"A little bit of hope"

Recent rain has revived spirits.
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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

 Reader Comments

1/18  Janice - 2069 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 20 January 2020

Thank you Deirdre, your words are encouraging! Your booklets have helped also.Some of my plants had reached their use by date, I cant wait for the Autumn rains of my hopeful imagination! Janice 2069 I look forward to those rains too, Janice! Roll on autumn. Deirdre

2/18  Janna - UK Monday, 20 January 2020

So glad you have finally had some proper rain; I can quite imagine how emotional it felt. Reading this, I"m also feeling very glad I did all my planting in autumn just gone, rather than leaving it until spring! Thanks, Janna. Yes it has been a very emotional time. We await further rain. Good you did all your planting in autumn! It used to be fine to plant in spring here but it gets so hot much earlier now, so the poor plants do not stand much of a chance to establish. Deirdre

3/18  Patricia - 2500 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 20 January 2020

Hello Deirdre I contacted Sydney Water about how the 15 mins a day drip allowance. I explained why it wasn"t efficient and effective and wrote that it actually uses less water and is better for the plants and soil if we use it for longer as less often...I received no reply. I am not surprised you received no answer. I feel I am not violating the spirit of the rules. I use the same amount of water per week and I use it more efficiently. I feel the restrictions are targeting us gardeners more than anyone else in the community. People can still have leisurely showers or wash a few things in a washing machine full of water! The world needs plants more than ever, and plants must have some water to survive. Deirdre

4/18  Maree - 2074 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 20 January 2020

Hi Deirdre Like you I never used wetting agents but I did this summer and I think it does help. I used Saturaid and also Seasol. I have also read that if you use a trigger connector for your hose you are able to use your hose for premixed Seasol and wetting agents. Also if you have any medical condition that renders you unable to use a watering can you can apply for an exemption through Sydney Water"s website. Documentary evidence is required. Thanks for those excellent points. It is well worth applying for an exemption. As for using the hose with premixed Seasol or wetting agents, I did not know this -- how fab! I may be applying "a lot" of Seasol from now on!! Deirdre

5/18  Suzanne - 2073 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 20 January 2020

Thanks Deirdre, it certainly has been a catastrophic and unprecedented summer. Our gardens have really suffered and it is interesting to see which plants succeed. We lost power for a week following the storm in late November and thus had an empty freezer. Used many kitchen containers to make large ice blocks which were placed around some vulnerable plants and trees each day through the heat. They were so much easier to put out than lugging buckets around and most of the plants responded. I absolutely love this concept! And I certainly do not think Sydney Water has anything in its restrictions about applying ice blocks around the garden at any time of day! Another way of giving a slow trickle of water over a long time is to use water spikes attached to an old soft-drink bottle filled with water and plunging the spike into the ground near a plant. I do not think Sydney Water has any rules about filling water bottles at any particular times either? Oh dear, how subversive I have become. Deirdre

6/18  Jen - 2077 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 20 January 2020

My garden is about 3 years old now and I still need good water after the last summer to get big pants established. We dont have a tank but to supplement hose water I find I can get water off the roof into two buckets for use on plants I know will enjoy it. I am amazed at how much I can get after a humid day and night. It is so satisfying to collect a full bucket of clean and clear water for a thirsty plant than see it go down the drain ! This is a fascinating idea, Jen, that I have never heard of before. Thanks for telling us about it! Deirdre

7/18  Sue - 2074 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 20 January 2020

Wonderful rain and what a relief to not lug a bucket for a while! In my garden a variegated Aptenia (Baby sun Rose) thrived and flowered, it draps over a stone wall which I thought would be its undoing. I found an application of Droughtshield (or Envy-same stuff- which must be dililuted) totally protected my cucumber, pumpkin and beans on the 47deg day..I also used the spray-on Wetasoil. Will be planting the repotted spring stuff in autumn. Lots to learn this summer. Thanks for the reminder about those anti-desiccant products. I have not used them much but I think they are very useful. Deirdre

8/18  Pam - 3216 (Zone:10 - Mediteranean) Monday, 20 January 2020

Hi Deirdre,your blog reflects your deep thoughtfulness and not just about about gardening. I do hope weather related issues improve for you in Sydney. Thank you so much, Pam. Hot weather is returning but maybe a little more rain is on the way too. Hope you have had rain where you are. Deirdre

9/18  Maureen - 2118 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 20 January 2020

Thanks Deirdre for so aptly voicing the views of many regarding the fires and the devastation it has caused. I have to say that the "Amazing Greys" (a Brian Roach quote) have proved to be stars! I was interested in Suzanne"s comment about ice blocks as I have been thinking about next time there is a 47 degree day on the horizon I would go and get a couple of bags of ice to put around!! Yes I love this ice idea. I am thinking of making some blocks for Thursday"s heatwave! Deirdre

10/18  Gillian - 2119 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 20 January 2020

