Sunday, February 15, 2009

Earth, wind and fire (and water)

As the sun finally dawns a gloomy yellow instead of pink or ominous red for the first time in a week, I am taking stock of the garden.
Mine's looking pretty sad but so is every other garden. I was unexpectedly away for a few weeks and my noble parents tried to keep it all alive through a ridiculous heatwave, but if you're not here to sprinkle around the spare shower water on a hot evening there's only so much the plants can survive. Then the day after we got back it was in the mid-40s and stayed that way for days. And then all hell broke loose, but that's another story.
In this bush backyard, mercifully unscathed by fire, there's an assessment underway: what coped with the dry and the heatwaves, what thrived, what faltered? And what lessons can we learn from that for future garden planning?

Here we lost:
Gaura (6)
Windflowers (6)
Erica longifolia (2)
Grevillea Bronze Rambler
Grevilleas (3)
Banksia 'Golden Candles' (2)
Kennedia 'Running Postman' (2)
Correa Alba prostrate (though it had also been chewed by Warren)
Hebe (2)
Snow in Summer (2)
Red and white Valerian
Dill, lemon verbena, sage and thymes.
I had also recently transplanted some daylilies and four roses that haven't survived the shock and then the summer. I even lost a few succulents, which is pretty hard to do.
To add insult to injury, some unidentified creature had jumped the fence into the veggie patch and chewed the rhubarb down to stumps.

On the critical list are:
The olive tree (as if we haven't been through enough already)
The Monster Hebe
Flaxes red and otherwise (4)
Sea holly (2)
Grevillea White Wings
Daylilies (yellow)
Looks like quite a bit when you list it like that but it actually doesn't seem quite as bad as I first thought.
They are all replaceable, some more easily than others, some I didn't even like much - and some may just have to be replaced with other more appropriate plants. Which brings me to...

Grevillea Poorinda something or other (I know that doesn't narrow it down much, but sadly the label blew away last weekend - it's one of the prostrate monsters)
Grevillea rosemarinifolia
(No surprises there, I guess.)
The veggie patch was a mess and there won't be much of a summer harvest except for tomatoes, but that's all transient anyway. Herbs can easily be replaced. The fruit trees managed to scrape through - just.
Like many others, the small Magnolia 'Little Gem' is scorched beyond belief but I think it'll pull through. The same goes for kangaroo paws, Marguerite daisies, roses galore and hellebores. They all look like crap right now but they still have sap running through their wee veins. Even bearded iris, sedges, dianella, poa and agapanthus are fried around our neck of the woods.

So what next?
First some more clean-up. The big hot winds last weekend made a mockery of my gutter clearing efforts, so it's up the ladder again and all hands to the rakes. The gums have been stripping so they look spectacular but the bark is lying in long strips everywhere (and look suspiciously like snakes in the moonlight - and tinder in the daylight).
I'm considering gravel where once was grass, but not too much.
Dead-heading may take a while, but the consensus is we shouldn't cut back anything too much, even though it looks awful, until March: there is still the possibility of more hot weather so we don't want to expose new growth to it. Grin and bear the brown leaves.

Audit and purge
There are clear lessons in the lists above about what is worth planting in these conditions, and over which plants we should draw a kindly veil. A quick look around your neighbourhood will provide similar feedback.
Once the air temperature cools down, we'll be replacing old with new:
Erica longifolia
Red Valerian
Banksia 'Golden Candles'
They're all worth another go.
I'll try to identify more specifically that unlabelled prostrate Grevillea*, because it's going gangbusters.
So the lesson is to plant many more of those, and indeed more of everything that's been thriving.
I refuse to have one of those backyard blitz white gravel, mondo and yucca gardens. I have made my peace with euphorbias and sedum over the past few months and am even allowing some of the indigenous cordyline to remain in spots where it doesn't offend me too much. I have allowed a few succulents to creep in here and there.
But there is a limit. White gravel, mondo and yucca is the new version of buffalo grass and pelargoniums if you ask me and I will not have it.

Water tanks
The casualty list would be much much longer if I hadn't had the tank installed this year. It's only small but it's got us through. I'll be ordering another one every year until we run out of downpipes and ground.

We've been planning a pergola, and it's become a priority both to help shade the house and veggie patch late on summer afternoons, as well as providing some shelter for people and creatures.
I've also had the brillian idea (patent pending) of making wide tubes of shadecloth, just like the usual rabbit protection bags, except taller, to slip over three stakes when days of 40 degrees are predicted. They can come in various sizes and would also be good for frost protection. I'm a genius. I'm going to make a fortune. Or not, as the case may be.

Fire-retardant plants
While there are some flames that cannot be turned, and no plant is truly fire-proof, but some will not burn as fast as others. Specifically, we don't want to plant anything that's like to just explode in the radiant heat or help spread the flames (some eucalypts and pines are among the worst). It's no coincidence that you see lines of agapanthus along the home paddock fences in the country - something succulent can sometimes be enough to slow a lazy grassfire.
In her classic Gardening Through the Year, Margaret Barrett lists the following (sourced originally from APSG):
Eucalyptus maculata (spotted gum)
Eucalyptus gummifera
E. bauerana
Angophora costata
Acacia cyanophylla
A. dealbata
A. pravissima
Banksia marginata
Hakea salicifolia
Grevillea rosemarinifolia

Mulch early, mulch often - and if it's a fire warning day, wet it down well. The ground is so baked at the moment that water penetration is minimal, so more effort needs to go into adding compost, manure and more organic matter and nutrients to help the plants under stress now, and lay a better foundation for next summer.
Best get to it, then.

