Volunteers may be the answer in public gardens

While the sound of rainfall was welcome across the Mountains in the first few days of the new year, in reality only 10 millimetres has fallen since January 1.

On top of the record dry in December, when only 0.4mm of rain fell (the average is 81mm), it means gardens are suffering.

Along the corridor of oaks in Faulconbridge, the leaves on some huge oak trees have prematurely turned brown, possibly preparing to shed early in response to the hot and dry conditions.

The younger oaks planted in the names of Bob Hawke and Ben Chifley look significantly sick.

Greens Cr Kerry Brown said council should look at its watering regime.

"Council's traditional approach of a short watering period for new plantings is not enough in our changed and changing climate. We are starting to lose established trees and old shrubberies in our public places.

"We need trees and flowers to shelter and feed our devastated wildlife, cool the air, bring rain, prevent flooding and silt run-off from the urban areas when the rains do finally come, please the tourists and to make us happy."

Cr Brown said that Australian soil is now the driest on record with 8.5 per cent moisture at 100cm depth, well below the 12 per cent average, according to the Bureau of Meteorology. And there is little sign of relief from the dry in the coming months.

With council resources already stretched, she suggested turning to more volunteer waterers for significant streets and spaces.

Already the public gardens which are managing best now are tended by volunteers. This includes Katoomba Street (watered by the Katoomba Gardening Brigade), Leura Mall (by Leura Village Association), Blackheath planter boxes (by local Dave Downey with his own bore water) and Mt Victoria (by retired horticulturalist Phil Foster and others).

Councillor Brown said that although the public gardens were exempt from the level 2 restrictions, she would encourage council and volunteers to develop time-saving, waterwise strategies such as drip hoses and porous terracotta pots or plastic pipes sunk into the garden beds to deep water the roots of plants.

In the long term, she thinks that public and private landscaping will need to evolve in the plant choices based on what we are observing now.

"Rhodies and azaleas are under enormous strain and have been for some years, while roses and Japanese maples seem to manage better and many natives, of course, need far less water than the exotics."

She will introduce an emergency motion at the next council meeting, calling on council to establish a strategic plant watering program using waterwise technologies and community volunteers where possible.

A bed of hydrangeas in The Gardens in Blackheath is struggling.

A bed of hydrangeas in The Gardens in Blackheath is struggling.

Tips to help save your garden (with thanks to Kerry Brown, Dick Harris and Jessica Lawn)

  • Improve soil health to increase water holding capacity by using organic manures, mulches and wetting agents
  • Make your own biodegradable wetting agent: Mix one cup of warm water and one cup of agar powder and add to nine litres water. Water onto moistened soil. Covers six square metres. Will last three weeks.
  • Commercial seaweed solutions strengthen root systems and micro-organisms that will improve water retention.
  • Two to three tablespoons of blackstrap molasses mixed in warm water and added to nine litres of water will feed microbes that help with water absorption. (It must be blackstrap as the sugars are digestible for good-guy microbes. This molasses is often used in expensive soil improvers as the active ingredient but is quite readily available on its own and cheap.)
  • Water deeply - surface watering can encourage plants to develop roots on the surface where they are more vulnerable to drying out.
  • To water deeply, spike holes into soil with a garden fork, stake or crowbar. Water into the holes.
  • Lower the level slightly around the base of plants so the water pools around it.
  • Sink plastic bottles, with their bottoms cut off, into the soil within the drip line of plant or tree and water into this.
  • Unglazed terracotta pots can be made into ollas ('oy-yahs') that are sunk into beds as slow release waterers for backyard crops and fibrous rooted plants. Google has DIY instructions for ollas.
  • Hold off on any new plantings.
  • Consolidate pots to make watering easier and more effective.
  • Consider reducing foliage to reduce transpiration (loss of water through leaves).
  • Rhododendrons can be cut back hard. Feel along the stem for slight bumps - this is where new shoots will emerge. Prune back just above a 'bump'.