"Don't give up on gardening"

Coping with drought.
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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

 Reader Comments

1/15  Janice - 2067 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 09 December 2019

Thank you for your blog, gardeners are a resilient lot, yes we might be down but we are not out. The gardens in our lives will be ever changing for that is inevitable. Plants for many years, quite "sniffy" about, now have value, my Nerium oleander cascades hundreds of white single flowers over my pool fence, definitely not a fainting lady. Poisonous yes, but pests never trouble it, and never watered and now rarely from above. Change has been forced on us, but it will rain one day. Jan Oleanders are very tough! We will probably all have to change our views on plants in these difficult times. Deirdre

2/15  Anna - 3163 (Zone:10 - Mediteranean) Monday, 09 December 2019

Thank you for your blog. My garden is currently a mish mash of plants I am trialling to cope with the future. Salvias, euphorbia, cacti and geraniums are thriving. Im having less success with various natives. The overall appearance is non too pleasing but individual plants give me so much joy as the flowers burst forth and the plant thrives. The bonus of ny haphazard gardening is an increase in the number and variety of insects and birds. My garden is alive and constantly changing. I do think we will all have to experiment and see what works. Lovely to have so many birds and insects in your garden. Deirdre

3/15  Georgia - 4107 (Zone:11A - Sub-tropical) Monday, 09 December 2019

Thank you for this blog. We do need to rethink gardens in this changing climate. Seriously considering a bush house for our garden before next summer. A source of inspiration for others who may be planning similarly http://brisbanebotanictreasures.info/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/BUSH-HOUSE-fbbgsa-April-2018-2pg.pdf Thanks, Georgia. The article you provided is fascinating. My mother had a lattice bush house, and I still remember what a shady retreat it was. She also used it for cuttings she was striking. I like the idea of making a bush house. Deirdre

4/15  Shaun - 2075 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 09 December 2019

Wise reminder, thanks Deirdre!and I totally agree with you. As a brave farmer, said last week "a day closer to rain". Nature will rule! I have loved your blogs throughout the year. Enjoy your special end of year season and many thanks, Shaun Thanks for your feedback. Let us hope it will rain soon. These are very difficult times. Deirdre

5/15  Gillian - 2119 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 09 December 2019

Hi Deirdre, like you I am very anxious about my garden"s future over the next few months. I bought 2 large bottles of Seasol Soil Wetter/ Conditioner and mulched and deep watered precious plants in the hope they will survive, especially my camellias. I am stressed when my garden looks dehydrated. It will be a constant battle with watering cans to keep our gardens alive. Doing sections at a time makes sense, I will take your advice and look forward to the day I hear that rain on the skylight. You have done a lot to help your garden. I do think plants are more resilient than we sometimes imagine. Deirdre

6/15  Kerrie - 2104 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 09 December 2019

Apart from what you"ve mentioned, soil wetter, Seasol & Droughtmaster mulch what I"ve done is take rooted cuttings, cuttings or even the whole plant when it isn"t too big of my favourite more delicate plants & plant them up in pots that can be easily watered in the shadehouse or a shady spot for those who don"t have a shadehouse. I"ve found having a lot of ground covers acts as a good natural mulch too. A good idea to take cuttings etc and keep them somewhere you can care for them. Groundcovers do help. Deirdre

7/15  Maureen - 2118 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 09 December 2019

Morning Deidre - Yes Sonja was very encouraging on Saturday with her comments when addressing the Level 2 watering restrictions albeit a daunting task for those with disabilities, or who have been blessed with many birthdays!! Adding your comments to her"s gives one heart to "fight the good fight". Thanks again for a great blog. Maureen Certainly lugging watering cans is hard work. I do feel for those who are going to struggle with these restrictions. Deirdre

8/15  Sue - 2074 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 09 December 2019

Thanks Deidre for your encouraging blog. As 1litre of water weighs 1kg - who needs a gym, I am doing 1/2 watering cans to save shoulders and strengthen leg muscles:-) Also choosing the loved relative plants, the most expensive plants, fruit trees and veggies to water. I will follow your tip of one patch at a time and am looking forward to new plants for autumn. Our tree ferns are already browning but will return with rain. Wishing you a happy, safe and bit rainy Christmas to you and yours. Good idea to only half-fill the watering cans so they are less heavy. I think we can train our plants to demand less water over time. Let"s just hope for rain very, very soon. Deirdre

