A little bit of hope

Sunday, 19 January 2020

This old Rhododendron in the yard of my neighbour was suffering badly with the heat and drought but is now reviving

Until now, I have found myself unable to write about gardening during this cruel summer. The dreadful fires that have claimed lives, and destroyed so many properties and so much wildlife and bushland, have made thoughts of gardening seem so inconsequential. My heart goes out to all those whose lives have been affected by these truly awful events. Thankfully, the last few days have finally seen some decent rain falling in our state and elsewhere. The sight of the rain actually brought tears to my eyes, and I found myself standing at the window and gazing and gazing at it as it fell. We need so much more of it, but it has given a little bit of hope - if nothing else, we now know it is still possible for rain to fall!

Watering cans now have to be used for watering

In the past torrid weeks, it was very hard to believe it would ever rain again. I have not given up on my garden, but it has been a very challenging time with the water restrictions brought in on 10 December last year, and despite the rain, I am sure there will be more stringent restrictions in the future. I have spent a lot of time observing my garden and thinking about the way forward with gardening in Sydney. I also contacted friends for ideas and moral support in the darkest days. I kept a notebook of my thoughts and ideas, and here are just some random jottings that may be of some use to other daunted gardeners.

Plants I had just put in during spring were the ones that suffered the most in the heatwaves. They just hadn't developed a strong root system yet and they drooped every day. At first, I watered them diligently with my watering can, but in the end I realised I couldn't give them life support daily when I was trying to keep the rest of my garden watered, so I pulled them out. It was a relief, as I hated seeing them suffering every day. That said, many established plants did flag during the heat of the day but revived by dusk. Lesson learned: I won't be planting in spring any more.

Plants nearby this birch tree are struggling in my garden

I realised the folly of planting specimens too close to large trees. In the 'olden days', these plants survived quite well when they and the trees received regular rain. But with so little rain for so long, the trees were desperately seeking moisture and were robbing the areas where the other plants were. It is very scary to see a lot of big trees really suffering around Sydney. Many have prematurely shed their leaves. Please remember to give your trees some water if you can.

Soil wetting agents do really help draw moisture into the soil. I have never really embraced these products before but this summer I have been applying them everywhere and could tell the difference. Mulching is also vital to conserve whatever moisture can be given. Applying seaweed products or diluted worm castings to the soil also seems to help plants cope a bit better.

Grey water is the way forward. I have never used grey water before but when the new restrictions came in, we placed tubs and buckets in sinks and in the shower to capture as much grey water as we could. I was astounded at how much we produced each day - and this in itself was instructive and inspired us to try to use less inside the house. We tried to systematically use the grey water for different areas of the garden. In the first few days of using grey water, I thought, 'This is fun! It's like the pioneering days!'. By day three, I was over it and asked for a grey water tank system for Christmas. We still await the installation of this, but I am hopeful it will capture all our grey water (except from the kitchen sink, apparently regarded as too greasy) for use in drip systems in our back garden. Choice of detergents used will be important once the system is in place - suitable products are available in supermarkets these days.

Justicia brandegeeana Red form

Some plants are true drought champions and through this whole time, have not turned a hair. Stars of the garden include Clivia, Pentas, Verbena, most Begonia, coleus, most Acanthaceae plants (but in particular the good old shrimp plant, Justicia brandegeeana), daylilies, Liriope of all types, Syngonium, Pelargonium (and most other South African plants), succulents, silver-foliage plants (such as Lychnis coronaria, Artemisia, Helichrysum and Buddleja species), most Salvia (especially the small-leaved types), Abutilon and most bromeliads (some of the thinner-leaved ones did start shrivelling with no water at all, so I gave them a drink and they recovered). That said, many other plants are remarkably resilient and even some that I thought were actually dead in my neighbours' yards, have revived since the rain has fallen - including the lovely old Rhododendron pictured at the start of the blog, and some Plectranthus.

I managed to save my Fuchsia Pixie using a sheet on 4 January

Throwing a old sheet over vulnerable plants such as Hydrangea and Fuchsia on the truly horrendously hot days may help them. Much foliage was burned on 4 January when it reached 47 degrees C in my area, but I managed to save my Fuchsia in this way. I also did water as much as I could on the evenings and early mornings before predicted extreme-temperature days. I ran my drip systems: we are allowed 15 minutes a day, which is not really advisable as so little water is delivered in this time period, and this only brings roots to the surface. My interpretation of the rule is that 15 minutes a day equals 105 minutes a week, so I run my drip system twice a week for 50 minutes.

Rainwater tanks are a joy. I have had two tanks for many years, but I have never fully appreciated them till this summer. Until they ran out, they gave me water I could hose in the early weeks of the level two watering restrictions when we could no longer use hoses on the mains water. It is thrilling to know the rain that has fallen this week will fill the tanks again and give me this bonus once more. It's important to make sure gutters and tank filters are clear of debris at all times so that you can capture every last drop.

Agapanthus seedheads can now be removed to tidy up the garden

To prune or not to prune? I have heard conflicting ideas about whether it is a good idea to prune plants back so that they can cope better with heatwave conditions. It may be useful if it is done before the heat arrives, to reduce the transpiration occurring in the plants, but once plants' leaves are burned and more heatwaves could be on the way, I think it is better to leave the afflicted foliage on the plant as a kind of protection for the next bout of heat. That said, a bit of deadheading (such as removing Agapanthus seedheads) is quite therapeutic and makes the garden look a bit better.

Self-seeded Salvia splendens and Amarathnthus are looking great after the rain

My garden will have to be changed next autumn/winter, to get rid of plants that don't cope well with our longer, hotter, drier summers. I am taking notes and observing the 'good doers' that will be split up and spread around the garden to take the place of the plants that are struggling. I also now inclined to let tough plants 'take over' a part of the garden where they seem happy and well adapted, and to welcome all self-seeders to grow where they place themselves. Most of these that have appeared this summer, such as (Linaria, Cleome, Browallia americana, Amaranthus and Salvia splendens) are in great shape!