20 March, 2017

Cape Town's drought and spekboom

- gardening for biodiversity
in Cape Town, South Africa

As we count down the days to empty dams, Dozen for Diana in March is tough enough to survive elephants. Spekboom or porkbush. Portulacaria afra. The elephants are right, the tiny leaves are edible. Lemony flavour in salad.

Spekboom in Porterville

Completing my False Bay choice in Dozen for Diana

Water restrictions encourage us to use grey water in the garden. I miss the grey water system we installed in Porterville when we built the house.

Grey water system
November 2009 Porterville

The spekboom in this False Bay garden comes from cuttings of the Porterville plants. There summer temperatures reach 40C. In desperation we built a shade 'house' for our poor compost bins. Those spekboom reached about 3 metres high.

At the back spekboom hedge to shade compost bins
2013 Porterville 

Grey water harvesting. The Ungardener tweaked the drainpipe from the bath so we can leave the bathwater in overnight. The washing machine drains into basins (pictured is two loads, about 100 litres). We have a grey water sign in the window, as our neighbours mostly have borehole signs. In the distance smoke from a fire at Hout Bay.

Know Your Water (Thundafund) - 3 Stellenbosch students are currently circling the country taking samples from boreholes. Analysing tritium will tell them how old (in which year did it fall as rain) each underground sample is. Then we will know something about recharge rates for the offended borehole users who when challenged whine - but I'm a good guy, saving the drinking water in the dam!

Grey water in False Bay

Spekboom in the wild at Addo builds thickets dense and tall enough to hide herds of elephants. It is a good plant for carbon capture, able to grow in a challenging environment. Its fallen leaves build up better soil.

Elephants eating spekboom
Addo in March 2010

Hedgelet below the kitchen window prevents the Ungardener shortcutting off the steep side of the steps. Another screens the compost bin and our plastic watering cans for the four-legged grey water system.

Spekboom hedgelets

The fresh growth coming thru as we head into autumn coolth is a golden apple green. The older leaves a deep jade green, with hints of blue. For Pam @ Digging in Austin, Texas and Her Foliage Followup.

Portulacaria afra leaves
young and old

Our tallest spekboom hedge is this view from the kitchen window, which we watch as it makes its way up to the trellis. Bookended by granadilla and Senecio climber.

Spekboom from the kitchen

Spekboom hedge on the East Patio
with Septemberbossie left

On Facebook is Watershedding Western Cape. False Bay's tap water comes from Theewaterskloof dam which is down to 25% with the last 10% not accessible.

(I am too guilty to bath, unless extreme gardening leaves me creaking). We shower standing in a baby bath to catch the water. That supplies the toilet cistern (which we have also adjusted to use half the volume of water). I am disappointed that my Bosch washing machine only has a 15 minute programme to avoid the second rinse.

The city has a target aiming to reduce consumption from 800 to 700, but we stick at 750 Ml/d. Mains pressure is being reduced and we turned down the pressure to our house. Harvest rainwater; recycle used water, water catchment in landscape and NIMBY.

Marijke Honig designed the Biodiversity Garden at the Green Point Urban Park.

'Water-wise gardening - it is predicted that as a consequence of climate change, rainfall will be more erratic and less sharply seasonal. This summer in Cape Town seems to be a case in point: we received a big rainfall event in December and another downpour a month later – very unusual for January'

Despite the drought our garden got 39mm in December 2016 (2015 17mm, 2014 11?mm) and 17mm in January 2017 (2016 07mm, 2015 06mm). A rain water tank in our future??

I invite you to join us at Elephant's Eye on False Bay. Please subscribe as you prefer
via Feedly,
or Bloglovin,
Email with Feedburner,
or Facebook

Pictures by Jürg and Diana Studer
(If you mouse over teal blue text, it turns seaweed red.
Those are my links.
To read or leave comments, either click the word Comments below,
or click this post's title. If you are in email or a Reader, first click thru to the blog)


  1. Wishing you luck with your drought challenges, Diana. I grow Spekboom in one of my terrariums. It hasn't attracted any elephants. P. x

    1. Keep looking ... I'm sure you will find a Pennsylvania miniature ;~)

  2. Oh, Diana, I am so sympathetic! After one winter of heavy rain, there are already people here thinking that our drought is over but I think that's very unlikely. I too have seen signs that the seasonal changes we are used to are becoming less predictable. My rain barrels are a comfort as they at least provide a source of emergency plant resuscitation, although my husband argues that they are just a drop in the bucket (pun intended). I love all your Portulacaria - ours never grows so big! Now I have to taste a leaf too.

    1. We had two 500L tanks in Porterville. With those and the grey water we kept a large waterwise garden going.

      This little garden has more grey water than it can drink. Almost.

