I remember another kind of summer

Yesterday, after a day of running round, which went from gruesome - having part of a cracked tooth removed with pliers (more visits to the dentist, oh goody) to delightful, hanging out with Betty, Ruby and baby Maeve, I stopped of at the GJs to see whether they had a long metric quilt ruler (no, they didn't) and as it was getting close to 4.00pm when the clearway on Lygon Street starts, I parked on a side street I haven't been down for ages. What a shock. Half the street trees were dead, or so cactus they might as well be. I expect grass to brown off and gardens to have the odd casualty, but this was startling. We're talking big tea trees here. It was really sad.


I've been looking through old photo albums, contemplating uploading some pictures of the old house to Flickr, as a kind of backup. When I look way back, I'm reminded that summer in Melbourne wasn't always like this. In a couple of sets of photos, I'm struck by how green and lush the garden is. Not the green you get after a winter of just average rain, but the deep green of sustained rain. Then I'm shot back to the nineties when we sometimes used to have the kind of warm wet summer where everything stayed pretty green until February. There were a couple of summers when the laneway flooded, and one when I got home from a New Year's earthcore and the water was lapping at the front door. There had been a thunderstorm and the stormwater in the lane was clogged. These were the kind of summers where you could grow vegetables and flowers without hardly trying. Even when it got dry, there was still plenty of moisture in the subsoil and we were allowed to use sprinklers, watering systems and hoses. On a warm evening being out in the garden watering the garden, with damp soil and mulch squishing up your toes was one of those pleasures of summer. It wasn't really that long ago, maybe fourteen years. But long ago enough that people new to Melbourne might think that it's always been dry like this.



In all honesty, I don't think I've had a really great summer garden since 1999. That was the year I lived on homegrown tomatoes and basil, corn and beans. Things had started to dry off, which is probably why the tomatoes did so well, but we could still water as much as we liked. After that, there was this terrible year when it was so hot and dry that there was no moisture left anywhere. The soil completely dried out. Even now, it doesn't seem to have completely and become properly saturated all the way down. That year no matter how much I mulched and watered, I just couldn't replicate the bounty of the year before. What survived that year became the backbone of my future garden. A ruthless survival of the fittest. Every year since, I've felt my enthusiasm as a gardener wane just a little bit more. I've hoped for it to be better, wished for a long wet spring followed by a damp summer. But at least I had a garden around me. Some greener that had been established in better, wetter times.

Of course I remember other droughts. As a young child I remember not being allowed to water your garden except with a bucket and digging a bore at my nan and pa's place. But I don't think dry spells ever went on as long as this and it always felt like a temporary thing, not a new reality.  Perhaps that's the difference between my perception of things as a child and as an adult, but somehow I don't think so. Now as I plan our new garden, I'm thinking about what might still look lush when times are tough. What we might use to establish new plants and keep them alive over next summer. How to eventually have enough growing and covering the soil that we don't live in a dust bowl. To gain back that feeling of ease one has when surrounded by a garden. Even a tatty one. One thing I know, no more silver birches. The ones around here look shattered. Possibly I'll plant a Melia tree, some small eucalypts and roses. Some quick growing wattles as a short term filler (they make great mulch after about five years). And fruit trees. The rest of the garden will have to be of very tough stuff too. A small vegetable patch protected with shade cloth. Hardy bedding plants and herbs. No more grass than can be watered with grey water. I wonder whether we'll have balmy wet summers again. It would be very nice, but I'm not counting on it.

9 comments:

  1. Yes, the death of the trees is really frightening. In Adelaide, we caught the bus through the parklands to school and watching the trees get worse and worse made me feel deeply stressed every morning. And even down our street we lost two trees - one of them had a koala in it during the winter time. It's awful.

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  2. I agree - it's disturbing. I've only been in Canberra 2 years, but it's deeply, deeply dry. The grass crackles and snaps underfoot. We've only had about 10 tomatoes off 6 bushes this year, and I'm wondering if I should even be bothering trying to grow vegies. If so, a tank should be a priority i think. Great idea with wattles, and since they're legumes they're helping the soil too.

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  3. Do you remember Bob Hawke got elected and the drought broke? I was really hoping Kevin might have the same meteorological powers. Going to our favourite park makes me sad, the jacarandas were hardly noticeable this year, no green to offset the gorgeous purples.

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  4. Yes, I remember Hawke and drought break too. I do still hope to see a break, and wonder how much my sense of doom about the dry is my age. I dream of days I hope not too far away when we will have soaking rain and life will come back. When raincoats will get use and we will watch the leaf debris float past the front of the house in the gutter choked with water. Wouldn't it be great?

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  5. Really - growing up in Adelaide and then moving to Sydney - that used to be the constant refrain about Melbourne - " Great city but the weather is terrible. All that cold and RAIN." That was the key image of Melbourne - beautiful grey European buildings and constant rain!
    Not any more... even the mountains are browner than they used to be ..

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  6. My first summers in Australia were so memorable; we played under sprinklers, we watered our gardens in the evenings, I don't remember draughts back then, but I guess that's because the entire experience was new to me. I'm worried for the kind of summers our kids are going to experience. It almost feels like they will have to be endured, and not enjoyed. Does anyone else have a feeling that these weather patterns aren't leaving any time soon?

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  7. Meanwhile it's been unbearably humid in Sydney.

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  8. Well, firstly, those backyard photos with the floral dress are wonderful. So evocative of those summer evenings when things really were green.
    That said, we've had "useful rain" (term borrowed from firefighters!) twice in the last ten days. Wonderful. Maybe not late enough for the vegie garden to rally? Here's hoping for a decent amount of basil and tomatoes, I've given up on capsicum and chilli.
    The Golden Queen peach tree is groaning under the weight of its fruit. The birds are enjoying all the top fruit, we're enjoying what's down low. Bottled some, drying some, now I'm eyeing off peach brandy (as opposed to brandied peaches).
    They're one of the few stone fruits you can put in a lunchbox (the Golden Queens) because they're quite firm. A classic bottling peach, I actually grew them because they're also excellent eating.
    Oh, there you go, a blog post in a comment!

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  9. 1999 was the first year I seriously tried vegie gardening. I was home on mat leave and I barely had to look at the plants to make them grow. Ten years later and another suburb, and even the herbs are struggling. Native trees in our garden are dead or dying; the last heatwave was more than they could bear.
    I remember the drought in the early 80s and I remember how Melbourne winters used to be. Wet, grey and drizzly. We haven't had one of those for 15 years. I dread summers now, long for winter and cross my fingers that it lasts longer than 6 weeks.

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