Don't give up on gardening!

Sunday, 08 December 2019

Sydney shrouded in smoke haze, December 2019

It's a pretty grim old time in Sydney at the moment. Many people are facing the very real risk of bushfires threatening their properties, and every day, the air is filled with smoke haze from the many blazes that are still raging. No significant rain has fallen for a long time, and this coming Tuesday 10 December 2019 sees the start of Level Two watering restrictions in Sydney, the Blue Mountains and the Illawarra: which, in a nutshell, mean that hoses can no longer be used at all, with all watering of gardens having to be done by watering cans before 10 am and after 4 pm. Spray irrigation systems have already been banned under Level One restrictions; under the new rules, dripper irrigation systems may only be run for 15 minutes a day per zone. See here for further details.

Watering can with Lobularia, former garden of Sandra Wilson in Sydney

Whilst the woes of gardeners facing increasing water restrictions pale into insignificance compared to the bushfire issues, the fact remains that the world needs plants and no one wants to see their gardens die. I have been feeling very pessimistic about the future of my garden, but yesterday I happened to hear an inspiring talk by nursery owner Sonja Cameron, who explained that in many cases, gardeners tend to overwater their gardens, underestimating the resilience of so many plants in the face of drought. She maintains that deep, infrequent watering is the key, teaching plants to send their roots downwards rather than up to the surface, which is what happens if we just give numerous light applications of water. With harsher watering restrictions possible in the future, we need to rethink our methods.

Bromeliads cope well with drought; former garden of Sandra Wilson in Sydney

With this philosophy in mind, and the watering can requirement about to kick in, I am thinking of focusing on just one area at a time and giving several cans of water to each plant, directing it at the root zone, say once every week to ten days, rather than trying to cover the whole garden at once and thus feeling utterly daunted. I have decided that I will have to say goodbye to the plants that cannot survive this regime. I am determined to become more observant and make notes of which plants are able to cope with less watering and use more of these in my garden. Certainly, I am already aware that most members of the Acanthaceae, Amaryllidaceae, Asparagaceae, Begoniaceae, Bromeliaceae, Marantaceae and Poaceae plant families, plus of course succulents, are pretty tough characters, and they include lots of attractive specimens! However, I think we also need to experiment with other plants to see how they go - maybe more of the Mediterranean plants, which up till now I haven't had much success with, might do better in our changing seasons. I adore the look of many of these plants, such as Phlomis, Cistus and some of the alluring Euphorbia species and cultivars, so it's actually quite an exciting prospect to trial some of these beauties to see how they go. And, of course, our local native plants offer an array of possibilities.

Begonia undulata; all Begonia plants are tough in dry conditions

Applying a soil-wetting agent will help water be better absorbed into the soil, especially if it has become hydrophobic, and will encourage roots to go down deeper. Applying a seaweed extract to the garden when watering or via a spray, is also regarded as useful for helping plants cope better with dry conditions. Applying a thick, organic mulch over garden beds will help conserve whatever water can be given to plants; will keep roots cool; and will minimise weeds, which compete with plants for moisture. Removing weeds is thus also an important strategy if they do appear in the garden. I don't think it's a good idea to fertilise plants at this time, as any new, soft growth will be more vulnerable to heat stress than mature foliage.

Established plants, of course, cope better with drought conditions and it's best to plant new specimens in late autumn or winter rather than in spring or summer. If plants are put in during the warmer months, they should be sheltered at first from the hot sun by an umbrella or shade cloth, and special attention should be given to watering and mulching until they are established. Whenever a plant is put in, incorporate lots of organic matter into the soil, as this improves moisture retention as well as augmenting the structure of the soil.

Succulent plants such as Kalanchoe thyrsiflora cope with limited watering

Even though I don't really advocate much planting at this time, now is an excellent time to plan for what can be done in autumn - noting plants doing well that could be replicated in other areas of the garden, and identifying spots where we could incorporate a small shade tree to shelter plants, as the more intense heat we are now experiencing in summer is too much for even some sun-loving plants. More shade in the garden will also make it more pleasant for us to be in it in summer, and such trees can be sited to reduce the heat entering our homes. Manmade shade structures such as vine-clad pergolas, trellises or arbours, or even an old-fashioned lattice or shade-cloth 'bush house' could be considered. Hot winds can be so detrimental to plants, so perhaps planning a windbreak could be a priority.

Our gardens may never be the same as they once were, but they can still give us joy and satisfaction. Don't give up on gardening!