  3. I always envy your climate and the wonderful diversity of plants you can grow. But everywhere in the world seems to have a challenge of some sort or another: drought, flooding, cyclones, fire. I do hope winter brings you some rain.

    1. We have a freak summer thunderstorm and some spatters of rain NOW!

  4. Specboom, I will never forget that plant name, in fact its going round and round my head. When I now see an Elephant, probably on television, my first thought will be, aye, aye, its looking for some specboom.

  5. very nice Diane ! very informative

  6. I'm as fascinated by your greywater system and talk of rain tanks as I am by your wonderfully named spekboom. Thanks for joining in for Foliage Follow-Up, Diana. BTW, I have a Waterwise Gardening group on FB that you might be interested in joining. We'd love to have the South African perspective. I suspect you have a lot to teach us all!

    1. Your Lawn Gone book would have a lot to teach my neighbours ;~)

  7. It is scary to have drought for so long and see the dams dwindling. Your rainfall was similar to ours during the drought years. We showered using a bucket to catch water, and I'm proud to say I kept all the plants on my deck alive for years, just from little scraps of kitchen water....and also the washing machine water. Good luck in keeping plants going....and there is nothing sweeter than when the rain comes regularly again.

    1. Using the grey water, is going to change the way some of my plants grow. They aren't USED to being watered.

  8. I, too, am increasing my spekboom planting. I also need to find out if alpacas can eat spekboom.

    Diana, we have 9 X 5 000lt tanks. They are a help, but are not enough...😟 Today is predicted to be 39oC - too blooming hot for this time of year.
    I have a feeling that more and more people will have to grow under shadecloth to help their plants - drastically reduced rain and searing heat could become the norm in the future. Apparently there is a farmer near Ashton who is growing fruit trees and grapes - large scale - under white agricultural fabric / shadecloth. He is ahead of his time...

    1. When we were driving between Porterville and Cape Town, the vineyards were often enclosed in white fabric. I thought it was to keep birds out, but shade makes sense too.

      Let me know if you blog about alpacas eating spekboom? It would be an easy crop to grow for them (and you).

  9. Spekboom sounds a wonderful plant. I am impressed by your water saving, if only everyone would do their bit. We save what we can of our rainwater, 2 x 50 gallon tanks and 1 x400 gallon tank and so far this is plenty to keep my pots going, I never water the garden itself apart from new planting.

    1. Only watering in new plants, thru a couple of summers - is how I do it.

      Working on grey not drinking water to supply our loos.

  10. Almost everywhere in the world seems to have suffered extreme weather in the last year. Our very wet spring last year did more harm than good as shrubs and trees put on a lot of new growth that then couldn't be supported by the plant during the hot summer. This winter has been exceptionally cold but also dry. All our water (including drinking etc.) comes from a well but with new industrial scale farmers surrounding us now I worry that there won't be enough water. -they intend growing MELONS!

    1. We have had two dry winters, and the concern is for NEXT summer.

      Driving across the Karoo (semi-desert!) farms along the rivers grow lush green crops in a parched landscape. And weed out the wild tsamma melons which grow in the Kgalagadi. Ancestral melons are extremely waterwise.

  11. Drought is a horrible thing. You never appreciate water until you don't have it.

    1. Cape Town is moving towards Israeli style desalination (but apparently the process was invented here)

  12. What are the signs in the windows for?

    1. The water restrictions for gardens.
      Drinking water may only be used in watering cans (no hose or irrigation sytem) for 4 hours a week.
      Boreholes are 'encouraged' to do the same but.
      Grey water has to be used promptly.

      We expect tighter water restrictions.

  13. It looks so dry. Collecting the grey water looks hard work but is must be so welcome for those poor plants. Sarah x

    1. That dry bit in the picture is my Karoo Koppie, aloes and succulents. Lots of Californian poppies and red pelargoniums blooming. Watering in the new cuttings I rescued from my neighbour's builder's rubble.

  14. your post really focuses attention on how we in this hemisphere take water for granted. Admirable lengths you go to to save/use water more thoughtfully. The spekboom is spectacular - I've seen it as bonsai which is quite a contrast to elephant grazing heights!


Thanks for comments that add value. Maybe start a new thread of discussion? BTW your comment won't appear until I've read it. No Google account? Just use Anonymous, but do leave a link to your own blog. I would return the visit, if I could ...

I welcome comments on posts from the last 2 months

Danke fuer sinnvolle Kommentare. Die werden erst veroeffentlicht nachdem ich sie gelesen habe. Es koennen auch Bemerkungen sein die in eine ganz andere Richtung gehen.