With El Niño conditions on the way, gardeners wishing to defy the odds need to prioritise and get waterwise. By Helen Razer.

Waterwise tips to beat this summer’s killer heat

A long dry spell means gardeners will have to be especially waterwise.
A long dry spell means gardeners will have to be especially waterwise.
Credit: VAVLT

Gardening in the Australian summer is an unhindered pleasure whose sun radiates in our hearts even as it brings to life the scent of cupped and erogenous blooms. Our borders are full with promise and our memories with the different pleasures of past seasons rich in the concupiscence of daisies, the purity of the lily, the viola, a tricolour Lolita whose sepals wink “I’m ready”.

There. Now that tedious, flowery bunkum has moved non-gardeners directly onto the next page, you and I can talk bleakly of the truth. This is going to be
a burning shit of a season that will murder our plants and our hope. 

El Niño could be more correctly called El Diablo and by January, several of our favourite growing friends will be dead in a crispy fourth circle of Hades. Bid farewell to some of your plants, wave hello to a bucket in the shower and consider our time together much less of a delightful turn about the garden than a desperate struggle for life.

Do you have your tomato seedlings ready? Good. The mildly cheering news is that this favourite summer standard will endure. Peter May, senior faculty associate at the Burnley horticultural campus of Melbourne University, says, “Tomatoes, eggplants and capsicums, which include chilli plants, are all more hardy than you might suspect.” He also says, “If you haven’t planted yet, don’t bother”, but I have chosen to ignore him and my Black Krim seedlings are going in the ground this weekend.

May urges us strongly not to plant anything new. The ground across most of the nation is dry and it will get dryer still in coming months with significant rain, in many predictions, not due until next June. May clearly knows his game, but I know that I have been raising in trays bedding dahlias, cucumbers, cosmos, sunflowers and broccolette – a hybrid Chinese green and broccoli plant basically indistinguishable from the commercially licensed “broccolini” whose fast growth and delicious flavour prompts me to promote purchase of the seeds – for weeks now, long-range forecast be damned. 

So I asked someone else. 

Warren Worboys, curator of horticulture at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Cranbourne, is just as full of Dante as his horticultural peer. It’s going to be hell.

“The horse has bolted for planting,” he says. Dismally. “Thanks to the El Niño forecast, the return in the garden is set to be really poor in most climate zones.”

We may not be breaking criminal codes by tending to our gardens this season, but we are bound by natural ones. Dry ground will simply not sustain life and something we might consider doing, May says, is deep watering right now. And then, maybe, you can plant. 

You might consider re-using your bath or shower water on beds or in larger plant containers. This stuff is a little alkalised by soap, but, if you’re using it on soil in which you intend to grow or nurture decorative, and not edible, plants, this should not, says May, pose too much of a problem. Never re-use washing machine water, unless you’re absolutely certain that your Goddess-brand detergent will not screw with your soil – and “all natural” on the box is not to be read as “your plants will love this as much as your balconette bra does!” But do think about heaving some none-too-sudsy bathing waste on to your flower beds and larger pots and giving those new roots a chance at life.  

Stick the tines of a garden fork deep into your vegetable bed and douse that bugger today. Even, and especially, if there’s nothing currently in it. And yes, you can grow tomatoes this year. A container on your balcony will work. So long as they have some decent potting medium, some nutrients, some water and the sun – which is this season inescapable – they will produce. Some horticultural wisdom has it that flavour-modifying compounds in tomatoes intensify in times of drought. If my Krims survive the season in the insulated pots I have prepared for them, I should be pretty smug by January.

But the news is not great for pretty annuals. Pete puts it this way: “No annuals.” But he will allow marigolds, which, despite their drought hardiness, would probably prefer to be planted in hydrated soil. The yellow pompom of the French marigold is very pretty and even though I am longing to again see the dreamy white-eyes in the blue racemes of a handsome, tall delphinium, I guess we all must learn to love the one we’re with.  

This is not to say that you cannot be with the ones you love. Both May and Worboys encourage us to prioritise. Ration your passion for your plants just as you rationed water throughout the drought. Make a list of the things that are important to you.

