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Creating a Water Wise Garden

With the drought in Cape Town it is essential for everyone to do as much as the can to lighten the load when it comes to saving water.  When designing a Water Wise garden you can use these tips from  -

"Follow this comprehensive step-by-step guide to designing a
functional, Water Wise garden.

A well-designed and planned vegetable garden.
1. Starting with a plan

– Evaluate the site in terms of the amount of precipitation
 that falls on the area or arrives as surface runoff.
– The amount of water that nature provides makes an
 immense difference to the style and content of the
– Take note of where North and South are as this will
 affect the cool shade and hot sun patterns in the garden
– Prevailing winds will dry out the garden and they should
 be identified early on in the design.
– Be aware that the cold winds that could damage the
 garden often don’t arrive from the same direction as the
 prevailing wind.
– Take note of the minimum temperatures to be expected
 as this will affect potential frost damage.
– At the outset make decisions about what the garden’s
 function and purpose will be.
– Consider all aspects of its recreational role; this will have
 a bearing on the amount and type of lawn that may or
 may not be required.
– Assess the existing conditions of the garden for both the
 hard and soft landscaping aspects of the site.

– The following perceptual characteristics should also be
 taken into consideration:

•     Views, both into and out of a site. Locate both the
desirable and undesirable views so you can
decide how to frame the desirable views and
screen the undesirable ones.
•     Smells and sounds, on and off the site. Locate sources
and intensities of both so you can attempt to
mitigate the effect they have on your garden.
•     Dominant features, e.g. mountain views, ocean
front views, sculptural features, unusual or
 specimen plants, or special hardscape elements.
 These features should be enhanced by the design to

– General impressions of the site as to its potential and
– Position activities on the plan of the site, e.g. compost
 heap and children’s play ground.
– Check for the logic and compatibility of each service and
– Create a circulation plan between activities, making
 sure they all have the appropriate accesses.
 Make notes of potential paved areas to follow.
– Make sure that proportion and scale are correct.
– Make sure that existing services such as water and
 electrical lines won’t be damaged in the process of
 creating the garden. Re-route them if necessary.
– Divide the area up into different hydro-zones according
 to their water needs. The aim is to reduce the
 overall water consumption of the garden, so
 the high water zone that receives the most amount of
 water should be proportionately smaller and at the
 focal point of the garden.
– Select plants appropriate for the zone they will be
 planted in. Group plants according to their
 water requirements.
– The focal point positioning should be identified for
 good design to follow. Remember to give extra
 attention to detail in the focal areas as they are often
 high water zones in the garden. Examples of
 focal areas could be entrances, relaxation
 spots and positions at the end of vistas.
– Tree positions should be compatible with the activities
 on the site. Trees will provide extra shade and shelter
 later on. This should be kept in mind when
 considering the micro climate and plant selection.
– Draw in the plants for each bed onto the plan.
– Irrigation design must always be done by a professional.
– Evaluate the plan and then proceed to install.

Tips for attractive design

The principles of design include: line, texture, form, size,
shape and colour . The notes below will give some
ideas on how to apply this to garden design to maximise
its effect. Water Wise gardens are attractive and therefore
should be created with the elements of design in mind.

An expertly designed garden that incorporates line,texture, form, size, shape and colour for effect.

– Leads the eye to areas of focal interest.
– Controls the movement (visually and physically).
– The edging of flower beds makes a visual line on a
 horizontal ground plane.
– The outline of groups of plants leads the eye in the three
 dimensional plane.

Form and Size
– The total mass of the plant (the stem and crown of the
 plant) make up its form and size.
– Plant forms differ in shape for example they could be:
 vertical, pyramidal, horizontal, triangular or round.
– The use of a form plant to create a focus point is
 important at the end of a vista.
– Give scale and proportion to a design. The human scale
 should always be considered in context to
 the building. Large buildings should have large trees
 and a range of smaller plants linking the large scale of the
 building down to the human scale on the ground.

