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Dramatic gardens in dry areas

By Martin Hatchuel and Jen Stern

, |


Dramatic gardens in dry areas

By Martin Hatchuel and Jen Stern

, |

4 min read

If you live – or are planning a development – in one of the drier parts of the country, you are faced with some serious gardening and landscaping challenges.

But you’re not the first person to have to deal with little or no water and hot, dry winds that shrivel up every little hopeful green shoot. Many landscapers have very successfully created dramatic xeriscapes of intriguing hard elements and extremely hardy plants.

What is xeriscaping?

Xeriscaping takes the principles of water-wise gardening to their ultimate conclusion. The word is a composite of the terms ‘xerophyte’ – a plant that has adapted to survive in water-scarce areas – and ‘landscaping’. In xeriscaping, you choose your plants – usually desert-adapted species – for their suitability to your climate, and you design the shapes and hard elements of your garden to ensure run-off so that your plants won’t drown on the odd occasion you do get some rain, because – Murphy’s Law – it never rains, and then it pours.

If you’re gardening in the wetter parts of the country, xeriscaping is likely to end in soggy heartache and tears but, if you are gardening, developing or living in an arid area, xeriscaping is a way to create something beautiful within the constraints you’ve been given. As Dr Seuss – who wrote the famous The Cat in the Hat after being challenged to write a book with a vocabulary of only 50 words – has shown, creativity can flourish within limitations.

Xeriscaping – the basics

Given that this country boasts the world’s most diverse selection of indigenous plants, that many of our indigenous plants are succulents, and the fact that many succulents are obligingly easy to propagate, we’re truly spoiled for choice when it comes to plant material for this method of gardening.

Some great South African examples would include aloes, euphorbias, cotyledons (pigs’ ears), spekboom (which is great for hedging and background planting), crassulas, lithops (stone plants), stapeliads (starfish flowers), and vygies. In other words, the vetplante – although, to be sure, there are other plants, like some of the cape reeds (restios) that’ll stand up quite well to xeriscaping, too.

As important, if not more so, is your soil and its preparation. Succulents usually prefer full sun, little or no irrigation, and well-drained soils; they usually don’t give a fig for indulgences like compost and fertilisers; and many can tolerate frost. But they’ll die if you overwater them.


One way to ensure that your succulents won’t wallow in the wet when it does rain is to shape your planting areas into mounds, and perhaps direct the run-off into your gravelled pathways, and from there away via the property’s natural drainage.

Shaping and contouring are useful, too, for providing visual relief and interesting contours in level, otherwise featureless spaces. But be aware, especially if you’re going to import the soils for mounding, that you need to choose your soils carefully. No compost, and no rich, loamy topsoil.

Hard landscaping

Many xeriscapes rely for their design success on well-placed arrangements of rocks. As a rule of thumb, local rocks usually work best, probably as a result of the ‘borrowed landscape’ principle: the idea of marrying your garden to its surroundings through visual links with existing features outside the boundaries of the garden.

Some landscapers have suggested that rocks provide microclimates in the garden: at night giving off the heat they’ve trapped during the day, and during the day offering shade for some of the more delicate plants, which partly explains why you’re likely to see plants clustering around natural rock formations in undisturbed desert wildernesses.

Crushed gravel, quartz river sand, and even bark chips make excellent mulch, which is useful for shading the soil from the heat of the sun, and for preventing evaporation (bearing in mind that your ultimate aim isn’t to go water-free altogether, but rather to design for water efficiency). Be careful with the bark chips, though: spread them judiciously so that they don’t retain too much moisture around the more water-averse plants, or they’ll drown.

Gravel and sand are also useful design elements if you’re planning a Zen-style garden – which, by the way, can be exceptionally well adapted to xeriscaping.


Zoning in xeriscaping is critical. It’s more of a science than an art, since it starts with knowing about the water, wind, and sun-or-shade requirements of the plants you’ve chosen – and then grouping them in those zones of the garden that’ll suit them best. (Fortunately, this kind of information is readily available on sites like PlantZAfrica.)

When you’re designing your garden, remember, too, that the space must serve your family as well as your environment – so allow yourself the luxury if you need a patch of lawn for the kids to play on, for your pets, or as a place where you can simply relax, and it is certainly worth hoarding some water for a small veggie or herb garden.

Dry does not have to be boring

Xeriscapes – succulent gardens, if you will – haven’t always had the best design reputation in South Africa. Too many of us remember the circle-of-rocks-with-a-tired-looking-aloe-in-the-middle style of garden that graced so many old homes and farmhouses back in the day.

But xeriscaping doesn’t have to be bleak and dreary, and it doesn’t have to be flat on the ground, either. There are some fantastic indigenous ‘trees’ like the lovely quiver tree (Aloidendron dichotomum) and the halfmens (Pachypodium namaquanum) that can create a dramatic sculptural focus.

In the hands of a creative designer, the bold, strong, colourful and often geometric shapes and textures that characterise the appropriate plants, rocks, gravel and other elements of this method of gardening can become the raw materials for many an exciting and unusual landscaping project. Imagine a formal knot garden in the style of the classic French gardens at Versailles, a Zen temple garden, or a Mondrian-style abstract tapestry planted proudly in the earth.

There’s almost nowhere you can’t go if you set your imagination free.

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