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I love a sunburnt country…but wish it would rain!

Heather Miles

Heather Miles

February 15, 2018


My predominantly native Hunter Valley garden is feeling the pressure of no rain. While it looks quite beautiful in the misty morning, the mist hasn’t translated into rain.

Misty morning


And it looks spectacular in a lightning storm, but alas, still no rain!

Lightning storm


In the last 12 months, we’ve had less than 80% of the 10 year average and virtually no rain since the end of October. Combined with a long run of very hot days (over 40 degrees) and the garden and landscape are browning off big time. It’s not all that pleasant walking on crunchy grass!

My rural garden generally survives on just rainfall, with very occasional watering, but given the water tanks are so low, hand watering is not an option. All this means that while some plants in the garden are thriving, other areas are looking very ratty indeed with a few of the long-established trees and plants going to the big mulch pit in the sky.

Garden from the verandah


Microclimates of course are a critical element of what survives and doesn’t. In my predominantly clay soil on the top of a hill, those areas with a touch of moisture are in reasonable shape, but in other areas with full sun and no water flow, the ‘soil’, if we can call it that, has gone rock hard.

So what’s going well and what’s not?

The callistemon don’t realise there’s a water shortage. Callistemon ‘Little John’ is looking fabulous and putting out a flush of brilliant red colour and dense grey-green foliage. Ditto with Callistemon citrinus ‘Endeavour’, with its vibrant red flowers and vigorous growth. A hedge of these in flower look wonderful brightening up the otherwise grey-green (and brown!) look of the garden.

Callistemon ‘Little John’, cute little callistemon, with grey-green foliage


Callistemon citrinus ‘Endeavour’, stunning red flowers and perfect shrub for a hedge


The Leptospermum are thriving and a newly established (2 years) grove of Leptospermum horizontalis with its tough, lime green foliage is looking lovely against the very robust Westringia ‘Smokey’. These plants seem to thrive in both soggy clay when it rains and rock-hard clay when it’s dry like now.

Leptospermum horizontalis, a tough groundcover perfect for clay soil


The kangaroo paws (Anigozanthos) with their dried-out flower heads are looking quite architectural, and I’ve left them unpruned longer than I normally would to get the New Wave look of Piet Ouldorf (or have I just been too lazy?). I was also hoping that the moisture in the flower stalks could be re-absorbed. We’ll see if that works.

Anigozanthos – these are the new mauve variety from Angus Stewart


Some of the grasses like Austrostipa and Themeda add to the meadow-like look. There’s nothing more calming than watching grasses (even browned off ones) blowing in the wind. And of course that means food for the wallabies!

Themeda, Kangaroo Grass


Dried off grasses beneath the spotted gums


Wallabies enjoying the grass seeds


My red cedars (Toona ciliata) and the snow gums (Eucalyptus paucifolia) along the driveway are happy enough and have put on good growth, benefiting from run off from the driveway. The Lomandra hystrix are plump with seeds. This makes for a nice shady grove on those hot, hot days.

Red cedars and snow gums benefiting from driveway run-off


The Queensland bottle tree (Brachychiton rupestris) underplanted with Scaevola, lollypop Elaeocarpus reticulatus (pink form), westringia and kangaroo paws are all doing well, benefiting from an underground stream and some ag pipes that run below the house.

Bottletrees, blueberry ash, westringia and kangaroo paws all thriving


Underplanting of pink Scaevola helps with water retention


The very pretty Thomasia are just finishing off, although their lovely grey soft felty foliage continues to stun. And the NSW Christmas bush (Ceratopetalum gummiferum) has done well this year, flowering for a longish season, despite the lack of rain.

Pretty Thomasia with soft felty leaves makes a lovely small shrub


Vibrant Christmas colour with Ceratopetalum gummiferum, NSW Christmas bush


The grevilleas say ‘bring it on’ and are flowering profusely as well as putting on dense foliage growth. The bees and ants are having a lovely feast, as are the little birds flittering about the garden. I’ve kept their water bowls full.

