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Gardening in a changing climate

Diggers former head gardener, Simon Rickard, shares the lessons learnt after a decade gardening in increasingly fluctuating conditions.

The current incarnation of my perennial border resists heat well (2021). 
I live on Dja Dja Wurrung country in Victoria. I moved here from Heronswood on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula 16 years ago.

Over that time, the climate in my area has changed noticeably. That has been challenging, but it’s making me a better gardener. When I first moved here, the summers were mild and damp. English-y, you might say; hopeless for growing tomatoes, but ideal for growing rhododendrons. Part of the reason I moved here was so I could plant the English garden of my dreams.

Increasing unpredictability

Everything worked exactly to plan for the first few years, but as time wore on, the weather became increasingly less predictable. For a while, I told myself that it was just bad luck, since variability is a normal feature of the Australian climate. But after a decade of coping with huge yearly fluctuations, observing how even the local indigenous vegetation struggled to cope, I realised that something more was going on. It seemed that more frequent extreme weather events had become baked into the climate.

Every year seems to bring new records – the hottest and coldest temperatures since records began; the earliest and latest frosts; hotter and more-frequent heatwaves; longer stretches without rain; later starts to spring; or cold, dry summers that bypass autumn and go straight into the next winter. I simply never know what weather I’m going to get from year to year. So now I look for plants which are resilient and impervious to extremes. 

My town sits 700 metres above sea level. At this altitude, the difference between day and nighttime temperatures can be quite marked. Even on a 30 degree day in summer, temperatures can plummet to single digits at night. Plants from high elevations in Mediterranean climates are adapted to such daily fluctuations and do very well for me. Azorella trifurcata from the Chilean Andes, Arbutus menziesii from the Coast Ranges of California and Oregon, and Pachystegia insignis from the Marlborough district of New Zealand thrive. 

I used to grow dahlias, heleniums, monardas and cannas with little additional irrigation in my perennial borders. But as my once generous summer rains became less reliable, they demanded more water than I was willing to give them. I trialled supposedly drought-tolerant perennials, such as echinaceas, which taught me that drought tolerance alone is not enough. Echinaceas might survive a degree of drought, but without irrigation, their petals frizzle off during heatwaves, rendering them ugly when they are meant to be at their best.

Earlier incarnations of my perennial border relied on plants which did not resist heatwaves (2007).

Plants from mountainous parts of Mediterranean climates thrive in my garden.

Knowing our limits

In Australia, the main limiting factor on plant growth is not cold, or even drought, but summer heat. As temperatures rise into the mid-30s, the metabolic processes of plants shut down and they enter stasis. I began to test perennials for their ability to withstand heatwaves. Plants such as Verbena rigida from Argentina and Brazil, Agastache rupestris from Arizona and New Mexico, and Phlomis from the Mediterranean, resist heat admirably. 

Ornamental grasses such as Stipa gigantea from Spain and Portugal, and Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’ actually look their best when they are a bit crispy around the edges. Heat-tolerant plants typically have smaller flowers than plants from more lush climates, so this has changed the look of my perennial garden considerably. Gone are the days of solid blocks of colour seen in the traditional English herbaceous border. The plants I now grow have resulted in a more airy, prairie style. 

When I lead Australians on tours of gardens in other countries, a question I’m frequently asked is “where is the irrigation system?” The sight of a brown dripper hose snaking around gardens is ubiquitous in Australia, yet it is quite rare to see it elsewhere in the world. In most places, people garden with more or less whatever water comes from the sky. In my own garden, I occasionally water selected areas before major heat waves, just to keep things a little more fresh and fire retardant than they otherwise would be. But I no longer use irrigation as a life support system. 

The biggest change I’ve made is not to my plant selection or gardening practices, but to my expectations. British gardening literature conditioned me to see summer as the season of growth and fecundity, and winter as the season of dormancy and decay. But I have finally come to realise that summer is the season of dormancy in my climate, and winter is the season of renewal. 

I no longer feel like I have failed my British forebears when my garden gets a bit dry and sunburnt in summer. I’m learning to find beauty in it. This has taken real work, but it’s been very rewarding. Where I once felt the frustration of unmet expectations, I now see beauty. I see my garden through different eyes and feel a sense of satisfaction.

Summer is the season of dormancy in southern Australia. I have learned to find beauty in it.

Verbena rigida ‘Polaris’ is one of my favourite heat-resistant perennials.


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