9/15  Susan - 2430 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 09 December 2019

We left Canberra to escape drought and fire but we have brought both with us to our acreage on the mid north coast. Burned forest all around us and level 4 water restrictions - no outside town water use. For 2 acres of garden. Have lost a lot of small plants, keeping the most precious ones (eg our new fruit orchard) alive by lugging buckets of shower water up the hill. Dam is totally dry. We want to sink a bore but all the drillers are booked out. It"s worse elsewhere, but this is hard. So hard. My heart goes out to you, Susan. It sounds dreadful. I hope things will somehow be better soon. Deirdre

10/15  Valerie - 2121 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 09 December 2019

Grim is right! The new Canna lilies I planted in March are kaput and I am looking longily at Lomandra which is surviving very well in the bush. Now is the time for me to have a look at what plants are doing well in council roundabouts and schoolyards. Thanks for the timely advice and encouragement. Good luck everyone with the water restrictions, Level 2. Yes, we need to work out what are the tough plants that are going to survive. It is all certainly a challenge. Deirdre

11/15  Christine - 2429 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 09 December 2019

Dear Deidre, like Susan 2430, said. Here on the MidNorth Coast NSW we can only water using recycled water. The fires have just devastated our area and of course necessitated the use of 30% of our dwindling water supply...thank goodness we had that water. My husband is in the RFS and continues to be called out each day still.As a gardener it is very sad to see...the trees were defoliating even before the fires. However, we Aussies are resilient and take care of each other AND it will rain again. So sorry for what you are going through. The poor firemen must be exhausted and there is still no end in sight. I hope that rain comes soon. Deirdre

12/15  Margaret - 2122 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Tuesday, 10 December 2019

Thank you for your timely advice. Everywhere is grim and our hearts ache for all those who have suffered from the fires and the drought. No doubt, it will rain, but for the time being, we must be careful with our water. I have for years saved the cold water, before the hot, in the shower, and in my sink. I use this on pot plants. I have three tanks, partially full, at present. I intend to observe my plants to see which can survive with less water. We probably pamper our plants too much. Great that you are recycling water from indoors. I am doing the same now, with a bucket for the shower and plastic tubs in the sinks. It makes one very aware of how much water we are using on a daily basis. I am tipping this water onto plants in a systematic fashion. We are looking into installing a grey-water system under the house so the water can be piped directly onto the garden. There are issues to consider such as the effects of detergents etc. Deirdre

13/15  Kathy - 2454 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Thursday, 12 December 2019

Thank you so much for your encouraging blog. I found it heartwarming to know that I am not suffering alone. All gardeners are going through heartache and struggling with buckets and cans to keep their much loved gardens and fruit trees going. Nearly all our citrus fruit has fallen off. An idea that seems to be working in my very small vegie patch is to plant some carefully placed sunflowers throughout, which are now providing shade for tomato plants. Our bees also love them. It is a really tough time. We just have to hope rain will come soon. I like your idea of shading the tomatoes with the sunflowers. I do think we have to give our plants more protection now, with hotter, drier days. Deirdre

14/15  Georgina - 2076 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Saturday, 14 December 2019

Hi Deirdre Thank you for your beaut blog each week. I look up your plant reference information to find out pruning times for plants and the best times for propagating them. Always useful. Have a happy break and hopefully it will rain soon. Thank you, Georgina. Hope to see you in 2020. Deirdre

15/15  Janna - UK Saturday, 21 December 2019

Really hope you have some respite from the drought and fires soon. Always so much easier to believe that plants are very resilient when you are not standing in front of very hot, dry ones! Wishing you a very happy Christmas. Thanks, Janna. It is a dreadful day here today. We all hope the fires will not do more damage and that the cooler days ahead that are predicted will give everyone (and our poor plants) a respite. Hope you have a very happy Christmas. Deirdre

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