Grow to suit conditions

Grow gardens to suit changing weather conditions

Life & Style
Large lawns are becoming increasingly unsustainable for country gardens. Fiona looks at low-maintenance alternatives.

Large lawns are becoming increasingly unsustainable for country gardens. Fiona looks at low-maintenance alternatives.

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This week's garden tips from Fiona Ogilvie.

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This summer is daunting for gardeners in a way most of us have never experienced.

Coming home from the coast, I stared at the browned-off, shrivelled garden in disbelief, shocked at the deterioration in under a week.

Three years of well-below average rainfall has left us with no sub-soil moisture.

A brief absence translates into dead lawns covered in roo scats, a dried-out pond, rabbits bolting for cover and the rustle of grasshoppers at every step.

An army of flies buzzed furiously at every door.

Smaller trees, shrubs, even hardy salvias were dying.

Days of record-breaking heat lay behind us and weeks of it ahead.

Much of eastern NSW was and is burning, with no rain in sight.

Not a great scene and it's becoming horribly familiar.

But gardeners are eternal optimists and I've finally accepted that the garden I've lived in and loved for many years is, quite simply, unsustainable.

I don't have the time, energy or water to drag hoses around when temperatures are forever in the thirties and even if I had, many plants are dying anyway from sheer heat.

There are plenty of models for dry climate, low-water gardens that are beautiful and manageable, so I must focus on one and roll up my sleeves.

There are plenty of models for dry climate, low-water gardens that are beautiful and manageable, so I must focus on one and roll up my sleeves. With a bit of help, I know I can do it.

With a bit of help, I know I can do it. My biggest problem - and yours too probably - is what about the lawn?

Gardens need open spaces as well as planted areas but how do we cover that open ground if not with grass?

Gravel is often promoted and I've seen very successful gardens where gravel is used as a mulch that then flows into open areas as substitute lawn.

But gravel is hot and glary in bright sunshine, horrible to walk on in sandals, impossible for outdoor eating.

Try pulling a chair under a table on gravel and it needs constant raking to look presentable.

I'm not writing it off though, I could make a gravel garden round the pond, and the occasional path is bearable.

Pavers are another alternative and there are lots of attractive ones around.

I prefer flat stones to pavers if I can lay my hands on a local supply.

Hard surfaces still suffer from heat and glare but one solution is to alternate them with prostrate plants.

This can be done formally or informally.

A formal design might resemble a giant chess board with square pavers interspersed with a non-flowering plant like native kidney weed (Dichondra repens) or dwarf mondo grass (Ophiopogon),

I only like formal areas near the house so if faced with this option I'd rather use flat rocks in a random design using different sizes, interplanted with contrasting colours and textures like thyme and dwarf sedums.

I'll also need to reduce considerably the size of our open spaces and enlarge the garden beds, using more shrubs, large pots and home-made topiary to add interest.

It will be a challenge.

But the first step is the hardest, and after all, gardening is about solutions, not problems.

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