Drought-Proofing is a Matter of Eco-Design

Editor’s Note: One of our District Councillors recently made statements to our newspaper about his concern for the volume of water our city was using while we have had essentially no rain for a month. By why did he have to say to the reporter, “I don’t want to sound like a greenie…” This is my response in the same newspaper.


“I don’t want to sound like a greenie…”

Why is it that many people in our community – especially elected officials – feel it is necessary to preface common sense statements with this phrase? Is there such antipathy toward the so-called “greenies” among us to warrant this fear of association with them? It is such a constant theme in our local politics that I often wonder how and why it came to be.

Lets take a common sense, conservative concept: wasting a resource is bad. Does anyone disagree with this left, right or centre? But as long as we associate common sense, conservative issues with the left-wing, the farther Whanganui will fall behind progressive councils around the country that are ahead of us already and stretching their leads. If we were truly a “Smart!” city we would embrace eco-design thinking fully and unapologetically to improve the lives of our residents, save money and conserve valuable resources such as water.

Water conservation in the home comes in two forms: efficiency and behaviours. Efficiency can take the form of low-flow showers and taps, dual flush toilets, and appliances that are Water Rated. Behaviours include closing the tap while brushing teeth or shaving, taking short showers, or washing dishes like an Aussie.

But at this time of year, in many cases more water is used outside of the home than inside. I don’t want to sound like a greenie, but there are many ways in which eco-design can be used to develop and manage a drought-resistant property of any size from residential section to lifestyle block. Screen shot 2015-01-31 at 6.43.41 AM

A drought-resistant section in the middle of a drought.

Eco-design as applied to lawns and gardens is about mimicking nature. In other words, we observe how nature is so successful at providing the conditions for life to thrive, and then we copy it.

Any good farmer will tell you that growing plants is all about the soil, so that’s where we’ll begin. Undisturbed, natural soils consist of 50% particles (sand, silt, clay, and humus), 25% air, and 25% water. Put another way, it is half particles and half empty space.

By contrast, most paddocks, lawns and gardens are more like 80% particles and 20% pore space because they have been compacted over many years. Compacted soils do not readily absorb water during rains and result in excessive runoff into streams and rivers, which adds to flooding danger. On the other hand, because the water has flowed across the earth’s surface instead of soaking in, there is less groundwater available during drier months. Groundwater works like a bank account with deposits and withdrawals.

Screen shot 2015-01-31 at 6.44.04 AM

A swale can help drought-proof a lifestyle block. 

Additionally, compacted soils are largely devoid of life due to the lack of air and water. Where soil life is marginal, many types of plants struggle to survive and require additional inputs of fertilizer, “weed killer”, and irrigation.

From an eco-design perspective, drought-proofing a paddock, lawn or garden is about bringing the soil back to life. Living soils have both good drainage and good water retention. In the long term, healthy soils maintain themselves. Yes, nature will do it on its own but we can jump start the process by breathing life into soils in three simple ways.

First, compacted soils need to be mechanically aerated. A farmer might use a chisel plough where a homeowner would choose a broad fork or sturdy garden fork. Next, the application of lime – one handful per square metre – will raise the pH of soils, which increases microbial activity. Finally, top-dressing with organic matter in the form of composted manure for a paddock or finely sieved compost for a lawn will feed soil organisms.

The same three principles – aerate, raise the pH, add organic matter – can be repeated for vege gardens and perennial beds. Additionally, with regards to water conservation, these can be heavily mulched to reduce soil evaporation.

Both vege gardens and perennial beds can easily be managed as no-dig/no-till areas with healthy soils that maintain themselves, but lawns and paddocks will inevitably receive a certain level of foot and hoof traffic. For these areas a more regular programme of maintenance is required to promote healthy soils, but it all can be done within the realm of eco-design.



Drought-Proof Your Residential Section

Wednesday, 4th February, 5:30-6:30 pm.

Drought-Proof Your Lifestyle Block

Sunday, 8th February, 9:00-11:00 am.

Limited spaces. Registration and deposit essential.

theecoschool – at – gmail.com

One thought on “Drought-Proofing is a Matter of Eco-Design”

  1. We put in a new 1/2 acre no dig garden 8 months ago and didn’t water once over the last month of no rain. Pumpkins, tomatoes, potatoes, buckwheat, chillies, sunflowers, corn, quinoa, earth gems, tomatillo, chickpeas, soybeans etc all are growing well and will only improve as the garden matures. Making food sources drought resistant is very important and educating people that its possible and also improves soil is essential. I’m a greenie, well my garden is at least and that’s what matters. 🙂 (I hope you get a good turnout at your workshops) L

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