Water-wise planting in Mediterranean gardening
Part 1

typical vegetation pattern in  Mediterranean gardeningtypical vegetation pattern in Mediterranean gardening

Water-wise Mediterranean gardening

This article follows on from an introduction to water-wise Mediterranean gardening and how to prepare through planning and research. 

General guidelines on planning your planting to be appropriate to your locality

Spend time on integrating your personal needs for food, green space, beauty, recreation, entertaining and such with the givens in your area that are typical for Mediterranean climates, such as the scarcity of water at certain times, the need in the whole of your society for food security and drinking water, the need to conserve the amazing biodiversity of your local plant biome. Try and plant in a way that serves the greater good. It may seem irrelevant, but what you do in your garden does impact the rest of society and the environment.

Restios, the dominant in Fynbos are quite gorgeousRestios, dominant in Fynbos, are quite gorgeous

Get real

Profoundly accept the environmental givens in your area, like rocks, buildings, large established plants, climate, soil and learn to see the beauty and love the appearance of local indigenous plant communities in the wild. Van Jaarsveld (2010) in Waterwise gardening in South Africa and Namibia, claims that making a garden appropriate to your area, that is using indigenous vegetation, is the basis of water-wise gardening. Gildemeister (1995) in Mediterranean Gardening: A Waterwise Approach has a looser approach to appropriateness, in that plants from the same climate zones are seen as water-wise. That they use less water is highly likely as they are adapted to your type of climate. The danger in this adaptation is that they survive in your climate easily, and may become invasive as has happened all around the world when transferring plants to similar climates. Thus I would agree with Van Jaarsveld’s emphasis on indigenous planting. It is the safest and should be the default choice. Most Mediterranean zones are so diverse, one wonders about why people need other plants, beyond the collector’s motive, which is a sort of botanical trophy hunting. Often with dire effects. So sad when it is your local threatened species which need to be trophies in your garden, which we need to propagate to save them from extinction. “Growing local indigenous plants is a positive act of conservation” (Van Jaarsveld 2010:13). 

seductive colour in Mediterranean gardening, but all year round its overkillseductive colour in Mediterranean gardening, but all year round its overkill

Get unhooked from ephemera and gardening delusions

Above all aesthetic necessities, do not base your design on artificially that is recreating the appearance of a garden from another climate not compatible with your own without using copious irrigation and soil additives. Do not base the design on ephemera like flowers, as in a showy display of many kinds of orange blooms in April, when the rest of the year the beds looks terrible and creating the ‘orange splash’ required being an ecological violator. Remember flowers are seductive but fleeting, design the backbone of your garden for what is more permanent and add flowers into this. I would suggest prioritizing other design elements such as different materials used in building, foliage colour, form and texture, different heights and degrees of enclosure, the mystery of separated half seen spaces and other structural elements, as well as the recreation of the appearance of natural plant communities in your locality using native plants. 

some of the beautiful native plants in Mediterranean gardening climessome of the beautiful greenery in our local Mediterranean gardening climes

Should we plan for abundance 
in all seasons ?

Gardening books recommend planning the garden for year round attraction. This would mean finding some plants that look good, peak or flower at all times of the year. This is good advice but it can be misapplied in the search to have displays of flowers all year round in an artificial water wasting fashion. Plant choices become skewed to choosing exotics and plants from different rainfall zones, which is less water wise and could lead to using invasive plants like oleander which is spectacular when everything else is brow and crisp. Gildemeister (1995) claims that when the garden is dry and brownish grey, in summer, bright warm coloured flowers are spectacular. I think may be water-wiser in our country's climes,  so much drier than those of Mediterranean gardening to come to love the way your local vegetations looks in the dry season. It is a deeper form of aesthetic delight to accept the beauty of the desert than require constant loud entertainment with pinks and yellows. Gildemeister’s sound advice is to choose evergreen plantings that always look good as a backbone to the garden, and to add to this autumn flowering bulbs and climbers, some plants that flower just after midwinter at the greyest time of year, and of course spring and summer champions. If you walk in the Fynbos at the Cape you will find something flowering at all times of year, because plants will evolve to take gaps like this. Take a photograph (don’t pick it of course, you could stop its seeding and propagation and get arrested) and visit Kirstenbosch National Botanic Garden's nursery to see if they have it for you.

multi-tiered feathery Fynbos planting at Kirstenboschmulti-tiered feathery Fynbos planting at Kirstenbosch

Model your planting on nature

Observe how local plant communities cover the ground in several height tiers, trees, climbers, bushes and ground cover. Find out what the local indigenous quick growing pioneers would be. Local plants grown in an a fashion recalling their original communities will always look ‘right’ and have a special resonance and a special thrill. To avoid being seduced by ephemeral colour Gildemeister (1995) suggests planning your garden in black and white by moonlight, which sounds quite romantic, but is realistic too.

some of the materials of water-wise Mediterranean gardeningsome materials for water-wise Mediterranean gardening

