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Royal Botanic Gardens Water Conservation Garden

 Low Water Garden Design

– Posted in: Sustainable Gardening

Perhaps the greatest stress factor on Melbourne gardens is lack of water.  This is amplified greatly during frequent droughts.  While this makes it more difficult to generate a lush garden, it shouldn’t be a reason to do without it.  Plants around buildings and roads in urban environments will reduce the harshness of a hot dry climate and create a cooling humidity themselves. A water wise garden is a sustainable garden.

Low Water Plants

Choosing dry tolerant plants are a good first step to a dry tolerant garden. Water-wise plantings don’t have to be a sparse collection of cacti. You can still have a leafy, shady garden with plants that are adapted to low water climates.

As a general, rule adaptations for low water conditions can include:

  •  Leaves that are tough and leathery (like eucalypts)
  •  Leaves that are fine or narrow (like most melaleucas)
  •  Foliage that is grey or silvery (like lavenders)
  •  Succulence (like cactus or pigface)

These are the easier to pick traits. It can also help if you know a bit about the plant’s place of origin.

It’s even possible to have the appearance of a lush tropical garden with relatively low water needs with some cunning plant selection.

Soil preparation

Sandy soils are the least likely to hold onto soil water, so finding ways to keep moisture there for a bit longer is helpful.  Compost is great to improve the structure of clay soils, but it will also improve the water holding capacity of sandy soils. 

A neglected garden bed may also become hydrophobic, where it doesn’t absorb water at all.  If you are not aware, you can find yourself pouring lots of water on the garden and it simply rolls off without reaching the plants at all.  Using a soil wetting agent will assist getting the water in, particularly with some added compost.

A good layer of organic much will help retain soil moisture.  7.5cm is a good depth but be careful not to over do it because the mulch layer can potentially absorb all the available moisture before it reaches the plants.  A coarser mulch works better to allow water to infiltrate through it compared to a fine mulch that is more likely to absorb the moisture.  Inorganic mulches such as pebbles and gravels can be very effective, particularly if you are using them as a feature.  They can be troublesome though when you want to maintain the garden bed.


A drip irrigation system is the most effective and water-wise means of getting water to your plants.  It is particularly handy for those times when sprinklers are banned through drought times.  Place the dripper lines beneath the mulch layer and connect them to a timer at the tap.  You do need to check and maintain them periodically to ensure they are working properly, but this maintenance is more than made up for by the time spent with a hose.


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