The changing climate of waterwise gardening

The changing climate of waterwise gardening

It’s common for unexperienced gardeners to bemoan the fact that Australia doesn’t offer the most ideal climate for sustaining heavily water-dependent gardens. Often, though, this is because some Australian garden enthusiasts still find themselves deeply entrenched in European gardening traditions. It might be how their parents gardened, or it might just be the kind of aesthetic they like; either way, it’s an enduring, albeit slowly diminishing ideal.

This isn’t to say that you can’t blame people for trying, and there are indeed some great gardens of all types out there. Nevertheless, it’s with great excitement that many of us are observing the recent transformation of Australia’s gardening culture into a movement that appreciates the need for more native gardens, especially in times of drought and now, also, climate change. Not simply because they attract a range of native birds, insects and mammals, and not simply because such gardens are magnificent in their own way but – and perhaps most simply of all – it means saving water and (huzzah!) money.

One of the many benefits of waterwise gardening is attracting native birds, such as this Spiny-cheeked Honeyeater, to your garden using certain flowering plants. Image: Cathy Cavallo

Horticulturist, long-time gardening expert, and author Kevin Walsh is a big believer in waterwise gardening. His first two books, Waterwise Plants and Waterwise Gardening, focused on this idea, and his newest guide combines elements of these early publications in an up-to-date guide to having, as Kevin describes it, ‘an interesting and colourful garden while using the minimum amount of water.’ Kevin wholeheartedly believes that climate change combined with population growth is going to make water more precious; it will ‘have to go further’ as the pressure on our supplies rapidly increases. Subsequently, growing waterwise plants will likely become a much more common gardening strategy.

‘Climate change predictions are saying that we’re going to have less rainfall and part of the issue is that when it does rain, the water will come down so heavily that it will not be absorbed by the soil.’

Over the last 25 years, Kevin has seen big developments in waterwise gardening. As somebody who used to answer gardening questions for The Age and who retains a regular spot on radio speaking about his work, Kevin is well-placed to comment on where Australian gardening is headed – not just in terms of tastes and trends, but in regard to how we can be more conservative when it comes to Australia’s natural resources. This new guide, Waterwise Plants and Gardening, has Australia-wide application and doesn’t shy away from the fact that ‘we live in a dry country’ and that ‘the old English model doesn’t work.’ It’s refreshing to see a publication that hints at this, but that still embraces the idea that you can have a unique and vibrant garden using Australian plants.

Image: New Holland Publishers

Readers of the guide will notice, though, that it contains a range of both Australian native plants and non-native plants, which are also waterwise. Although it’s vital that more gardeners begin to see the value in planting native or, even better, indigenous plants, Kevin explains that ‘the idea with having native and non-native plants in the book is to illustrate the wide selection of plants that are available that don’t need much water.’ A lot of the non-natives included in the book come from similar climates, hence their ability to be ‘waterwise’.  A good example of a waterwise non-native, he says, is ‘the Red Hot Poker from South Africa… which has a high nectar content and is particularly favoured by native honeyeaters, like the New Holland Honeyeater.’

So there are a huge array of non-natives and natives to choose from. However, one significant point Kevin makes is that, as many botanists will know, a native plant can be waterwise in, say, one state, and a weed in another. Readers need to stop and think about what suits them and their particular situation; taking any plant from the book and sticking it in your garden isn’t going to work unless you plan for it. Kevin advises ‘checking with local field naturalists that the plants aren’t going to escape into the bush’ in your particular area and become a troublesome weed. This has undeniably been a problem since Europeans arrived on Australia’s shores and began planting exotic specimens. Nevertheless, even if you’re planting native it’s important to remember that a native plant is not necessarily one that is indigenous to your local region.

‘Don’t give up on the garden if we have a drought or the climate gets drier… It doesn’t mean you just stop gardening. You just change the types of plants that you grow.’

As well as being a photographic guide to around 400 waterwise plants, Kevin’s book also includes detailed information on the value of composting – especially because the end product improves the soil’s ability to hold water – and why reducing large areas of lawn in your garden can significantly decrease your water usage. Another idea that may seem obvious but, I would hazard, is not commonly utilised, is grouping plants according to their water needs. Think about where you want to grow your veggie patch, and where you want to plant things like herbs, some of which don’t necessarily require a lot of watering. Kevin advises ‘not to put all your herbs together. The ones that need lots of water you might put in pots or in the vegetable garden… but a lot of other herbs, like Rosemary, you could put in a garden bed with Australian native pants and you might only water it once a month.’ This way, you don’t waste precious water on, say, one area of the garden where only one plant actually needs regular watering. Group them according to water need, which will save time and money when you only have to water a select few sections of your garden every week.

Rosmarinus officinalis, or Rosemary, requires little water and is best planted amongst species with similar water needs. Image: New Holland Publishers

For some, planning out a garden like this or simply gardening at all might seem like a daunting task. But the benefits are manifold. For Kevin and other garden enthusiasts, ‘it’s an escape from the incredibly busy and switched-on world that we’ve got.’ Like getting out into your local green space or national park, gardening – whether in your own backyard, in pots and planters, or in your local community garden – can increase time spent connecting with nature.

‘We’re always connected to devices… Everyone’s incredibly busy and connected, but the chance to actually go out into the garden is a chance to relax and get away from the busyness of life. It’s great to get out to a space, to recalibrate, to reconnect with plants and see the changes that happen in nature. To see what’s flowering, what insects are in the garden, what birds are visiting.’

Kevin’s books have definitely stood the test of time, and with the publication of Waterwise Plants and Gardening comes another era of introducing waterwise gardening to readers, both those who are already planting hardier plants and those who want to start. With overpopulation and the subsequent housing expansion resulting in smaller gardens and, in some areas, less public green space, Kevin’s book reveals not only the importance of gardening generally but the possibilities that exist for gardeners in all different contexts. While Kevin laments that ‘public open space and nature are going to become more and more valuable because there’s more pressure on them’, it’s also true that to garden is not necessarily to have a large green space at one’s disposal. Renters, apartment dwellers, and those of us with smaller-than-desired backyards can take comfort in the fact that there is hope; we can revel in the idea of planting natives and waterwise species, if we just take a moment to see where the opportunities lie. Whether a potted grevillea on your apartment balcony or a mature indigenous garden plot in your suburban backyard, the possibilities are endless.

Waterwise Plants and Gardening, New Holland Publishers RRP $35.00 – available from all good
bookstores or online

Banner image of Blue Devil (Eryngium ovinum) courtesy of New Holland Publishers.

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