The grafted Grevillea ‘Shaggy’ has profuse flowering with lovely grey foliage


Bees delighting in Grevillea magnifica ‘Pink Pokers’


The Corymbia ficifolia (grafted) has put on a superb display of stunning red flowers and is another source of pollen for the bees as well as brightening up the garden.

Corymbia ficifolia in full flower


So lots of the garden and plants are thriving, even though the middle of summer is not the most bountiful time of year in the garden. I am constantly amazed by the resilience of our unique Australian flora.

But what about those plants that are not so happy?

Sadly, I’ve lost a number of banksias (who’d have thought?). One is a 10 year old coast banksia Banksia integrifolia which in the last week just turned up its toes. I guess it was just too out of its comfort zone, coming from, well…the coast.

Banksia integrifolia


And two Banksia plagiocarpa, the mauve flowered Hinchinbrook banksia, have also carked it. There’s one remaining which I have given some token watering to see if I could save it.

One of three Hinchinbrook or blue banksia (Banksia plagiocarpa) on its way out


The Prostanthera are seriously challenged, curling up their leaves and looking very withered. I suspect I will lose them all, unless we get rain in the next week or so. Perhaps they were close to end-of-life anyway, being about 7 years old. They were becoming a bit leggy and were due for a bit of a prune. I think it will be a chain saw, rather than a pruning job.

Shrivelled up Prostanthera


The 40+ degree days have burnt the foliage of the Acacia cognata ‘Limelight’, although it may recover. From past experience, the burnt sections die off and are replaced over time with new growth, water and temperature permitting.

Browned off Acacia cognata ‘Limewave’


But I’m not so hopeful for the Hakea ‘Burrendong Beauty’, which only has green growth at the very end tips of its branches. Such a pity, as this is a stunner with its beautiful red/scarlet flowers all down its stalks.

Hakea ‘Burrendong Beauty’ looking pretty sick


The Lomandra longifolia is asking to be completely chopped down, but I will leave it until it can recover a bit post rain. I’ve never done much pruning of the Lomandra but understand I should cut to the ground say every 3 to 4 years and let it regenerate from there. The pruning shears do struggle with this job though. It’s a tough grass!

Lomandra longifolia needs to be pruned to the ground


Most of the lilly pillies are fine, but one has very burnt and desiccated leaves. I can only put this down to either heat stroke or different levels of water access. It’s quite unusual to have two similar plants not 3 metres from each other and one is green and lush and the other is dried out.

Lilly pilly with dessicated leaves


The fruit trees, which normally are well watered by irrigation, are quite pathetic. We won’t be getting much fruit this season. The lemons and oranges have curled up leaves and the fruit is either dropping off or shrivelling up. A pity about the lemon which I’d done a good prune on back in spring and which was promising a great crop. All its leaves and half the fruit dropped in the last week. Clearly a water stress issue and signalling a big cleanup to come.

Lemon dropping all its leaves and fruit


The pear tree, which had a promising crop of pears, is turning yellow – the leaves that is, not the fruit! The apples look like they will drop off soon and probably won’t grow much bigger than they are now. The good news is that the parrots are having a feast as we haven’t bothered to net this year.

Pear tree leaves yellowed off


Small apple crop this year


King parrot having a feed of apples

So all in all, a very tough time in the garden. I know it is character-building, but as I watch some favourite plants die off, it does make me sad.

Still, I guess those holes in the garden are new opportunities! And it’s good to celebrate those plants that are thriving. Thank goodness for the beauty and resilience of our Australian natives!

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6 years ago

It’s heartbreaking to lose plants, either those that you have lovingly nurtured or those that have survived single handedly by rainfall. Hope the skies open soon and your garden becomes green and lush again.

