Saturday, July 21, 2012

Gardens around the world

Since my birth in the 70's I've come to know Australia as one of the driest continents on the planet - rain wise. But we aren't without a system that has learned to utilise such little reserves. Nature has found a way to conserve water, and it's actually very good at it.

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 marveled 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 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...

 Hidden treasure

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.


  1. Amazing indeed.
    In parts of the U.S. We already have similar problems due to drought. It seems natural in those areas. It's more frightening when drought comes to historically wetter areas such as where I live now. In many ways, the issues are also about groundwater as much as it is about rainfall. Groundwater and drought has a great deal to do with snowfall, not just rain. Judging from last years snow levels we are in a great deal of trouble.
    Thanks for this and your next post. I bet you can't wait to get the Peter Andrews books back now:) Very soon.

  2. I am looking forward to the books returning, but I can also borrow them from the public library if I'm desperate, lol. ;)

    It's absolutely true what you say about groundwater. It did sound like you got less snow last winter, but wasn't there also threats of flood when it thawed? I'm curious to know when you get a lot of snow, will floods during thawing become more intense - or was there a particular issue to do with the floods last winter that was different to most thaw periods?

  3. The year before last, there was a great deal of snow up north of here and then spring brought alot of rain. The problem was that the Mississippi River was at capacity due to rain and local snow melt too, when the snow up north began to melt into it.
    Thats where you probably saw the thousands of acres of cornfields destroyed on the news. This last winter, there was comparatively less snow and less rain- even up North. The same area that flooded is all dry this year. However torrential rains have flooded parts of a neighboring state.
    Thaw is ordinarily a gradual process so if the Northern hemisphere is a few degrees too warm....its going to wreck havoc if there is enough water to worry about it.

    Short answer:)

  4. Thanks for explaining, I didn't know the Mississippi was already full due to rains. I thought the flooding was from thawing snows, but it was just the straw which broke the camels back.

    It brings to mind how different our continents are. Your land is shaped almost exclusively by a river system, which changes with thaws. In Australia we don't have a lot of river systems, but certainly a lot of flood plains to handle most of the creeks when the few river systems there are, floods.

    It seems important then, we turn the heating cycle of the planet down.

  5. I didn't realize how differant our geography is at first either. I know Australia to be " dry" but that usually means rain and groundwater in my mind. It's obviously much more complicated than that as I am learning but by comparison, its very nearly apples and oranges. Our rivers ate just a beginning....we also have an abundance of lakes.

    Right at this moment, I was awoken by another storm- good for perhaps another inch of rain. Every drop counts!

  6. It's always what you're exposed to that you know, but when you read about how it goes elsewhere, you realise how two very different systems can work how they were designed to.

    According to Peter Andrews research, our flood plains used to be our "lakes". They weren't very deep, you could walk through them, but they were saturated with reeds so the water didn't travel. When the first settlers arrived however, they slowly started to remove the flood plains. The imported livestock hooves, unlike the native marcupials, trampled reeds eating them and then farmers drained what was left of the floodplains to grow crops.

    This would be like draining your lakes into the sea to get more land to grow crops. One of the remarks Andrews found in all the documents he uncovered from the first settlers expedition notes - is how like a lake choked with vegetation the water appeared to be. It seemed to be like a lake, but was unlike anything they had ever seen, so describing it didn't come easily.

    Much like how they tried to describe the native platypus at first - a creature with a ducks bill, four webbed feet and fur??? We take for granted what a platypus is today, but can you imagine trying to explain it to the court back home in England, LOL?


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