour,” says Trystan.
Take note of the sun, shade, wind and reflective heat in your space. This will help you understand your garden and how you can better plan and plant.
“Group plants with similar water needs together; that way, if you do include a handful of thirsty plants, more water can be directed to that zone,” suggests Angie Thomas, horticulture consultant to Yates.
You don’t need to fill every inch of the garden bed with plants. Try including hard elements, such as boulders of local stone and gravel between plants. “It helps reduce the need for complete ground cover and helps punctuate beds and borders with visual intrigue,” says Trystan Graham. “Plus, this planting style complements a naturalistic dry garden style very well.”
Aussies love lawns, but they are thirsty. Consider reducing the size in favour of beds or borders with low-water ground covers. Create a Palm Springs vibe, with a patch of lawn flanked by a garden bed of cacti, mulched with white pebbles.
Right plant, right place
For a successful dry garden, always begin by choosing plants that have evolved to deal with hot, dry conditions. “Look for plants with silver, leathery, needle-like, hairy or waxy leaves,” suggests Angie.
Plants with these kinds of features tend to lose less moisture compared with large, lush-leaved plants. “Go for Australian natives such as wattles, banksias, bottlebrush, westringias, melaleucas and grasses,” says Angie. “Or, for a Mediterranean feel, lamb’s ears, rosemary, sage and perennial statice are ideal candidates.” Once established, these plants can survive periods of low watering.
Succulents and cacti are ideal contenders, too, and they can often go through long periods with little to no water. However, they do require good drainage, so make sure you improve the soil prior to planting. “Cacti can withstand the hot afternoon sun – perfect for the baking spots in the yard – and can thrive on neglect,” says Trystan. “Most cacti also have incredible flowers that many people aren’t aware of. It often comes as a nice surprise!”
The secret is in the soil
The best time to plant is autumn or spring, as this gives plants enough time to get established before things really heat up. When planting, start by breaking up the soil well and mixing in compost and organic matter to encourage plants to root deeply. As a bonus, improving the soil can help boost its resilience in dry times. “Regularly incorporating rich sources of organic matter in the soil, such as Yates Dynamic Lifter, can help sandy and clay-based soils retain more moisture,” explains Angie.
After planting, Angie recommends applying a generous layer of mulch over garden beds, vegetable patches and pots. “Adding a layer of mulch will help reduce the amount of moisture lost from the soil and, if using organic mulch like bark chips, they add valuable organic matter to the soil as they break down,” she says.
Make it count
To reduce water waste, install irrigation. “It’s best to install a drip system that regulates the release and delivers water directly to the plants’ rootballs,” says Trystan Graham.
This ensures plants receive a consistent amount of moisture, which allows for strong growth, flowering or fruiting. “Ensure you run irrigation at the right time of day – early morning or late in the evening – to minimise evaporation due to watering in the heat of the day,” he says. Check current water restrictions with your local authority.
Keep an eye on your soil though. If you notice water pooling on the surface, there is a good chance it has become hydrophobic (water repellent), so despite watering efforts, no water is reaching the plants’ roots. “Try applying a soil wetter, as it can help break down the waxy layer and enable moisture to penetrate more evenly and effectively down into the soil, helping plants to get the benefit of any rainfall or irrigation,” explains Angie Thomas.
Plants local to your area are likely to establish well and require little TLC. Ask your council or search their website for a list of plants and trees that might work in your garden.
Try some of these dry stars
Agave (Agave sp.)
Agave boasts large, handsome succulent leaves arranged in an elegant rosette. Colours range from dusty-greyish green to yellow and green stripes. A tough statement piece for any garden.
Coastal rosemary (Westringia fruticosa)
With small needle-like leaves that grow into a tight, compact bush, coastal rosemary can withstand wind, sea spray, sun and dry soil. Trim it into a hedge or topiary ball, or let it grow naturally into a loose mound.
Mexican sage (Salvia leucantha)
Drought tolerant once established, Mexican sage is a true hot-weather performer. It provides pretty purple flowers and can tolerate full sun or light shade, and little water.
Indian hawthorn ‘Oriental Pearl’ (Rhaphiolepis indica)
A hardy shrub with white blooms, it can tolerate full sun, sea spray, wind and frost. It’s great in a pot or as a low-lying hedge.
Kangaroo paw (Anigozanthos sp.)
This iconic Australian native has gorgeous bold-coloured blooms in varying shades of red, green, yellow or pink. Kangaroo paw grows best in a sunny dry spot.
Banksia ‘Birthday Candles’
Ideal for small spaces, its golden cylindrical flowers float above a sea of green foliage, growing into a low, dense shrub. Grow as ground cover or in pots.
Lamb’s ear (Stachysbyzantina)
Soft, fuzzy silver-grey leaves will add colour and contrast to a perennial garden bed. It will tolerate full sun and poor soils and grows best in hot, dry climates.
Emu bush (Eremophila nivea)
Emu bush has glistening silver foliage dotted with tubular purple flowers in spring and summer. Ideal for areas with hot, dry summers, such as Victoria and South Australia.
A staple in most dry gardens, with its strappy green leaves and compact growth habit (60cm tall and wide), it’s the perfect ornamental grass for borders, mass or feature plantings.
Arctotis ‘Silverdust Glow’
A hardy perennial that originates from South Africa, arctotis provides pops of orange blooms held above delicate silvery foliage. The flowers grow best in full sun.
Start planning your low-water garden
Take a look at our full range of plants today and start creating your own low-water garden.
Photo credit: Gap Photos, Brent Wilson, Getty Images, iStock