With level two water restrictions to hit those in Sydney, Illawarra and the Blue Mountains from December 10, many are wondering how to keep their gardens going during one of NSW’s worst recorded droughts.
According to the new Sydney Water guidelines, gardens can only be watered using a watering can or bucket before 10am or after 4pm. Drip irrigation will be limited to 15 minutes.
Those with a pond or water feature can no longer use the municipal water supply to fill it, although under certain circumstances, such as if your pond sustains aquatic life, you can apply for an exemption.
With our gardens an important source of pleasure and wellbeing, how can we prepare?
1. Harvest your own water
“The first thing you want to do is whack in a tank,” says Kurrajong-based Eric Brocken, an expert, lecturer and teacher in sustainable horticulture and permaculture.
“We’re going to get longer periods of dry, plus more rain in a shorter period of time. It’s a matter of how you store, manage and spread that water out in the timeframe.”
With a sizeable tank, you can take advantage of the lack of restrictions on tank water to set up a slow-trickle irrigation system.
Another idea is to turn the backyard swimming pool into a natural pool and water reservoir, he says.
2. Use household waste water
Harvest water from the shower, hand basin, cooking, and washing up. “It all contributes,” Brocken says.
Divert grey water (from the bathroom and laundry) into the garden. A plumber can fit a simple diversion system. Due to contaminants, grey water is best used on non-food plants, Brocken says.
3. Prepare the soil
A healthy soil is more water retentive and resilient to drought, Brocken says. Compost, worm castings, natural organic matter, mulch and water will help build it.
Avoid artificial fertilisers, pesticides and other chemicals. “Artificial fertilisers cause the roots to stay very superficial,” Brocken says. “Pesticides and other chemicals kill off bacteria and fungi.”
4. Add windbreaks
Wind, combined with hot air, sucks the moisture out of plants, soil and ponds more than any other factor, Brocken says. Plant drought-tolerant windbreaks on the western side of your property. Hardy reeds and irises can help slow wind and reduce evaporation from ponds.
5. Garden smarter
“Camellias, azaleas, citrus and roses … are sensitive to drought,” he says. Any new plants, annuals and vegetable seedlings also require lots of watering.
“Let your turf brown off. It will come back. Don’t mow it, and leave the leaves on the grass.”
Also, clear weeds. They compete with other plants for moisture.
6. Reduce evaporation and utilise shade
Mulch and prune. The latter reduces transpiration (the loss of water through leaves), he says. Avoid pruning in hot conditions if the plant is wilting or has lost foliage.
“Move container plants to shaded areas,” Garner advises. Trellises and arbors can be used to build shade.
7. Water long and early
Watering less often but for longer at a time improves your plants resilience to drought by promoting deeper, more extensive root systems. Wean plants gradually to cope with less frequent watering, Garner says.
He suggests a bucket of water per plant, perhaps dribbled out slowly through a hole in the bottom, or a watering can. Plastic drink bottles placed under the plant, with a hole for water to slowly dribble out, is another option.
A splash of dishwashing liquid or clay in the water can act as a soil wetting agent, he says.
Water early in the morning before coming into the plant’s most stressful time, Garner says. “It’s like a buffer.”
8. Retrofit your home
Victoria’s David Holmgren, the co-originator of permaculture and author of Retrosuburbia: The Downshifters Guide to a Resilient Future, recommends retrofitting our homes for better water self-sufficiency.
One of the advantages of having a big house on a small block is that you can potentially collect a lot of roof water relative to the size of the garden, he says.
“Apparently, the water that flows off Melbourne hard surfaces into the sea is about equivalent to the amount of water that Melbourne uses from its massive reservoirs.”
Along with water tanks and grey water diversion systems, Holmgren suggests redirecting roof water into useful areas on your property. “It’s impractical and costly to store as much water as falls on your roof in a year,” he says.
9. Rain gardens and ponds
Runoff (from downpipes and paths) can be directed into your garden. While unsuitable for veggies and annuals – which don’t have a root system that can handle a big load – it’s a deep irrigation useful for trees, shrubs and perennials, Holmgren says.
Runoff can also be directed into backyard ponds.
10. Drought-tolerant edibles
“There’s heaps of these,” Holmgren enthuses. “Some of the classics are olives, grapevines, figs, loquat, quince and feijoa, almond and pistachio. There’s also vegetables like globe artichoke.”
Natives and Mediterranean herbs like thyme and sage also tolerate dry, poor soils.
“What people do is both helping themselves and helping build resilience to climate change,” Holmgren says.