With many parts of Australia currently experiencing long-term drought and stringent water restrictions, an increasing number of gardeners are seeking ways to minimize their water usage. Embracing the concept of planning and establishing a low water or “dry” garden can effectively contribute to the conservation of this invaluable resource, all while ensuring that you can relish in the beauty of a flourishing outdoor sanctuary.
Preparing Your Soil
The foundation of any successful garden starts with the soil. Preparing and improving your existing soil is a better option than bringing in new topsoil. Turn over and break up any compacted soil, mixing in organic material like compost or manure to a depth of about 30cm. This creates a loose, friable soil structure that encourages rainwater penetration and drainage.
In heavy clay soils, add gypsum to help improve structure. If parts of your garden have very poor soil, building raised garden beds and filling them with a quality soil mix can be an option.
Choosing the Right Plants
Selecting drought-tolerant plants suited to your climate and environment is key to sustaining a garden with minimal water usage. Many Australian native plants are naturally adapted to dry conditions, especially natives local to your region.
Consider the size, texture, and color you want in your garden and choose plants accordingly. Groundcovers, grasses, shrubs, and small trees can provide variation. Some drought-hardy options include acacias, banksias, grevilleas, callistemon, melaleuca, and many eucalyptus varieties. Dianella, lomandra, and poa labillardierei are native grasses that thrive with little water.
Group plants according to their water needs. Zone very thirsty exotic plants together in one irrigated area of your garden rather than scattering them throughout.
Mulching is crucial for retaining moisture in the soil and suppressing weed growth that competes for water. Organic mulches like eucalyptus mulch, pine flakes, or compost will improve your soil as they break down.
Inorganic mulches such as pebbles and gravel are longer-lasting options. Apply 5-10cm of mulch around plants, keeping it clear of actual stems and trunks. Reapply annually as mulch decomposes or gets blown away.
Rethinking Your Lawn
Lush green lawns require frequent watering and mowing. Minimize or replace high water demand turf areas with mulched garden beds, native grasses, or hardscapes like gravel or pavers. Use these materials to create “dry” creek beds, walking paths, and decorative features.
If keeping some lawn, reduce its area and water it only when essential for plant health. Allow the lawn to brown off and enter summer dormancy. Set your mower higher to reduce water demands and allow deeper root growth.
When establishing a new dry garden, water plants regularly for the first few months until their root systems develop. Once established, most native plants only require monthly deep watering. Avoid frequent light sprinklings that waste water and encourage shallow roots.
Water first thing in the morning or evening to reduce evaporation loss. Group plants by watering needs into “hydrozones” and adjust irrigation accordingly. Install a drip system or soaker hoses to avoid water wastage from sprinklers. Adding mulch and using windbreaks can also conserve existing soil moisture.
Dry Garden Maintenance
Weeding regularly when plants are young will prevent competition for water. Avoid over-fertilising as this stimulates excessive growth and increases water demand. Prune any dead or diseased material promptly.
Re-apply mulch before it gets thin. Harvest rainwater in tanks and use greywater on ornamental plants where regulations allow. Work organic matter into the soil each season to maintain healthy soil biology.
With some thoughtful design choices and appropriate plant selections, you can create a vibrant garden that withstands dry conditions while conserving our precious water resources.