The New Normal: Gardening for the Future in Rural Australia

Just outside my bedroom window grows a towering rhododendron. At a guess, it reaches almost three metres tall, with sweeping limbs that open to the sky and a trunk as thick as my thigh. When we first pulled up in the dirt driveway of the garden last year, the ancient shrub caught my eye straight away. Through the undergrowth of suckering elms and overgrown English ivy, I made out a confetti of fat flower buds covering its branches. For weeks, I waited longingly for the blooms to open, expecting each morning to awaken to an explosion of fiery pink. But gradually my eagerness waned – the buds began to shrivel and blacken, and the long green leaves curled and scorched. All through the garden and the landscape surrounding, greenery gave way to the colour of dirt.

I’ve spent plenty of time with my head in the garden over the years. Jotting long lists of plant species, scents and colour palettes into the back of old journals, I’d dream of the rural plot that I might one day cultivate as my own. I attribute much of this longing to a childhood growing up against the backdrop of the Australian countryside, where a yearning for open spaces, boundless skies and the changing colours of the landscape was woven within my person. In the years that I spent studying in the city, the scribbled garden plans were my secret tether to the world from which I ventured, and where parts of my heart continued to remain.

Though I feel naïve to admit this now, the harshness of life on the land only enhanced the romantic notions of my gardening future”

How inspired my creativity would be in the face of isolation from urban life, I thought; how self-sufficient I would learn to become with limited access to resources; how much happier I’d be living slowly and simply amongst the natural world, a regular old Emerson or Thoreau. Crawling through the chaos of tree limbs and mosquito colonies to stand at the base of the monster rhododendron that first day, I felt my years of imagining let loose.

A rational person would have approached the old garden differently. They would have been patient, allowing the place to reveal itself across the changing four seasons. But I was anything but rational as I paced the brown yard of tree skeletons and bare shrubs, my botanical books, tape measure, and pen and paper in hand. Years of abstract gardening in a concrete box had left me restless. It would take more than a morning frost and the hard earth to stop me from beginning.

Boxes of plants soon began arriving, hidden from appraising eyes in the boot of my car until it was safe to deposit them with the steadily growing group of to-be-planted-pots at the back door. Red and yellow stemmed dogwoods, daphne, witch hazel, osmanthus and Cootamundra wattle came first. Followed by spring flowering trees and shrubs to celebrate the end of the hard, dry winter – quinces, crabapples, pears and calamodins, four different kinds of philadelphus, a chocolate vine and three William Shakespeare roses. Friends gave me cuttings which I hand watered religiously each day – hydrangeas, roses, winter sweet, deutzias and crepe myrtles – and I waited eagerly for the warmth of spring to arrive when I could plant them out into the garden beds.

It was around this time that the rhododendron began to shrivel in on itself, the canary in the coal mine, hindsight tells me. I vowed to keep a close eye on the browning shrub, but instead pushed it to the back of my mind, unprepared to dwell on what its sickness may be foreshadowing.

Though there was a definite dryness in the air, a spate of short spring rains had fallen over the garden in the past month, creating a false promise of a good season to come. Climbing sweet peas, penstemons and achillea were each added to the garden border, as well as a lemon, three apples and a vegie patch before I realised the last few storm clouds had passed over our heads without a drop of rain to be seen. Instead, a scorching summer heat and ripping winds arrived, blowing relentlessly for ten days straight, scouring many of the trees of their leaves and blackening their stems at the tips. One by one, the newly planted shrubs began to wither – no amount of hand watering able to prevent their bodies curling into crusty brown lumps. The tray of cuttings that I had so lovingly tended became a mess of dead sticks in dirt. In all of my excitement to create the garden I so longed for, I’d become blind to the extremities of drought and heat, and now everything was suffering.

I feel a mixture of shame and fear at the easy willingness with which I relentlessly added to the garden last year. I was like a kid in a candy store, only recognising they’re full after the vomit is on the floor.  Though I’ve been assured by many gardeners that this phase of over-enthusiastic planting without thought or consequence is a part of the process of beginning, I’m still shaken by my lack of preparation or consideration for the increasingly extreme climatic conditions.

The Bureau of Meteorology recorded 2018 as the third warmest year in Australia since European settlement and the implementation of systematic weather recording in the 19th Century. South Australia, Victoria and parts of NSW recorded their hottest December on record with consecutive days above 40 degrees, temperatures that continued into 2019 to chart a record-breaking hottest January ever. Tropical cyclones hit Northern Queensland, devastating homes, livelihoods and animal life, mass fish deaths occurred along the Murray River and extreme bushfires continue to blaze across Australia.

On paper, it’s devastating. In reality, even more so. But what is most heartbreaking to me isn’t the record-breaking temperatures or rainfall statistics, but the fear in the eyes of many who have lived on the land for decades, never before knowing a time when the paddocks were so depleted, the creeks empty or the rivers dry.

Looking around the garden now and into the barren paddocks it’s hard not to feel a sense of disappointment and pain. Yesterday I discovered the line of pear trees I planted last winter, once glossy leaved and lush, now snapped in half by a hungry bull. It would almost be laughable if it didn’t make me want to crawl into a ball and cry first.

At times like this I wonder whether it’s a ridiculous notion to dream of having a rural garden in a drought – surely, it’s greedy to romanticise about a green oasis if I can’t even keep my rosemary hedge alive.”

But of course, being a gardener is rarely a choice, and often a call. And though there are challenges in any garden and every setting, the reasons why we garden, why we must garden, and why we must continue to garden, are often more potent than the problems we encounter along the way. The garden is a direct connection to hope, rebirth and regeneration.