Heather Miles
Heather Miles
6 years ago

Thanks Judy. Yes, since I wrote this, we had good rain, and so some healthy recovery, amongst the chainsawing! I’ve been refilling holes in the garden beds, increasing the quotient of indigenous plants, redesigning plant selection for more variable rain and also considering how to use solar to pump water from the dam to the garden sustainably. Lots of food for thought. Best regards

Jeff howes
Jeff howes
6 years ago

A great article and pictures, thanks.
It has been very dry and hot in Sydney as well and has taught me two lessons.
1. Hand watering should only be undertaken on plants you really need to keep as watering is not as effective as a good drop of rain.
2. Plants are a lot tougher than I thought and many survive conditions drier than I thought they would. Those that die present opportunities for new plants.

Rowena McMahon
Rowena McMahon
6 years ago

Hi Heather, I enjoyed reading about your property and how the plants are responding to drought. Great pictures too. It is so good to add to the information we have about species and their tolerances.
Bottlebrushes are such tough plants, no wonder they are used for street planting. I have noticed many dead Banksia trees around Manly this summer. Even being close to the coast has not saved them.
Glad to hear you have had rain. Have fun replanting.

Deryn Thorpe
6 years ago

Hi Heather
really enjoyed reading about your garden. I’m in the West so we know about dry and it is a struggle when you know everything needs a drink but you have to rely on rain!
kind regards


Heather Miles
Heather Miles
6 years ago

Hi Jeff, thanks for the comments. Yes, I’ve been putting in new plants and putting in species I haven’t tried before. Good to keep experimenting. Cheers Heather

Heather Miles
Heather Miles
6 years ago

Hi Rowena, thanks so much for your comments. Yes, I’ve noticed that about the banksias further up the coast as well. Must be quite shallow rooted perhaps?
I frequently reflect on your wonderful classes and how much knowledge I gained. Thank you.

Heather Miles
Heather Miles
6 years ago

Hi Deryn, yes, you are so right. Being out west though, you’ll have a much greater problem than me! I hope your garden is surviving. Kind regards

Stuart Read
Stuart Read
5 years ago

Thanks from me too, Heather – a most-useful article and great observations and philosophical attitude – all us Australians need to focus on and learn more about drought-(and intermittent heavy rain/flood-) tolerant plants – lawns included – rather than continually planting water-dependent species and lamenting their inevitable demise. Climate change and increasing variability, either way, seem to be our lot and acquiescence is such an important part of gardening – as you say, seeing deaths/gaps as opportunities – they certainly are. I’ve seen Banksia integrifolia ssp.montana up mountains around Dorrigo, so it ‘shares’ both coastal and montane habitats – but is shallow-rooted, and touchy. I think WA red-flowering gums ought now to be Corymbia ficifolia (having called them Eucalyptus…my whole life!), though perhaps those querulous botanists will abandon Corymbia, yet?

Heather Miles
Heather Miles
5 years ago

Hi Stuart, thanks so much for your comments. And for the pickup on the Corymbia ficifolia – my mistake!!
Well I’m starting to fill in the gaps in the garden, after we had some good rain – that is, after the chainsaw finished its work. I left a few dead trees for their habitat benefit and sometimes they reshoot. I’m now putting in tougher species, particularly those indigenous to the Hunter and letting a lot more of the bird-spread natives grow, even transplanting them around the garden. Some of the local species are not as aesthetically pleasing as the lovely WA banksias, but who knows – there’s always that illusive ‘sense of place’ that might emerge….kind regards

Nan Bailey
Nan Bailey
5 years ago

Hi Heather, your story was interesting with excellent descriptions of what plants suffered and what survived. It would be great if you could do a follow up story describing with descriptions of what plants you chose to replace those that didn’t survive the extreme dry.

Heather Miles
Heather Miles
5 years ago

Hi Nan, yes, I’ve been thinking a follow up is a good idea – it’s a good way to really observe! In the meantime, I have been putting in more indigenous plants to fill gaps in those really tough spots, and surprisingly (or maybe not so surprising), some of the WA natives are thriving while the Westringia’s are still dying! I also have to decide whether to cut down dead trees or leave them for habitat (current plan is habitat) and how to bring a bit more water into the garden, as much for the birds, wallabies and wombats as for my aesthetic tastes! Best regards