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.