John Richardson Gardens   Garden Design and Construction

How a Self-induced Attitude Adjustment can Save Water in the Garden.

If, like me, you find yourself applying a type of horticultural triage when watering the garden, casting an apologetic splash in the direction on one of the lesser favorites while, en-route, with clenched teeth, to the most worthy of the precious liquid, then this article may help make your gardening experience a little different, perhaps even better.

For many years now I have believed that a frustrated gardener’s best weapon against the ravages of the Cape Town summer is the seldom voluntarily undertaken, but ultimately inevitable, Attitude Adjustment.

And yes, o.k…. it may be a little deficient on official S.A.B.S stamps of approval and you couldn't pay a T.V shrink to endorse it, but trust me it works. I have applied it successfully over the years and recommend it to gardeners all over the world,  but especially those in the Western Cape around about February. So when summer arrives in Cape Town and the fifth day of a globally warmed-up Cape Doctor has just sucked the last bead of moisture from your now Kalahari salt pan; your less-than-well-attached-leafed-trees are doing their best impression of a bare pole and every time you open up a gardening magazine you just want to scream at the verdant injustice of it all,…. then you are a prime candidate for an Attitude Adjustment. Yep, sounds bad, but actually it’s not and once mastered (or rather succumbed to), it has a profoundly calming effect on both gardener and those that have to live with him …oops, I mean… them.

And no….. it's not a klap.  

It took me a long time to work this out but I understand it now. What it actually is, in essence, is a painful dawning realization that a sense of entitlement and a tendency to perfectionism are not good traits when it comes to gardeners (that’s us) And some things really are just beyond our control. I mean, consider this for a moment. Inside and outside, we tend to use these words as antonyms or sorts, opposites but balanced and equal ….in a way. But they're not… are they? Inside the house is just that, inside the house. Defined, delineated, contained, you can close the windows, use bug spray….. wash things. Basically, keep the outside out.

Outside, on the other hand, is an altogether different story… outside is, by definition, everything that is not inside, which means that in actual fact……it's the whole bl!@#y world. And gardens live outside. That is why we need attitude adjustment.

Even more enlightening is the fact that it is the gardens themselves that do the educating and continue to do so until the attitude has been adjusted. Perhaps it makes more sense if you look at it this way. For many countries gardening is not a year round activity. In fact I believe that part of the great appeal of gardening in the U.K is because the window of opportunity to actually pursue the activity is so limited. Consequently when the first bulbs break the crisp, frosted ground in the spring and the swallows arrive to perch on immaculate new branches, just bursting with tiny, cute little buds and the world goes all Postman Pat on you, it heralds a gardening frenzy unparalleled anywhere else in the world. These gardeners understand that they have just a few short months to enjoy the fruits of all the planning, purchasing and planting they can do, before the return of the freezing cold drives them back indoors, ruling out gardening for all and sundry until the next summer. (Except, of course, for those wretched souls that are actually paid to do it)

The point of this story is - are we not being a little unfair to expect our gardens to look great all year round? Perhaps if we regarded January through to April as the time to enjoy a gardening siesta, a four month hiatus in which to save our energy and enthusiasm and plan for the first April rains, we may find gardening in a water challenged environment a little more gratifying and a little less frustrating.

In reality, although this idea of an attitude adjustment is purposely facetious, it is only partially silly, because behind the levity is a very real and fast developing challenge to our gardening industry in Cape Town. For a number of years now I have been reading with concern the issues around the supply of water in South Africa, with specific interest in how this is going to affect practices and attitudes towards gardening in the Western Cape, where our unique climate leaves us dry and windswept in summer and to the top of our gumboots in flood-water throughout the winter.

The fact is that water has become progressively more expensive over the years and all indications are that this trend won't change. The confluence of environmental realities, socio-economic development and socio-political factors dictate that gardening, or specifically, watering ornamental gardens, wasn’t what the legislators had in mind when they wrote the provision of clean water act into the constitution way back in May 1996. In fact, it could be argued that watering such a garden runs counter to it.