– Fine, medium and rough textures are created with leaf
 shapes and plant groupings.
– Use different textures to give interest to the design.
– Use textures to create contrast.
– Can be used to give the impression of depth. Fine
 textures appear to recede, so when fine textures are
 placed behind rough textured plants, the illusion of
 depth is created. This saves on plant material and water.
– A rough texture will create more attention and can be
 useful in a focal point.
– Similar textures give unity to the design.

– By using colour to create the illusion of depth and the
 impression of more plants, water is saved.
– By placing contrasting colours together the illusion of
 more plants is created. In a high water-use zone for
 example, if you used blue viola under warm coloured
 poppies, this would make the poppies stand out better
 and the viola would become the background.
– Too many colours and contrasts could become visually
 disturbing and make the design very busy.
– Use your brightest colours in the focal points to make
 them stand out.
– Focal points are most successful when they contrast the
 bulk of the garden in one way or another.
– Warm colours, e.g. red, orange and yellow are advancing
 colours and give the impression of being close-by. If
 you want to make your flowers look closer, then use
 warm colours.
– Cool colours, e.g. green and blue are receding colours
 and give the impression of being further away. You
 would use cool colours in background plantings to
 give the impression of depth.
– Neutral colours, e.g. white, black and grey can be used in
 the background and give unity to the design. White
 flowers are more advancing than warm colours in
 green landscape environments and this should be
considered. Use your white finishes to make
 things stand out and black to make them
 appear to disappear. Remember natural colours
 are soft on the eye.
– Tall plants, fences or walls at the rear of a garden or park
 should be of a neutral design to complement the
 principal feature without diverting attention from it.
– Colours can give an emotional impact (cheerfulness or
– There are many sources of colour, e.g. flowers,
 leaves, stems, branches, thorns, bark and fruit, as
 well as hard landscaping elements.

– Gives the impression of unity when a single element is
 repeated several times throughout the garden
 e.g. a similar colour flower is used throughout the
 design or similar shaped containers.
– You can use line, texture and colour to achieve repetition.

Plants can also help visual control by:
– Controlling glares (sun, reflections, lights).
– Screening objectionable views and for privacy.
– Directing the gaze of the observer.
– Visually defining space (creates outdoor ‘rooms’ with
 plant walls, ceilings and floors).

Plant sizes affect spatial scale
– Ground covers - define space on ground level (line).
– Knee to waist height - separation of spaces, no visual
 screen, controls movement.
– Eye level and above - physical barrier and visual screen
– The use of lawn area is one way to keep a central
 area free of items of major visual attraction or interest.
– High branched trees may be placed there but not
 specimen shrubs. Thus such an open space helps to
 bring about simplicity of design and can help to make
 the area look larger. One can think of them as extra
 rooms to the home.
– Timber decking and paving can be used instead of lawn
 in high traffic areas.
– Equilibrium of elements (mass plantings, colours, forms)
 imparts serenity to the design.
– Formal balance may be achieved by balancing similar
 objects The duplication of certain elements is an aid to
 gaining unity, balance and rhythm. In a formal design, the
 same element is commonly repeated.
– In an informal design, the repetition is not so absolute.
 An example of an informal balance of equal interest is
 to use a small mass of colour to balance a large
 neutral mass. Often this type of informal balance can be
 controversial and is more successful in capturing a viewer’s
– The art of making the viewer ponder over the balance is
 mastered in the Japanese styles of landscape. Use your
 focal points to make the garden functional.

2. Focal points
– These are the single most important elements in every
 good design. Without focal points the design does not
 make any sense or have any purpose.
– Focal points are places in our designs that attract the eye
 and maintain our interest (Fig 3).
– In Water Wise gardening, they help us to save water
 because we can concentrate our maintenance and heavy
 watering areas around our focal points. We are able to
 use less water and less maintenance in the bulk of the
– Typical positions for focal areas are at the gate, at
 entrances and relaxation zones (areas in the garden of high
 use). By placing focal points in these positions, we are able
 to enjoy them to their maximum potential.