Hi Deirdre, thank you for all your tips to keep our gardens looking good during this drought. I have 5 camellias probably 50 years old and all struggling. I just cannot get around the whole garden every day and have had to let go of some of them which breaks my heart. It is very distressing. The rain was wonderful and today I am going to put down more mulch which I believe does help the plants survive. My lawn is looking green again and the garden looks refreshed. I look forward to more rain!! I hope your camellias are going to be OK. I am amazed how many things have perked up since that fab rain. Let us hope more comes soon. Deirdre

11/18  Glennis - 2122 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 20 January 2020

Hi Deidre, thank you for a wonderful blog. The plants that have proved to be the most resilient in my garden on the very hot days have been my old garden roses. On the 40+ days the blooms may have shriveled but the plants have stood firm and healthy and I have found that once established they do not need any extra watering. I agree that autumn is the time for planting so I am looking forward to The Collectors Plant fair at the end of march. So glad your roses have survived. Yes we may all need new plants by March and the fair will be just the place to find them! Deirdre

12/18  Margaret - 2122 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 20 January 2020

I concur with all your sentiments. With regard to to some plants, I have been surprised how dahlia, zinnia and cosmos dislike the intense heat. Plants from the Acanthaceae family do well, as do most of the begonia family. Soil wetter is a saviour, along with seaweed and mulch. A great blessing for me was the rain, filling no. 3 tank. I opened the back door, and stood gazing at the water flowing in, from two directions! Heaven! I feel my garden may incur some changes, also. I agree, the idea of being able to save our own rainwater is just so wonderful. It is really good to be able to suss out what are the tough plants in our garden this summer. Deirdre

13/18  Kerrie - 2104 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 20 January 2020

I buy plants in Spring & Summer, up-pot them, keep in the shadehouse & plant in the garden in Autumn.If you can afford it or are handy a shade house is a good investment as is a rainwater tank. There is a new dwarf range of Crepe Myrtles called Diamonds In The Dark which are stunning & drought tolerant so I bought one, Mystic Magenta. I wanted drip irrigation when I built my garden 4 years ago but nobody would supply & install it & insisted they were useless & nobody wanted them. Wish I had drip. A good idea about potting up in the warmer months and keeping them in a shadehouse. I love the idea of shadehouses. They used to be much more common. Such a shame about the drip system. They are not perfect but they are the best option we have especially for larger gardens. My grey water system will be discharging its water via a drip system. Deirdre

14/18  Kerrie - 2104 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 20 January 2020

Interested in Patricia"s comments. Seems crazy to me that people can top up a swimming pool but not a pond for native animals to drink. Also you can go for it hose on Seasol or other hose on products. As usual the beaurocrats have not done their research or even thought things through properly. I agree gardeners are being targeted because we are visible and also conscientious. See above for my various subversive suggestions. Here is another one: instead of filling your watering cans at the tap and lugging them to your plants, take a hose, fitted of course with a trigger nozzle, to your plants and fill your watering cans there via the hose. As you empty the water from one can onto the plants, another watering can is being filled. As I see it, the hose is just acting like a very long tap. Deirdre

15/18  Robyn - 2778 (Zone:9 - Cool Temperate) Tuesday, 21 January 2020

All good reading as we get back to doing what gardeners love best I feel, i.e. planning, planting and enjoying the garden. All of which has been impossible in this awful time. My added suggestion is that I buy cheap beach umbrellas when I see them to quickly put up over vulnerable plants on the hot days. Depending on what patterns you buy it can also add some new temporary colour to the garden. I love your idea of the beach umbrellas. Plants in shade really cope much better than those in full sun on those horror days. Thanks for the tip! Deirdre

16/18  Leveena - 2099 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Tuesday, 21 January 2020

I became worried with my Frangipani collection . The branches were wrinkling, yet it couldnt possibly be root rot! I visited a client (I am a bookkeeper & one client is Sydney Frangipani)-she had cut off most of the leaves on her small plants. Id never seen this & asked why-she said getting rid of the bigger leaves reduces the stress of less water on the plant. Went home, did the same-theyve all recovered! It really makes sense. I guess the same logic applies to cutting back before a heatwave. After the damage is done, maybe best to leave the foliage on as protection for future hot days. Deirdre

17/18  Shaun - 2075 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Wednesday, 22 January 2020

Thanks Deirdre, We gardeners all feel the same on the background of the devastating fire season and blazing heat. I didn"t recognise the sound when that delicious rain started and thought I"d left the washer on!! then Ahhha I went outside. Magic!briefly! No buying or planting for me till Autumn and softer times, and on we go! Shaun

18/18  Lynsey - 2100 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Tuesday, 28 January 2020

I"ve enjoyed your blog, Deirdre, and all the comments and good ideas. We"ve had very little rain, with no immediate prospect of more. Why expect it just because we need it? So I"m giving my plants tough love and not wasting DRINKING water on them. I get half a bucket a day from the shower and use that to flush the loo. Why waste drinking water there? Did you know that if you put a frozen bottle of water on a plate to thaw, it"ll draw water from the atmosphere! Magic!

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