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Coping with the Drought

Leigh Murray

This article describes the effects of the ongoing drought on our rocky, hilly land in Queanbeyan and our holiday place at Tuross Head, New South Wales. At Queanbeyan, the poor shaley soil retains little moisture. At Tuross, the slope is less and the granite soil much better, but there are other difficulties: frequent strong winds to suck out moisture, and large Norfolk Island Pines which have the water rights. When there are no water restrictions, we use drip irrigation, topped up with hand watering of new plants until they're established.

Water restrictions

How much water do we use in the garden?
"In the average Australian home, about 34% of all water is used outdoors, 4% is used in the kitchen, 16% in the laundry, 20% in the toilet and 26% in the bathroom. The average total household water use is about 300 kilolitres (kL) per year and there are about 5,000,000 urban homes connected to mains water around Australia. Therefore, about 100 kL a year per home, or about 500 gigalitres (GL) Australia-wide (assuming all homes have a garden), are used to water urban gardens. That does not include gardens irrigated with private water supplies."

Wendy van Dok; Water Conservation in the Garden - Greywater in our June 2001 issue

At Queanbeyan, the water restrictions (Level 1) didn't cause many difficulties. We don't use sprinklers, and hand watering was unrestricted (although I tried as much as possible to minimise water use).

It was a different story at Tuross. Fortunately, I'd not been doing a lot of planting because in late October 2002, strict water restrictions were suddenly brought in.

On Level 3 restrictions, drip irrigation was banned and for the next few months following their introduction each household was allowed just half an hour of hand-hosing every second day (odds and evens system). Because it's a holiday house, this meant the garden got 30 minutes two or three times a week. I had to choose which areas to concentrate on and which to leave largely to their own devices. I maximised watering by taking the nozzle off the hose and putting it on at full pressure. I found that I could hold the hose close to a plant and give it a quick dose. I zipped from one plant to the next, at top speed.

In early February 2003, however, the water restrictions got even tougher. On Level 4, it was buckets only. It was a huge relief when the rains came at the end of February. Soon after, restrictions were eased to Level 2.


Two things helped me water more effectively: watering pots and crescent beds.

Lately I've been planting a watering pot (a tubestock pot) near each new plant to direct water down to the roots. And I build crescent beds - an arc of soil to create a well around each plant - to slow down the water which otherwise runs off down the slope. (In our few flat areas, I use a ring of soil instead.) Both the watering pots and the crescent beds helped our plants survive the drought by making it so much easier to apply water effectively (especially in the frantic 30-minute hosing sessions at Tuross).

Also, I pruned off new growth on most of the Tuross plants and many of the Queanbeyan ones, to reduce their water need. Our gardens are mulched heavily, either with hardwood chips or gravel.

Additional help was provided well before the drought by the temporary use of a watering computer to help us establish the Tuross garden. This was a computerised tap timer, set to run every few days in the early days of our garden, so that the garden could be watered by drip irrigation when we weren't there. With strong winds tending to desiccate young plants, the use of this device led to bigger, more established and drought-resistant plants by the time the drought took hold. We used it only for the first year, mainly because these devices have a major design problem: when they fail, they fail ON. We arrived one weekend to find the water had been on for 2 days! We didn't replace the device - by that time some of the shrubs had grown enough to provide limited wind protection for newer plants.

Grey Water

At Tuross, I watered some areas solely with grey water. Because we lead a largely chemical-free existence, our grey water is not much polluted - just a little plain soap or bicarb. I carted about 60 part-buckets every weekend, recycling all water from baths and basins, most of the kitchen water, and all output from dehumidifiers and the reverse osmosis water filter. We had a bucket or plastic basin in every sink, and a collection of buckets for distributing the bathwater.

The Water Wise Garden
There are a number of things you can do to reduce the water dependency of plants. These include:
  • Improve your soil to improve water holding ability
  • Group your plants according to water needs
  • Adopt good planting procedures to help establish plants
  • Train plants to be less demanding of artificial watering
  • Mulch, mulch and more mulch!
For further details see Establishing Australian Plants the Water Wise Way in our March 2003 issue.

Plants watered only with grey water for six months included young eucalypts (Eucalyptus sideroxylon, E.leptophylla), Melaleuca thymifolia, Lomandra longifolia, Dianella revoluta and Acacia covenyi. Many others (including Banksia, Hakea and Correa sp.) existed mainly on grey water, with the occasional hosing as a top up and rinse.

Drought Effects

At Tuross, some tiny plants didn't make it. And a few larger plants died - Solanum aviculare, S.linearifolium and a non-indigenous form of Kennedia rubicunda (all planted directly under a large Norfolk Island Pine) and two Grevillea 'Austraflora Copper Crest'. Several indigenous K.rubicunda were fine. A Banksia ericifolia and an Angophora hispida struggled but survived. The tough cookies there included Rhagodia spinescens, Allocasuarina verticillata, Eucalyptus tetraptera, E.lehmannii, E.lansdowneana, Templetonia retusa, Dianella revoluta, Banksia marginata, Acacia implexa and Grevillea arenaria; these plants received hardly any of the limited water available for the garden, and they 'didn't blink'.

Of the indigenous plants at Queanbeyan, the trees and shrubs suffered little effect (Eucalyptus goniocalyx, E.polyanthemos, E.melliodora, E.rossil, E.bridgesiana, Acacia rubida, A.implexa), ditto the Dianella, Lomandra and Bursaria spinosa, but we lost a few Astroloma and Epacris.

Our losses of non-indigenous plants were mainly confined to elderly plants (several Grevillea rosmarinifolia and Acacia pravissima, plus a Banksia robur and a Hakea salicifolia}. We had one big loss: an adored 15m Eucalyptus viminalis (three others survived).

Drought Recovery

Most plants have made a good recovery. When the drought eased and I had more time, I used deep-watering granules to aid recovery. The problem with these granules is that they can be harmful to frogs so they must be watered in very thoroughly (which takes time and water). Many of our plants picked up after repeated small doses of granules, using much less than recommended, with no noticeable reduction in frog numbers. The frogs were largely silent during the drought but they're in splendid voice once again.

Recovering plants didn't just grow new foliage - many also burst into bloom. Few plants flowered at either place during the drought, although at Tuross Grevillea arenaria, G.'Honey Gem' and Eucalyptus nutans flowered continuously as usual (all three are popular with birds). When the drought broke there, plants flowered out of season. Normally summer-flowering, Anigozanthos flavidus and Melaleuca lateritia were in flower during May and June, whereas the drought-shocked Eucalyptus leucoxylon, which usually flowers prolifically from April until October, managed only a few flowers; it's concentrated on leafing up again. Callistemons were flowering in June in both places.

Not only the plants and wildlife suffered during the drought- I found the going pretty tough too. At Tuross, ladling water out of bathtubs and carting grey water around the garden was a tiring exercise, every day we were there. At Queanbeyan, it was a struggle to keep far-flung plants alive with mainly hand-hosing. But we're all recovering now...

From the newsletter of the Australian Native Plants Society (Canberra), September 2003.


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Australian Plants online - December 2003
Association of Societies for Growing Australian Plants