Tips to make plants become more focal:
– Position of the plant: where there is a bend in the bed, or
 as a stand-alone (away from a grouping) or by using the
 line of nearby shrubs to lead your eye to the focal plant.
– Size: If the plant is bigger than other plants.
– Shape: by using a shape/form of shrub not being used in
 the immediate area.
– Colour: by using a contrasting colour to that of the
 surrounding shrubs.
– Texture: To change texture with the focal plant from fine
 to big leaves.
– Use specimen plants in the middle of lawn.
– Use perspective in the garden by placing the focal plant
 near elements that assist in drawing in and catching
 the eye easily.

Making dormant areas attractive

– Dormant areas are beneficial because a) they do not
 have to be watered in the dormant season, b) they allow
 for seasonal change in the garden.
– Dormant areas in the garden should be in proportion to
 the size/scale of garden, and be no more than half of
 the space.
– A substantial backdrop of growing plants helps to enhance
 the beauty of these dormant areas.
– Select trees and shrubs specifically for their interesting
 dormant shapes and colour e.g. Heteromorpha
 arborescens, Liquidamber styraciflua, Combretum
– Frame specific dormant trees with evergreen plants and
 ensure that the view of the tree will be exposed to the
 skyline to improve emphasis.
– Use winter flowering bulbs under trees to add colour
 (these bulbs require limited shallow watering.)
– Use containers that can be moved around the garden and
 from dormant areas to other focal areas and back again.
Doing away with those difficult areas.
– Do away with long thin strips of lawn between beds and
 paving. They are difficult to maintain and water.
– Numerous small pots could be replaced by a few large
 ones to create a bolder statement.
– Replace many single plants with a single bed with all the
 plants that can be further enhanced by planting a
 ground cover. This also reduces edge trimming.
– For those people that don’t have enough space for a
 dedicated vegetable garden, try mixing vegetables
 such as lettuce, carrots, cabbage, green pepper, brinjal
 and marrows with your flowers.
– Having pebbles or bark mulch under trees where leaves fall
 down makes for daily cleaning, so why not try a shade
 loving groundcover such as Ivy, Houtinia, Tulbaghia
 violacea or Ophiopogon.
– In large gardens allow the bulk of the areas to grow “wild”
 with specific seed grasses and meadow style flowers
 such as Coreopsis, California poppy and Plectranthus.
 This does not need much regular maintenance or water.
 (Meadow mixes are useful for this.)
– If you have a need to create an instant shade garden/area
 but your trees are still very small, create a temporary
 pergola or extend the archway with a creeper into that
 area of the garden. Remove it in a few years.

Six ways to revamp a garden to become Water

1. Straighten up edges of flower beds and reduce them to long
flowing lines.
2. Remove excessive dot planting in the lawn.
3. Plant more perennial colour and group annuals in specific
focal areas.
4. Use paving, stepping stones or mulch in high traffic areas.
5. Introduce water harvesting in the form of swales/berms,
rain tanks, collection ponds and basins around plants.
6. Re-arrange the garden preferably in the dormant period to
create high, medium and low water use zones in the garden
with strategic focal points.
Shapes of beds

Redesign lines for easy maintenance:
– This is a process of doing away with all wavy and jagged
edges and to introduce flowing lines.
– It enhances design and calms the mood of the garden.
– A round bed in a small square area helps to create the
illusion of more space to the eye.
– Scale and balance should be encouraged.
Match irrigation to bed design:
– Enlarge beds or adjust irrigation.
– When designing, do the garden and irrigation design at the
sametime even if they are implemented later.
– Use a professional for best design and installation.

