Change is inevitable they say – and in our industry it is a valuable opportunity to evaluate how we design and bring gardens to life. Changes in response to the ongoing water crisis are leading to wonderfully creative and practical new thinking and ways with plants and materials.

Here at Cape Contours Landscape Studio we have begun to design gardens differently in response to the drought. The severe water crisis in the Western Cape has forced us to rethink the way we design and choose plants and materials. As a group of Garden Designers, we have broken from the old ideas that gardens must be lush, always green and manicured. We have cut the umbilical chord so to speak with the UK inspired garden ideals of very large, water thirsty lawns, lush plants and planting of mainly ‘pretty’ plants which are no longer practical or responsible.

Clean lines and shapes and minimalist planting make this a dramatic garden!

A statue of a bird makes a beautiful statement amongst a successful garden of grassy textures and foliage plants. This planting styles requires less maintenance and water.

Moving Towards

More and more we are cutting a new path in garden design through the use of indigenous and water wise plants, in combination with tough grasses and exotics that create contemporary gardens which are more in tune with the current environmental factors. Gardens are less contrived, less manicured, less controlled and and can be left to change and adapt through the seasons with less watering and maintenance.


Many of our clients are rethinking their large lawns which are hard to keep green in these summer months without ample water. Lawns are becoming smaller or even replaced with tough groundcovers that can still be used as spaces for pause, seating and movement, but without heavy foot traffic. Meadow lawns are becoming more popular for areas of large open space farther away from the house as these can be left to grow longer and don’t need frequent mowing. A combination of indigenous and exotic grasses inter planted with seasonal endemic bulbs and annuals can make a meadow lawn a lovely, soft, wild area of garden that encourages more abundant insect, bird and animal life to the garden.

A beautiful roof garden for night-time entertainment is dramatic and low maintenance.

Large swathes of grassy plants and textures replace what would have usually been an area of lawn. A smaller less manicured lawn flanks the house in areas of dappled shade


Trees have taken center stage in the garden again, where they rightfully belong. For too long, planting of trees was less popular especially in medium and small gardens where space was limited for canopy growth and where maximum sunlight for lawn was required. Trees are now coveted for their cooling shade on the lawn, over play areas and against the house. Choice of tree is still as important if not more so, and although very tough and water wise once established, a newly planted tree will require a regular and ample supply of water for at least a year if not more.

Green walls, glass, steel and architectural styling are elements in the contemporary garden

Contemporary use of slate chip and large format pavers below an avenue of shady Poplars

Plant Choices

Plant palettes have become less contrived and with fewer species. Grasses and other textural and tough plants are now taking on more importance than just flowers and flowering shrubs. Wild or natural planting layouts are favored where a variety of grasses and perennials are interplanted in large swathes or in a manner that creates a soft and natural look, where flowers, seed heads and grasses change and die back gracefully. A more controlled or formal garden can still be had closer to the house or entertainment areas, but as the landscape nears the boundaries, the garden is allowed to be looser, wilder and left to its own devices. Trees and evergreen hedges and shrubs are still vital to hold the garden together with a green backdrop that is easy to maintain and dense, provides screening, shade and privacy.

Edgy rusty steel retaining and hardy succulent planting around a circular lawn

Indigenous species that are tough and well suited to the conditions in a wilder planting palette and layout


Seating areas and areas of paving and pathways are becoming more natural too. Real stone, slate and earthy gravels as well as decking are also replacing small areas of lawn. Bespoke furniture, pots and seating are in, allowing garden owners to be eclectic in their choices, whether it’s a piece from a local designer or ordered online from overseas. Mulch has become very important for its water-saving properties for plants. We are using more natural woodchip on all our gardens instead of valuable compost mulch, which also lends itself to a more natural and wild, South African style of gardening.

Colour in the garden from hardy perennials, succulents and grasses in a cohesive design

Gabions and stone, steel and natural materials are still right on trend in our contemporary garden spaces in South Africa

Happy gardening!

Sources & images:

Cape Contours Landscape Studio team