I can mention two Australian authors who seem to grasp this concept best: Peter Andrews, and Jackie French. I could go on (and on and on...) about these two people, because they seem to get what many of us miss - you cannot garden successfully, if you don't know how the Australian landscape works.
Both Peter and Jackie have their experiences embedded in the bush, and guess what most of Australia comprises of? Yep, the bush! And guess where I live? We are surrounded by bushland and at first it seemed very inhospitable, but what I was to learn is most of that magic to do with the Australian landscape, is happening underground.
We think of the earth as solid, and quite rightly, it is; but there's also a lot of activity going on down there. Earthworms are aerating the soil, and weeing too! If you've ever marvelled at a worm farm, feeding it scraps and getting magic worm castings and wee at the end: then you're starting to get it on a small scale. But right underneath your feet, are millions of worms, and the one thing that will kill them is exposure to sunlight.
Digging with purpose
Yet what do most gardeners do when they're growing plants? We dig! And I'm an expert at digging, we've done so much earth moving by hand here - only most of it has moved clay layers. This is where the earthworms don't live. They prefer topsoil layers instead (the first 40 centimetres or so) and because of this, it makes them very vulnerable to enthusiastic gardeners.
Do we never dig? Well of course we dig, but the less we dig top soil layers, the better. Because topsoil accommodates moisture producers: worms and their wee! This wee also feeds micro-bacteria active in the soil, and as the bacteria goes through it's own natural life cycle, it adds humus and moisture to the soil too. Sunlight is the natural killer of micro bacteria, so do as little digging as possible.
Fungi on the surface indicates micro-bacteria underneath!
Therefore, the less we mess with the topsoil layer, the better it is at producing lifeforms which produce moisture: without copious amounts of rainwater to do it. But where does water fit into the picture - if at all?
Both Jackie French and Peter Andrews believe "plants" are the answer to how our landscape uses rainfall wisely. Jackie surmises the more layers of plants there are above the surface, the more leafs there are to catch very small amounts of moisture (less than rain). With the aid of gravity, these millions of leafs collect the moisture and drip them to the ground underneath.
Perhaps this is best explained by collecting rainwater from roofs. The more roof there is for rain to fall on, the more rain is captured in the tank. This is how nature best utilises minimal rainfall too - it plants a bigger roof. Or at least it does if we stop cutting plants down. Peter Andrews also views plants as having an important relationship to how Australian Landscapes move water.
Our house back in 2008
lots of roof area but need another tank!
His is a more technical explanation which is why I would recommend reading his two books (Back from the Brink, and Beyond the Brink) for further definition. If I may give a crude summary myself, plants defy gravity and act like nature's pumps. The further their roots go down below the surface, the more access to moisture they have.
Anyone who has ever constructed a "wicking bed" would know exactly what Peter is referring too. Plants wick up water from below the surface, without unearthing worms and micro-bacteria to do it.
What does this have to do with gardens around the world? When news of a drought in the US comes to mind, I start to wonder if these are the stages of change, which fashions it into a landscape similar to Australia's? As Peter Andrews surmises, Australia had a thriving eco-system, until man brought fire and farming to the delicate balance.
It may take another 200 years, but will more and more gardens around the world, begin to look like Australia's natural climate of drought? By drought, I guess I'm saying a reduced level of rainfall - because when you look at what happens underneath the soil (when it's protected) there's a heck of a lot of moisture available.
I want to show you something my garden unearthed yesterday. I was putting some trees in the ground (did I mention I love planting trees!) and found a little bit of magic happening, where I least expected it. First I want to show you where I found it...
North facing, front slope
This is the very front of our property. We don't mow during winter because the seeds feed the birds, plus it saves us money if we only pay for fuel when mowing during the growing season (mostly summer). It's also kind of risky getting on the slope (yes, there's a slope under all that grass) with morning dew and the possibility of slipping.
Yet because we don't mow, we get to see what the grass does for the landscape. Looks kind of dry at first glance, doesn't it? But as I was planting a tree, I had to push some of the long grass to one side - it was then I found...
Here was moss and a delicate fern growing underneath the grass, on the slope which happens to get the most sun exposure on our property. To be more precise, this exposed dirt was a ledge with the grass growing over the top - creating a little umbrella over it. I knew there were merits to conserving moisture when you added mulch to bare earth - but who'd of thought of natural mulch (ie: uncut grass) to be a moisture preserver?
It's also a smaller version of what trees do on a much grander scale. Trees create shade to preserve moisture.
The natural landscape is a wonderful teacher. Look to what is working and duplicate it. I suppose I've been subconsciously doing this with my vegetable growing too, such as it is! I don't grow a lot of vegetables, simply because with our conditions they don't live very long. Yet, nature (and I) have been finding ways...
Weeds are natural mulch
I put this silverbeet in around May-June, so the tail end of Autumn, early winter. It's taken them ages to get this big. Why? Because it was still dry and sunny when I put them in the ground, so they were planted within the shade of a tree. Plus they had to compete with the weeds I had growing (chick weed). I wasn't going to pull them, otherwise I'd have to purchase mulch in a bale to cover the ground with.
Ultimately, with a reduced amount of sunlight, cooler temps and having to compete with weeds for nutrients, I've had to wait longer for my silverbeet to grow. The alternative however, is to put them in full sun, buy mulch and transport water to them on a regular basis. And they tend to get eaten by every pest active in the growing season, that loves the same conditions. I figure if I'm going to grow vegetables, I have to work with what I have - not what I don't.
But nature has more tricks up the sleeve when it comes to weather extremes. Think specifically of plants which grow on vines - they have the uncanny ability to be planted underneath the shade of a tree, with the added advantage of sprawling vines which can seek out the sunshine.
Fruit from the Choko vine
Choko's are one of these hardy vines. They get planted in mostly shade, but they climb to the top of one of our chicken coops. Of course, choko's can taste pretty bland all by themselves. They make excellent carriers of flavour though. I've made choko chutney, plus this pie...
Almost apple pie - with choko!
It's basically a short crust pastry we've filled with choko (treated similar to stewed apple - just add sugar and cook) plus we've added a rolled oats crumble like topping. It was delicious served with fresh cream.
Pumpkin variety: Kent or JAP (Just a Pumpkin)
ready to roast in the oven
Don't look past these two hardy plants (Rosemary and pumpkin) when it comes to a lack of water in the garden either. We've had both growing in exposed positions, copping all the heat of summer while still only living off natural rainfall. Roasted in the oven with garlic and butter, we're enjoying delicious soup during the colder months.
While I may have learned to adapt to Australia's drought like conditions, growing up, I now realise there's still so much to learn about what's happening beneath the ground, and in all those shady places I'm yet to discover.
I have more to write on this subject, and hopefully with an update on the ponds we dug last year. It's amazing how much life can be sustained on such small amounts of water.