Dot planting vs. single beds:
– Do away with individual plants in the lawn and rather
create a bed.
– Group plants into beds.
– Maintenance is reduced by not having as much garden
edge to cut and mowing of the lawn is made easier.
– Watering is improved by having all plants of the same
water requirements in one area.

Using permeable paving to save water:
– Replace lawns in heavy traffic areas.
– Compaction of lawn areas is reduced.
– Run off water can be channelled into the garden.
– Reduced lawn area will result in less water use.

Redirect runoff
– To a water loving tree or collection pond.
– Create a dry river bed of pebbles and plant bulbs in
– Create a hollow in the lawn where runoff water from the
paving can collect and slowly seep into the soil.
Remove curbing
– This allows runoff water on paving to go directly into the
garden and opens up the design.

Use grass blocks (permeable paving) as a driveway
– This allows water to seep in directly.
– Environmentally friendly.
– Good for slopes.
– Creates a natural effect by allowing the grass to grow
through the “paving”.

Lead the eye by creating
– Flowing lines and curves.
– Gentle bends and repetition.

How do containers contribute to your garden design?
– Container gardening gives the Water Wise gardener a
wonderful opportunity to “have it all” in a fun and
creative, but very functional manner. No matter how much
space you have, you can have a container garden.
– The versatility of containers is astounding, solving both
functional as well as decorative requirements.
– Containers range from hanging baskets, wall mounted
units, to free standing units in every shape, colour, texture
and fashion imaginable.
– Containers help jazz up those dull dormant areas in winter
with a splash of colour when placed in decoratively
mulched beds.
– Containers solve the problems of frost as prized plants can
simply be moved to a place of shelter.
– One can have a show of fashionable exciting possibilities -
keeping abreast with the gardens every season
by moving some containers around rather than revamping
the whole garden.
– Containers come in different shapes and sizes. Your choice
of containers depends on where you want to
put it. Hanging baskets and wall mounted units are
ideal for decorating patios, whereas larger free standing
units are more suited to the garden - particularly in those
dormant areas that appear during winter.
– With strategic placement of your containers you maximise
the visual effect whilst using fewer plants.
– Containers enable the gardener to group plants with
different water requirements together in the same space, by
displaying them in different pots.
– Containers save water, because each plant or plant group
is allocated water according to their needs. Also, the water
applied is used by those specific plants and is not taken
up by surrounding plants as is the case in some shrubberies.
– Cacti and succulents need full sun and extremely good
drainage and will often not fit into a mixed border. In a
container where a collection of attractive succulents
are used, their specific needs can be met and they can still
be part of the garden.
– Have fun with containers. Containers allow one to afford
the best choice of plants as fewer plants are needed
to achieve the same effect. Placing them in focal areas (such
as patios, entrances, braais, barbecues or areas of
relaxation), allows one to enjoy them to their
maximum and also enhances the home environment.

Creating a hardy backbone
– Any garden or landscape needs a backbone. This can be in
the form of plants or architectural features.
– This will form most of the low and some of the medium
water zones in the garden.
– Shrubberies should look good all year round and be made
up of a mixture of textures, colour, deciduous and
evergreen plants.
– Having a structure that remains in place saves water, as
establishing new plants always requires more watering
– Maintenance is reduced because yearly replanting is
– Benefits of a backbone:
•    Scale the space at the human eye level and in proportion
to the house.
•    Provide shade to small areas without shading the whole
•    Accentuate or soften topography - shrubs on a mound
make the mound look bigger.
•    A backbone can be used as a barrier against movement.
•    Lead the eye and emphasise special features.
•    Separate activities by screening at eye level.
•    Enclose and define spaces.
•    Provide privacy by screening.
•    Frame views.
•    Act as a windbreak and a noise buffer - bigger leaves e.g.
Laurel are more effective.
•    Act as an insulation material against frost and heat.
•    Softens architecture and helps to relate the building to the
land (i.e. harmonise developments).
Backbone plantings should preferably be made up of hardy
perennial shrubs. These are most suitable for garden scale
planting and provide a base from which the rest of the
garden can be designed. These shrubs will grow fairly
large (in relation to the size of garden) and after 1 - 2 years
will require much less water. Within 4 - 5 years they should
be able to grow well without extra water except for rain.

