There’s a kid round the corner who has carefully watered his little gum tree on the footpath for months. It was smaller than him, now much taller. But today it’s 11am on one of those interminably overcast Sydney days, when we don’t know whether it’s cloud or smoke obscuring the sun. The kid’s dad is shouting from the doorway, turn that bloody hose off.
Sydney is in the grip of stage two water restrictions and it’s much worse out of the city. Those in fancy waterside apartments with a yucca or two on the balcony are safe. But our Meyer lemon tree and our sorrel can’t dry out and we can only water with buckets, before 10am and after 4pm. This is also how we save our parsley, basil and thyme.
Our gardens are dying. They are dying on purpose. A long conversation with a Sydney Water insider makes that clear and I’m only barely paraphrasing here.
We don’t know whether watering with a bucket actually works, or even if it saves water. We do know that it takes a long time and that you will eventually choose which plants to save and which plants to kill. Watering with a bucket is designed to make it more difficult (even though you can fill it with a hose, according to Sydney Water) and you will be forced to make hard decisions.
For example, the lime tree, alone among our citrus, has consistently refused to produce fruit. And some plants have made the decision for us, dying before we even noticed. We are so used to a climate looking after our gardens for us.
Our back garden was born in 1993, arising from the crumbling failed redevelopment of a previous owner. The only plant remaining was a dracaena, now tall enough to provide a canopy for a garden crammed with bromeliads, begonias, native orchids and oregano. That original plant competes with a forest pansy, bought because an enthusiast at an open garden told us it was the perfect compact inner city garden tree. He lied. It’s more than 4 metres tall now and the loveliest plant, red heart shaped leaves replacing tiny pink pinprick flowers at the end of spring. Out the front, due west, are the plants we thought could cope with blasting sun and concrete, the euphorbias and other cactusy-looking plants.
To save our garden, we have a little production line with buckets in our house so it’s good we have a few adults here – but this kind of watering takes time really only available during holidays. Even our 40-year-old bay tree in a pot is struggling. My spouse has already made the call about which plants will be left to die, and that’s fair because the garden is really his project. I’ve got a couple I’ve grown from tiny cuttings I’ve taken, mostly with permission, one just before a bystander called me to say one of my kids was in an ambulance with suspected spinal injuries. The Herald’s brilliant Robin Powell has some good advice about how to protect your drought-stricken suburban dream.
But not even Powell’s wisdom can save one of the most beautiful green spaces Sydney has, the Royal National Park. After an early morning swim at Wattamolla Sunday last, I walked along the Hacking River. The banksias, usually resolute in spite of the weather, are dying, and there’s barely any birdsong. It’s the drought, I thought. The Australian Plants Society’s Rhonda Daniels corrects me. She says we must change our mindset. “You can see the impacts of climate change with a gradual reduction in moisture and higher temperatures,” she says. “It’s beyond drought.”
Daniels is secretary of the Sutherland Group which completed a list of plants seen on the coast walk in the park 14 years ago and she saw the impact of the 1994 and the 2001 major fires on her much loved park and its plants. “Some plants can resprout and send out leaves really quickly – but if there’s no water at all, the plants just die. The banksias have been hard-hit and a lot are dying, weakened by the drought, it’s very sad for people who love plants. It’s a whole ecosystem, the plants depend on the animals and the animals depend on the plants.”
I’m even missing mosquitoes and I never thought I’d say that. Guess that’s more due to smoke from bushfires than drought. The Department of Planning, Industry and Environment map looks bleak, over half the state in intense drought and none of the state safe from drought impacts. Even a year ago, the red which stands for intense drought, was spreading.
When I asked Sydney Water what would happen next, if and when the drought worsens, the response was that restrictions would get tougher. Maybe, as Powell hints, we could rethink our position on swimming pools, filled with hoses and emptied of people most of the time.
We don’t need private pools nearly as much as we need trees and local lemons.
Jenna Price is an academic at the University of Technology Sydney and a regular columnist.