[Later: I remembered. It's Grevillea Poorinda Royal Mantle, of course.]

Burning up

Gardening and plant management is a matter of plant, creature and even human survival in Victoria right now, with hottest temperatures, driest months and most horrific bushfires breaking all sorts of records - as if records somehow help you feel better about it all.
It hasn't rained for weeks, or at least that's how it feels, and the ground is dry - the bush is dry - and we've also had the searing winds that helped destroy so many houses and lives and of course gardens over the past week.
Gardens can be replaced after a while, of course, but imagine the heartbreak of having to do so after a fire.
There's a house in Flowerdale I've driven past many times that is an extraordinary splash of colour along the roadside, especially in summer. I fear that garden and house - maybe even the dedicated gardeners themselves - are now gone.
The bush, with a little help to control opportunistic invaders, replaces itself quite fast. I lived in the Royal National Park south of Sydney when bushfire destroyed 80% of the bush a few years ago. It may have not recovered quite as it was, and thousands of animals died, but the plant life did come back amazingly fast. Some of our indigenous plants, of course, are built specifically to regenerate after fire.
But gardens can only be rebuilt by gardeners, and it would be perfectly understandable if even those who have been a little singed rather than completely burnt-out were too traumatised or grief-struck to even think about it for months.
In the aftermath of the fires people are asking (well, it may just be the tabloid media) whether people should live in these areas at all, whether the bush backyard itself is a sensible way to live.
Of course I'm biased. But I don't even think it's a question worth asking. Some people in many cultures all over the world will always want to or have to live out of the city. We just do. We live with the risks (not just fire risks) and we still love it. There are places, like Castella, that do seem a little freaky to me, surrounded by tall timber and very isolated. But beautiful.
People need to be surrounded by beauty and that's universal and timeless. Many people love being surrounded by the beauty of the natural world. Many people make a living (precarious though it may be) in balance with the natural world. It will not change and should be viewed as a positive and natural impulse, not some dangerous and wrong-headed pursuit.
No one would have argued against the existence of Marysville, for example, with its lolly shop and antique furniture and guest houses with wide wooden verandas surrounded by rhododendrons and hydrangeas and mountain Ash. (All gone.) Nor would they rail against farmers eking out a living on the rolling grasslands near Yea or around Glenburn, or people who have lived for generations on small blocks in the tall timber of Toolangi, or grown grapes in the Yarra Valley. So why argue against the bush backyard?
I understand that in extreme circumstances people feel the need for extreme reactions, and many have very good reason for being angry.
But we do have to adapt - again - and the structures around us have to adapt even more to try to ensure it's as safe as it can be, and to balance the needs of the natural world with those of its human residents.
We have a wildfire planning overlay on the property here, which comes with some guidelines as to building and vegetation management. We also have an environmental overlay, with stricter vegetation controls. (Mind you, I don't see anyone from the Council or State Parks managing the blackberries and thistles along the river bank here - we pay for all that.)
I would like to be able to remove a few dead trees and cut the native grasses after they've seeded, to reduce fire load, and am happy to install possum boxes and bat boxes by the dozen to compensate for the tree removal. But I'm also happy to go through a considered process to do so, rather than bulldozing anything within reach of the house as some people are proclaiming. After all, we live in the bush - if you don't like leaf litter, move to Carlton.
While inner-city life (in, say, Paris in winter) held a distinct appeal about 4pm last Saturday before the wind change, I toughened up pretty fast. I'd rather be here facing these risks every summer than anywhere else.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

No words

The hiatus on this blog has been due to the illness and then death of my lovely, talented, loving, fiercely intelligent, gorgeous mother-in-law.
We were in New Zealand with the family for a few weeks and arrived back in Melbourne to a heatwave followed by an inferno.
So far we are safe although I confess my bushfire preparation this year has been half-hearted, and I've been forced to reconsider our fire plan, which is to stay and defend.
Having been through it before, in Bundeena, I felt confident I could save the house if required, but I now know I couldn't have.
Not this fire.
It moved faster and more fiercely than anyone has ever seen, so everything you thought you knew about fires, and houses, and yourself, is cast into doubt.
I don't know what would have happened to us if the wind hadn't changed - as it is, it has pushed the other edge of what is now one enormous fire towards my other place, my spiritual home, in the country near Yarck.
They are on high alert there now, with spot fires in the area.
There's nothing I can do but wait and act like I'm interested in work and the rest of the world while sick to the stomach and exhausted from checking the fire info services in the middle of the night.
And so many others are so - so - much worse off.
We are all affected somehow, everyone is waiting for news of people or places they love, and those who are not affected now will be, I'm sure in the coming days or weeks or months as we learn to live with it all.
But as Julia says, it's beyond words, so I'll shut up.
(Cross-posted on Ocean Without End)