What is zoning and how can it save water?
– Zoning is about watering some areas of the garden less than
others, in order to reduce the overall water consumption of
the garden (Fig 4).
– Grouping plants with similar water requirements together
is essential to achieve effective zoning.
– Zoning is not only done when new gardens are designed
but can be applied to existing gardens, by moving plants in
their dormant period to a more appropriate zone.
– Zoning the garden can be applied to any size garden, from
a balcony to a town house garden, to a garden of a few
acres. What changes is the scale and size of the individual
zones (three pots on a balcony could have plants from
each zone, as would a large garden have three different
– Refer to ‘Plan before planting’ to see how to divide your
garden into different water-use zones.

High water use zone (10-30% of garden):
– This zone of the garden receives the most amount of water
in your garden. It is usually a focal area and will therefore
receive the most attention and maintenance time.
– Focal areas should be well placed for maximum effect.
These are most effective when they contrast the bulk of
the garden. Size, shape, colour and texture are some of the
elements that can be used to achieve contrast.
– Focal points should be placed to lead the eye around the
– The way to make thirsty plants (like annuals) more Water
Wise is to position them under shade (where possible), in
groups and in containers wherever possible.
Medium water use zone (20-40% of garden):
– The backbone (bulk of the plants) in the garden can still
look well maintained even though it receives rationed
water. A large variety of perennials can be used to create
– Hardy ground covers under shrubs fill up large bare spaces
and prevent water loss through evaporation.
Low water use zone (30-60% of garden):
– Create areas that will survive mostly on rainwater.
– This zone only receives occasional watering.
– It is wise to have a large backbone shrubbery or group of
trees to create this backbone.
– The style of this zone does not detract from the rest of the
garden, but adds to it.

No water use zones
– This should be a large zone in your garden.
– This can consist of established indigenous plants.
Microclimates on the South Side
Avoid planting trees on moist south sides close to the house as
they produce extra shade that is not required and also use up
available moisture.
Naturally moist area.
– Use plants that enjoy these area, such as: Arums,
hydrangea, ruscus, azaleas, camellias, nerines and tree ferns.
– This area often has less wind and it is more shaded and
therefore the soil dries out more slowly (shelter).
Low light.
– Choose forest plants such as ferns, Hydrangea, Ivy, and
– Choose light coloured foliage to light-up the area, such as
Use trees to extend shade.
– Position further away from the house to extend shade and
therefore increase plant choices.
– Choosing trees with less dense foliage can extend the area
of medium light.
– Prune trees up in order to allow light in.
Why create a windbreak?
– A staggered line of plants will guide wind up and over the
garden more effectively than a straight line of plants
because of the turbulence directly behind the shrubberies.
– A windbreak in the garden could be any grouping of large
shrubs (preferably) that reduces wind flow into gardens or
diverts the wind away from certain areas in the garden.
– Walls, wooden screens and shadecloth can also be used as a
– Windbreaks will help to create small areas of specific
micro-climates that will allow you to plant different plant
– By creating windbreaks, the flow of air over the soil is
reduced, which reduces water evaporation.
– Windbreaks divide the garden into different spaces. It
allows the user to view the garden in different phases.
– Some good windbreak plants: cretaegus, buddleja,
euonymus and cotoneaster.
– When creating a windbreak, a non-solid windbreak is best
as it will allow some wind through in a diffused manner,
while most will pass over. This prevents wind turbulence,
which occurs directly behind solid structures.
– Air breezes that are allowed to enter the garden from under
trees will be cooled by their shade"

Cape Town - waterwise garden ideas

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