As well as being a place of nurture for its human and non-human residents, a garden is a sanctuary deeply intertwined with mental wellbeing – I’ve heard many farmers over the years comment on the importance of a garden at home to relieve them from a day outside in the tired landscape during a drought.

Visiting Carolyn Robinson's garden, Eagles Bluff, in July, 2017.

New England based garden designer, Carolyn Robinson, is a pioneer of drought tolerant plantings and creating rural gardens with an eye to the future. Many of the landscapes she has created, such as Carolyn’s home garden Eagles Bluff, blend a mixture of natives and hardy exotic plant species to create spaces that are not only extremely relevant to the harsh climate of rural Australia, but also speak to ideas of beauty, mystery and meaning. I first visited Eagles Bluff in the winter of 2017, and though the garden made a strong impression on me at the time, my respect for the place and Carolyn’s clever drought and frost tolerant planting choices has grown dramatically, since beginning a garden of my own. “There aren’t many plants that will go through a drought like this without a drink,” she tells me as we discuss the state of Eagles Bluff, which remains in drought after two years. “At the moment, the garden is largely intact… But I can’t help wondering how much longer for. Sooner or later the plants are going to reach a threshold beyond which they can’t survive any longer.”

As we discuss the failures of my own garden, Carolyn advises where my practices went wrong, and how to move forward in establishing a garden suitable for my climate. Proper preparation is the key, she explains, a process that includes removing weeds, ripping the earth and incorporating at least 100mm of organic matter into the soil to create better water retention and a bed for the roots to grow. For every one percent increase in organic matter in the soil, Carolyn suggests, the soil’s water holding capacity will increase by around 18 percent.

Many of the trees at Eagles Bluff which are surviving best in the current conditions are what Carolyn refers to as “water extraction bullies”, such as eucalypts and Chinese elms – trees that are so successful at pulling water from the ground that many of the shrubs beneath have struggled in the dry. “It’s not easy when you’re planting next to those particular kind of plants, and in drought, that’s when it really shows up. The plants nearest them are having a hard time.”

“There are lots of plants, like grasses, Mediterranean shrubs like lavenders and cistus, herbaceous perennials like Russian sage and sedums that handle the dry incredibly well as long as they are not anywhere near trees… The key is grouping these plants together, being really careful where you put your trees and choosing wisely what you plant under them.”

Carolyn also stresses the need for access to water in a rural setting, a hand-held hose in times of prolonged dry, and a greater understanding that using water properly in the garden isn’t wasteful, but a part of the greater hydrological cycle, with ground water that is absorbed by plants and the atmosphere recurring again through precipitation. “We only waste water if what we use it for can’t be used for something else – like if I tried to have a green oasis of lawn. But ensuring the survivability of our plants, to my mind that’s not wasting it.”

Keeping the garden going is not only about our human aesthetic appreciation, it’s also about the other living things that we are giving a home and sustenance to in times like this.”

Carolyn lists the vast number of animal species taking refuge in her garden at the moment –birds, goannas, bees and a sleeping swamp wallaby that she’s just been observing outside.  “I don’t know where they’d be otherwise – there’s nothing for them out in the bush at the moment.”

Carolyn is the kind of gardener who is constantly re-evaluating how best to garden for the climate, already planning the changes she will make to Eagles Bluff to ensure the impact of the next drought is lesser. “I am going to lose some things in this drought, there’s no doubt. But in my mind, I’m working out how I can improve things and how I can change the garden to make it better for next time this happens. Because next time is inevitable.”

Visiting Carolyn Robinson's garden, Eagles Bluff, in July, 2017.

As I come to the end of the first year in my garden, I recognise the learning that has taken place over the last twelve months. Intermingled with my disappointment is a far greater understanding of the complexities of the garden, and the changing face of the landscape that I continue to give my heart to. I find my attention increasingly directed towards creating a garden that is able to withstand the scorching temperatures and prolonged periods of dry weather, but just as importantly, a place of beauty and intrigue across the  seasons.

Whilst I understand that establishing drought tolerant gardens in rural areas means a redefinition of perceptions of beauty – letting go of visions of green lawns and perfectly clipped hedges and instead embracing instead a palette of natives and tough exotics – I also respect the deeply emotional connections that hold us places of greenery.

“Realistically, (changing the way we see beauty in our landscape) is probably the way to go, but emotionally you are asking a lot and that’s the trouble. Redefining our emotional connections is easier said than done”, says Carolyn. “You can, on an intellectual level say this is what we ought to do, but we also have to live in these really harsh conditions. How can we do that and sustain a level of wellbeing?”

In my own garden, I am contemplating what the future may look like. Will there be a place here for the century-old shrubs and trees that have grown mostly untouched over the years? Like my beloved rhododendron, who in the past few weeks has begun to shoot new leaves from the base of its trunk? I take heart from the multitude of people searching for answers about the future of Australian gardens in our changing climates, such as the researchers from the University of Western Sydney and Macquarie University working on Which Plant Where, a five-year experiment subjecting a selection of hardy plants to simulated conditions of extreme drought and heat events to determine which species will survive future extreme conditions in urban areas. Also, the work being completed at the University of Melbourne to extend rainfall records of this country 400-800 years pre-settlement by utilising tree rings, ice cores, corals and sediments records from around Australia and the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

But most of all, I continue to look towards rural gardeners everywhere who battle extreme conditions every day to keep their own little plots of beauty alive, waking before dawn to garden before the heat sets in, carting water from bathtubs and kitchen sinks, fighting off bushfires that lick at the back doorstep – doing whatever it takes to survive, and cultivate beauty, in all conditions.