Says May: “If the beautiful tree in your front yard dies due to a lack of water, that’s a catastrophe. If a punnet of annuals doesn’t survive the summer, just pull them out and know that they will be easily forgotten.”

Both Worboys and May say that waterwise gardening can be confusing. Knowledge of the needs of every species in your beds or your pots is a difficult thing to acquire. Personally, I find that quizzing older gardeners in my neighbourhood about their successes and failures in past dry seasons is useful for me, if terribly annoying for Iris. “I have told you once, you only need to water your rose bushes weekly.”

The planting season for roses is now over. But, if you live with a rose, don’t fret about it overly. Country cemeteries nationwide still give life to a hardy beauty that can survive decades of drought and Iris, who bathes her 30-year-old hydrangea in shower water despite her doctor’s warnings of “bucket shoulder”, is quite right in recommending once-a-week watering. Roses have proportionately larger root systems than other plants, so you’re best to go beyond the dripline, or the ground that matches the point of greatest circumference of the plant. With other precious plants you want to save, generally use the dripline as your template and water infrequently but deeply.

Baby plants demand frequent, light watering, of course, but more established edibles and decoratives might not need the frequent attention you have been giving them. When Worboys describes “someone standing with a hose, watering blithely across the surface until it appears wet on top, and I shouldn’t say this, but often holding a tinnie”, he describes my most wasteful watering habits very well. Throwing a hose about while sinking a frosty at twilight is, in my view, one of the very few joys this stinking season brings. But water applied in this way is a waste and so is the beer, which is probably a better accompaniment for a task such as weeding. Don’t use tools, do use gloves, and just try to swear mildly at the dandelions as you safely drain away the pain of summer in a stubbie while beer-weeding.

You must, of course, mulch. This is less of a necessity in container planting where, very often, the plant itself covers much of the potting medium that sustains it. But, in large containers or beds, mulch, which must not meet directly with the base of the plant but leave some room for water and nutrient application, is very useful. May says arborist chips or rough compost work well on many plants but for vegetables a herbaceous mulch that is quick to decompose is good. Sugarcane mulch is cheap and so is pea straw, but it has the annoying habit of throwing up useless shoots. When I have a little extra cash, I buy bales of lucerne, which is prized by fundamentalist organic gardeners for its humic properties, nitrogen and posh-sounding name.  

May reminds us to use our eyes. A plant that is wilting a little at the end of a long day may not be demanding water. A plant that is flagging by lunchtime likely needs more regular attention. For plants in pots, he says, you could resort to use of a commercial wetting agent. You can also conserve water inside a ceramic, concrete or terracotta pot by lining it with plastic, or beeswax if you wish to more fully honour the goddess. You can insulate containers on the outside with a foil product to protect them from intense heat. In fact, this season, you have full permission to put nearly everything in a pot. This way, you can concentrate all your horticultural drama, even if you have an epic garden. And you can fill emptied wine or soft drink bottles with water and upturn them in every container.

You could, of course, opt to install irrigation. This is not terribly expensive and it is a good way to ration water. However, if you tend to mix lager with your gardening, are accident prone or terribly short-sighted or, as in my case, answer yes to all of the above, don’t bother. I have broken or mowed part of a drip system on so many occasions, and, once, I believe, accidentally eaten some, so I am never, ever stooping to put one of those infuriating things together again.

But I will stay with the infuriating tomatoes as a matter of pride and of hunger. And I will use my terrible eyes to check in with the needs of my perennials. I will yell at my dahlias, “You’re a desert plant, bloom!” in January, and I will try not to water my plants with beer. (But dishes of flat beer can be placed in your garden to lure slugs to a drunken death.)

And I will, as May says, resign myself to the difficult, ongoing but not-terribly bleak truth: “Gardening is a lifetime of learning.” By next year, perhaps, I will have learnt not to give water to the striking, thirsty delphinium when the happy little marigold will do.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 31, 2015 as "Bucket lift".

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Helen Razer is a writer and broadcaster. She is The Saturday Paper’s television critic and gardening columnist.

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