Stressing Over Seasonal Aridity

I’m set up for the dry.  The only water available is from our tanks, and we really only have enough for the house.

For this reason, I don’t grow vegetables over the summer, and the ornamental garden is designed and planted  to survive without supplementary water.  There’s one small, sacrificial zone that I water occasionally if I think that our supplies are up to it.  A part of me needs to be able to nurture at least one section of the garden in this way.  But if we’re in any danger of running out of water, as we are this year, then the garden gets none.  In the dry years so far, this lack of water to this zone hasn’t been terminal.  It just means that this part of the garden under-perfoms, and my optimism is transferred to the following summer instead.

All that is uncomplicated.  What I’m surprised at is how difficult I can find it to cope with, or at least enjoy, seasonal aridity.

The Steppe in early spring

It’s not as if I can’t enjoy aridity, or at least serious dry.  There was so much talk about the aesthetic opportunities of gardening with little or no water at The Beth Chatto Symposium last year that it felt like anyone with a rainfall in excess of 500mm might begin to fantasise about huge umbrellas to keep the rain off.  But gardening with constant dry shifts the fundamental aesthetic to a new place, and it’s to this new place that we must go.  Indeed, I’d argue that the talk about plants capable of coping with severe dry in Australian gardening has far outrun the talk about how best to use them for a really compelling outcome. 

The Steppe, early summer

I think I can enjoy – even love – a garden built for the dry.  What I’m finding difficult is the enjoyment of my own garden, which was so verdant and floriferous in spring and early summer, in it’s now parched, and highly stressed late-season state.  It’s as if, having seen it through one lens, I find it hard to change that lens mid-season.  It doesn’t even take having visitors to put me in that zone of ‘you should have seen it a few months back!’.  I talk like that to myself, and can’t get past the contrast between it at its moist and fecund peak, and its current panting, shrivelled trough.

A flattering image (which doesn’t really suit my argument!) of The Steppe, mid autumn, following a killer-dry summer

I can talk myself into appreciating how good it looks, under the circumstances.  But I know that that’s all consolation-talk.  I wonder if I’d find it easier if the garden was designed to look permanently dry, rather than seasonally so.

I’m not looking for reassurance.  I’m just curious.  If I can find that this highly seasonal aridity really challenges my pleasure from the garden, then it stands to reason that the clients for whom I design, or the general public viewing public projects, are likely to find it more challenging still.  Addressing these responses, openly and honestly, is essential to us exploring really desirable garden outcomes in our hotter, drier future.

And just so you can see, up close, how dry this all looks…


  1. Gardeners are at the forefront of climate change both practically and aesthetically. The post needs to be read in the context of a 75% rainfall shortfall in the Woodend region. This is a new level of dessication we haven’t seen before and is difficult to appreciate.

  2. It has been the driest I have seen for a long time.
    Always interesting to see in gardens what has survived.
    Hopefully the rain will return soon.
    If this coming winter ends up as dry as the last I feel it will be even harder next summer.
    I lost my enthusiasm after this last summer and it is just starting to return.
    Gardeners are so resilient.

  3. Agree wholeheartedly, but please check the facts. Woodend has received 83% of their mean rainfall in the last 12 months (i.e. a 17% shortfall ref BOM) where many other regions of Vic received only 48% of their mean, i.e. 52% shortfall. Where I garden in Vic, we’ve experienced a 33% shortfall & the impact feels enormous; perhaps less so if the starving & thirsty Wallabies found respite elsewhere & the dam wasn’t dry & tanks almost empty. Parts of SA have received as little as 37% of their mean rainfall in the last year; I can only imagine how devastating that may be upon a Garden lover. Whilst it can be argued that these things are relative … they just aren’t & such is the nature of our land & climate. I do love that Michael raises the heart-searching question of where does this lead us as gardeners of the future in any case.

    1. I’m not clear on the references here but mine was to the year 2019 not the past 12 months.

      The point of course being that this is not the “nature of our land and climate” at all but rather the direct result of climate change. The process is of course linear and only going to get worse rather than plateau.

      It has been widely reported that this is the driest start to the year on record for large parts of Victoria.

  4. Very dry and miserable in the garden at Buxton. Especially after the wallabies and wombats have had a go at most things. But this has been good to see what they don’t like, so I will focus on that. I am glad I did not get around to planting out a lot of the seedlings I propagated. Some things have positively thrived though.

  5. The photos are a great reminder that we are adapting to hotter, drier gardening conditions by selecting plants for these conditions. They also remind us of the challenge we face to adapt emotionally to our “new normal” gardening. The Piet Oudolf documentary, “Five Seasons”, asks us to see the beauty in plants at all stages of their life cycle. Maybe we’re having our own Australian version of the documentary. Rather than the romantic beauty of the misty rain, the fog and the sculpting frost, we have to look for beauty in the effect hot sun, relentless clear skies (and hungry wildlife!) have on our plantings.

    1. Hi Annette, I think you’re right, and as our ideas of beauty are largely ‘learned’, then surely we can ‘re-train’ to recognise new forms of beauty. Finger-waggling about ecological responsibility in our gardening is sure to fail – we have to be wooed there with irresistible images

  6. Plants will adopt to changed conditions; gardeners seem to have a much harder time to do so!
    Enjoy the enforced rest and plan for the next season. And if it brings flooding rains we will have something else to worry about.

    1. Have kind of enjoyed the enforced rest! And yes, I don’t think I need to worry about having nothing to worry about!

  7. I wonder Micheal how many plants will come back when you finally get some rain. To be honest I love the seasonal look of your garden, it reminds me of Piet Oudolf’s garden through seasons. The only difference here that his garden looks like yours in winter not in late summer. Yes, we need lots of experimentation with plants to see what survives drought but also we need to change our approach to how we see the gardens, one just cannot have a perfect landscape throughout the year. People in the northern hemisphere don’t have it either, some parts have nothing in their gardens for 6 months of the year.

    1. I haven’t lost anything, Barbara. Nothing disappeared, as such. Just underperformed. And you’re right, of course, about many in the Northern Hemisphere having a long winter downtime. I just get grumpy when I have a long winter downtime and a long summer downtime as well!

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