The truth is that we have little reason to complain, because our first six kiloliters of water in this country are free. Zip, zero, nil,   …something for mahala. However, although it is great to have six thousand liters of good, clean water to use as we choose, I am assuming that even the most devout gardener will chose to drink and wash, rather than restore rigidity to the wilting chrysanthemums at the bottom of the garden. So we use the free water to stay in good standing with family, friends and colleagues and we make decisions about how much we want to splash out after that. Granted, washing the car, filling the pool, watering the garden, cleaning the windows are all important chores around the house, but which one gets precedence. And whilst we can argue about the relative importance of each activity, it is impossible to ignore the growing costs of these activities. Nor, to be honest, fail to be impressed by the elegance and efficiency of the method used to charge for this vital resource. By this I mean the inverse relationship between the importance attached to the activity and the cost of the activity itself. We choose what we want to use the free / cheap water for and we pay more as we move down the list of our own priorities. It's simple, efficient, effective and, if you like gardening after showering …….so frustrating.

Luckily for garden lovers it's not all doom, gloom and dead chrysanthemums. The good news is that there are actually many ways of reducing your water consumption in the garden whilst maintaining the health of the space.

And I, for one, am convinced that the best place to start is with a question: What exactly should a typical Cape Town garden look like? Admittedly, this is a rather profound place to start a discussion on what is such a down-to-earth activity. But if we think about it, there are probably as many answers to the question as there are garden owners to answer it.

The truth is that unfortunately not all of our garden concepts are helping us when it comes to water conservation, as most of our ideas about gardens are inevitably sourced from images in our own past. Back way when water was cheap and we were able to counter the summer drought with copious amounts of municipal water. I know that the image of the garden sprinkler whirling away on the lawn is still indelibly imprinted on my brain, despite repeatedly trying to rationalize it away into an 'unsustainable' pigeon-hole somewhere back there. The point is that this retrospective referencing is fine if you grew up on the west coast, and simply love dry, gnarly, spiky, tough looking plants, or if you're a devout minimalist and one rock is all you require for enlightenment. There is a problem, however, if you come from some place where it rains all the time and the gardens all look like a scene from Avatar, or even if you just came from Joburg, Durban or some other part of South Africa where it rains in the summer.

The truth is that historically many of Cape Town's residential gardens are based on a European garden concept that originated in the English Arts and Craft Movement early 20th century. It is a style of gardening that has been transposed into local cultural practices and used successfully over the years by gardeners all over this fair land (and others). So it is natural that many aspiring local gardeners will have the imagery of fine lawns, buoyant herbaceous borders and wistful autumnal falls in mind when picturing the garden of their dreams, and many, I fear, are going to become increasingly frustrated by the cost of pursuing this type of garden.

My argument is that if we can understand why we lean naturally towards a certain type of garden, then perhaps we can chose specifically not to create that type of garden and thereby open up a range of wonderful alternatives, inspired by the horticultural practices, templates and planting designs of the drier regions of the world, which are intrinsically altogether more relevant for the Western Cape in 2011.

Personally I blame the English. Actually, …the English and their gardening books.   

Actually that's not fair, but it was the alluring direction provided by these sublime gardening books over the past fifty years that have been by far the most seductive source of inspiration for gardeners all over the world. Their influence in terms of layout, materials, plant design concepts and just simply love of creating outdoor spaces is unparalleled in the genre of the private domestic garden. Many of the books are as relevant and inspirational today as they were thirty years ago and, to be fair, recent publications are full of great examples of indigenous gardening and ideas for water conservation. Unfortunately it is in the plant specification aspect of the earlier books that does not suit us today. And whilst there is nothing wrong with aspiring to classic herbaceous borders, buoyant with lilies, azaleas, roses, conifers and others in the spirit of the great European Gardens, these days it is going to cost you handsomely for the water, even for the most modest of spaces.

One only has to review the recent SAA Cape Town Flower show winners to understand the grip that this English planting concept has on the gardening public. In 2004, 2005 and 2006 the 'Alerverti Floating Trophy' for most outstanding contribution to the show went to exquisitely crafted but un-disputably European inspired reproductions of classic formal templates. Each painstakingly transposed on to our Cape Flats to take honors ahead of some truly inspirational and directive offerings by local designers. This is not to denigrate this undeniably beautiful style of gardening and most certainly not to detract from the deserved winners of those awards, but it could be argued that right there were three missed opportunities to usher the trend of local gardening in a more water-conscious direction.