Use native plants

Find out about native plants and how to grow them, especially for the garden’s tough backbone. Plan their placing so that they don’t get overwatered by being near a water demanding plant. One should understand local plant communities. In the Cape they are driven by fire cycles, the nutrient poor soil’s providing non nutritious and fragile vegetation due to the historical absence of large herbivores (VanJaarsveld 2010:12). These conditions of fire, low nutrients and fragility make Fynbos plants generally more difficult in the garden, and the plants from the thicket areas of South Africa with nutrient rich soils and large herbivores and thus plants evolved to survive disturbance and maltreatment, more easy on the gardener.  Nonetheless we should take on the challenge of growing Fynbos. A must in a Fynbos garden with possible fire exposure is to plant fire resistant hedges and fire resistant areas around the house. This can be accomplished by using fleshy succulents. Van Jaarsveld’s criteria for plant selection (2010:11) is that the plant should be attractive and thrive under prevailing conditions. I find this vision a bit limiting as I’ll explain. In South Africa with all its floristic diversity, that range of plants which have been horticulturized for the garden and available in nurseries is large but not as complete as it could be. Van Jaarsveld explains some of the mechanisms of the horticultural development of plant species (2010:11). In my opinion the horticultural industry and public taste emphasize the development of showy plants. Our food plants are neglected, as are many plants that are not hugely decorative but perform highly essential ecological functions, like the low growing ground covering legumes that would make perfect garden pioneers. I know of none which can be bought and we have many species of scrambling legumes. The pioneers mentioned by Van Jaarsveld (2010:15, 67) are trees and shrubs. He doesn’t advocate any kind of creeping or annual ground cover pioneers, so essential in early stages, or nitrogen and other nutrient accumulators or green manures. There is no need for nutrient accumulation perhaps because decorative Fynbos plants are averse to excessive nutrients, but this leaves a horticultural lacuna. 

plants used in Mediterranean gardening: Bullbinella is drought tolerant, a ground-cover and medicinalplants used in Mediterranean gardening: Bullbinella is drought tolerant, a ground-cover and medicinal

Ecological niches in the food garden

I observe that the organic gardener and farmer looking for green manures resort to invasive exotics, which outcompete our native spring flowers, taking out vast tracts of indigenous vegetation in a more devastating way then Port Jackson and Black Wattle. Choosing attractive and thriving plants for development is not enough. We need to develop indigenous plants with important ecological roles too, like the food plants and legumes, nutrient accumulators and fungi, host plants for important insect pollinators and predatory insects and birds that keep ‘pest’ populations down, soil stabilizers and plants for fuel and wooden construction, for animal feed, sugar production, waste water cleansing and aquaculture crops. In these ‘niches’ in the permaculture garden, exotics not indigenes are the default, except in the creation of IM’s. There is development in the Americas and Australia in the use of indigenes in permaculture, but not much is happening in South Africa. Van Jaarsveld (2010: 37-43) includes a list of approximately 60 indigenous food plants and herbs and a symptom based herbal pharmacopeia with more names. They are good lists but most of them will be really hard to find in nurseries. I’ve also written about Loubie Rusch’s research on local food plants.    

Trachyandra or indigenous asparagusThe wild asparagus,Trachyandra and soup flavoring Oxalis

Water-wise gardening and food plants

The exotic plants which grow easily in your climate pose the threat that they may be invasive. This is specially true of plants which reproduce abundantly by seed which is spread easily, for example by birds. Do some research especially on plants bearing copious fruit. Those which need pampering to survive are less likely to invade, but they are not water friendly. Thus when you use exotics they either pose a threat as invaders or as water guzzlers, sometimes both. Food growing sits right at the core of this problem. South African plants have not been domesticated for human consumption like those from the Americas and Eurasia. Most vegetables in our Mediterranean gardening zone pose little threat of becoming invasive as they can’t survive in our climate without special care. This also makes them the antithesis of water-wise, unless you are very creative with water use. One could also switch to indigenous food plants as far as possible. 

a rocky terrace with excellent drainage provides an ecological niche in Mediterranean gardeninga rocky terrace with excellent drainage provides an ecological niche in Mediterranean gardening

Meet your plants' ecological needs

In addition to meeting the plant’s nutrient requirements, even if this is for a lack of nutrients, reduce water wastage through meeting their ecological needs. Reduce water loss through leaves by keeping shade plants in shade, water lovers at a slope bottom or near sprinklers, or supply good drainage if they like it, for instance along the top of a dry wall. Crowd plants, to create a protective canopy, and cover the soil, and if they have deep roots keep them cool, mulch them well, plant in early autumn. A major help in their initial survival is to plant larger plants from 2-4 litre containers that have already beat the forces that eliminate so many plants at the germination and seedling level. If you plant annuals and geophytes, use those from a region with similar climate patterns, or with a tolerance for summer drought (van Jaarsveld 20110:21).

Next up in the series on water-wise Mediterranean gardening

The next article will be on general guidelines for planting to save water.

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