Not that it matters much in the long run. Crisis has always been the most effective catalyst of change and if we weren't in crisis then, but we could be now.

(Authors note: The Cape Town SAA flower show was by far the most important platform for the nurture and progression of the local landscaping community. It was greatly appreciated and is sorely missed by this writer.)

If we must look to far away places for inspiration, then perhaps the courtyard gardens of the Islamic world, the gravel gardens of the Mediterranean regions, the simple minimalism of the Oriental Zen Gardens or even the avant-garde landscapes of the modern designers, all provide more appropriate direction for the water challenged site than does the still popular central European style.

Interestingly, the now waning fad for Tuscan 'architecture' and the ensuing demand for Mediterranean type gardens have inadvertently gone some way towards shifting the culture of gardening in a more water conservative direction. Much of the classic Mediterranean planting is inherently water-wise and fits perfectly into the Western Cape environment, with its summer drought / winter rainfall pattern.  However, where the true Mediterranean style has been Anglicized with large areas of lawn the water saving benefits are reduced.

Another recent development in the gardening world is the preference for indigenous plants, which is eco-friendly, patriotic and sensible, provided they are indigenous to drier environments and not simply politically-indigenous substitutes from other, wetter, climatic regions of South Africa.

In this regard there is another important and exciting issue that unfortunately falls beyond the range of this essentially water focused article. It is the wish of South African designers and artists to realize a discernable aesthetic, derivative and composite of our unique place, time and history. The ethos and drive behind it is predominantly cultural, progressive and in the case of garden design and practice in the Western Cape, absolutely necessary. With the cost of water escalating every year, a new way of gardening has to be found if this simple activity of messing about outside is to remain a feasible pastime for the everyman, rather than the sole privilege of the wealthy, the mad and the voluntarily un-washed.

So to return to the question… What exactly should a typical Cape Town garden look like? The truthful answer is that I do not know. What I do know, is that I am looking forward to seeing what evolves into the expanding void that will be the future of gardening in Cape Town if we cannot develop a local vernacular to our design vocabulary and perhaps more importantly, sell that concept to the gardening market.

Perhaps what I am asking is - will people still bother?  Will the everyday Joe, Josephine and Jubalani still pop into the local garden centre to pick up a couple of trays, a new hosepipe and a bag of fertilizer for their Saturday afternoon pottering? Perhaps I am under-estimating the willingness of potential gardeners to spend on municipal water, well points and grey-water systems. Perhaps I am underestimating the political will (and cash) to spend on dams, pipes and desalination for this purpose.  Perhaps I am overstating the crisis; the growth of water demand and the affect this will have on demand for plants from the garden centers, the demand for garden designers, landscapers and horticulturists. Gardening is certainly not an essential activity, but it does employ many people across a broad spectrum of skills, it is environmentally positive and healthy and it has a lot to do with how we live and experience our dwellings.

One cannot deny that water, both the physical element and its connotative meaning, is inextricably linked to both the practice and perception of gardens and gardening.  We have only to cast our minds back to the water restrictions in 2004 to get an idea of what awaits, as the price of water continues to climb. The entire gardening world held it's breath for the months it took for the winter rains to start. And when they eventually did it was like a life support system jolting anybody back into action. I remember the mad rush to educate the public on everything from Xeriscaping, grey-water systems, rainwater tanks, mulching, soil additives and the rest, in a hasty effort to save the industry from disappearing in a puff of dust almost overnight.

It is on the basis of this memory that I believe a developing gardening crisis is likely and that if there was ever a time for introspection it is now. Perhaps the answers we find will help us move beyond the immediate and traditional and lead us to more sustainable and realistic solutions. It should be noted that this challenge in 2011 is not another four month period of water restrictions circa 2004; this is a long-term water policy reform initiative that the government is constitutionally compelled to undertake in order to provide a growing population with clean water for drinking, washing and economic activity. And the bottom line is that the rationale is beyond reproach morally, ethically and constitutionally and no reasonable person could argue against it, least of all in favor of an ornamental garden.

This is why, as gardeners we need to modify our understanding of what a typical Cape Town garden looks like, or rather could look like and there has never been a better or more important time to do it than right now.

Happy Gardening


Posted: 9/22/2011 (2:03:58 PM)

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