Digging in the Drought

February 2002

Setting the barrow down, I cast my gaze about, checking things out. Where to start? Ah yes, that asthma weed beneath the tea-tree… a five square meter patch of old adult plants. There’s masses of it grows through this bushland site. As weeds go this one’s really got its act together. A highly successful and ubiquitous weed. I have seen it in quite few places around the globe, even popping out through the stones of Italy’s popular Cinque Terra walks.

Asthma Weed (Parietaria judaica) growing in a wall in Cinque Terra Italy

On the upside, asthma weed is uprooted fairly easily. An hour’s weeding these mature ones gives a satisfying expanse of weed-free ground. But don’t be fooled. As soon as it rains, there’s a smooth putting green of seedlings germinating. And the adult plants never seem to die, just grow older, wider and woodier, roots clutching at rocks and rubble in the ground. Asthma weed has felt-like surface of slightly sticky fine hairs that feels icky and causes an allergic rash when touched. Nobody’s favourite plant. But I like the sense of progress it gives when you uproot one, instantly creating a big patch of weed free ground.

The gully in which I work is a cleft running east-west into sandstone cliffs along Sydney’s eastern seaboard. Over millions of years a small creek cut this cleft about 600 meters back into the sandstone sediments. Between the beach at one end of the gully and a pretty waterfall at the other,

Looking west up the gully winter 2003. The tall leafless trees are weedy coral trees

the creek, once a series of sandstone rock pools that sang with the sound of water over rock, is now a silent concrete drain. Prior to European settlement, most of the sandstone landscape hereabouts was clothed in coastal heath. You get the picture on the headland of Botany Bay, ten kilometres south – undulating sweeps of low, impenetrable scrub terminating in yellow cliffs plunging abruptly into Pacific blue water. The scrub of banksia, acacia, hakea, tea-tree with hard, prickly little leaves, clinging ferociously to thin hungry sandstone soils is kept low by salt winds. However, this cleft provides some protection from the salt-winds, and much of this gully was forested. Along the floor and lower slopes of the gully, a ribbon of rainforest once flourished.

I grab one of the big bigger asthma weeds at the base and pull with all my might, but it clutches at the ground fiercely. Usually I can uproot these easily, but this one’s tough. I head back to the barrow for the mattock. Standing with feet set wide, I swing it up in a half volley and bring it down under the surface roots. With the mattock as lever, it is easily prised out. I stuff it in the weed-bag. The remaining half dozen plants come out without the mattock. In less than five minutes I have a full weed-bag and sizeable patch of bare ground – until it rains, and the seedlings sprout. But for the moment, clearing out this patch gives me a weed free, blank slate. Progress!

Looking SE over the original planting in the gully winter 2014

As I slowly weed my way east towards the ocean, clearing out the accumulated weeds of seven years’ neglect, the satisfaction of these little victories over the weeds is important. No matter how much weeding you do, there’s always more. Seeds persist in the soil for years, awaiting opportunity to spring to life. And there’s always the reinforcements that birds, wind and runoff deliver. If you take more than two years to return to a cleared patch, the follow-up work is huge. More than four years and you may as well not have bothered in the first place. Sisyphus Hill. So it helps if I feel like I have a win now and then. Five square metres of bare ground claimed back from the wilderness of weeds lift the spirit in this endless round of weeding

The site set aside for us greenie do-gooders is a bit less than an acre of the south-facing slope of the gully and a tiny wedge of valley floor between the base of the slope, and a drain that was once a creek. Doesn’t sound like much, but in the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney that’s a lot of land. The intention to re-establish indigenous vegetation here is ambitious, trickier than it appears at first glance. The coastal heath that once grew on the higher parts of the hillside did so in an environment of salt winds, low soil fertility, and frequent fires. The lavish trophy homes above the gully have changed all that. To be sustainable, coastal heath needs regular burning. Surrounded as it is by an effective firewall of suburban infrastructure, this gully is unlikely to ever see the controlled burn coastal heath needs to regenerate. Built-up suburbia also mitigates salt winds and produces nutrient-rich seepage from fertilised gardens, a toxic brew for the low-nutrient-adapted coastal heath species. The future’s not rosy for coastal heathland here.

Things have also changed for the rainforest that grew along the valley floor. While absence of fire might spell doom for coastal heath, it’s a boon for rainforest. Unlike coastal heath, rainforest vegetation is killed by fire. But in the absence of fire, the dense rainforest canopy shades out the lower growing heath community and the rainforest slowly extends its geographic range. Even the weeds reflect this shift towards rainforest ecology in the gully. In the lushness of foliage and the predominance of climbing weeds you can discern the tilt towards rainforest.

Madeira vine Andredera cordifolia is probably the worst of the climbing weeds. Its thick, fleshy leaves weigh down the shrubs and trees it climbs through, cutting off light, deforming and eventually smothering them. Worst of all it produces aerial tubers at leaf nodes, any of which when knocked to the ground can start a new plant, and the tubers stay viable in the soil for years.

Madeira Vine infestation

While the vine is easily removed from other plants, care is required not to dislodge the aerial tubers. They break free at the merest touch, disappearing into the undergrowth to bide their time until conditions favour germination. Morning glory Ipomea indica and cape ivy Senecio mikanioides are also large leaved creepers that climb high and smother all. Stolons run for long distances across the ground, before taking to the trees, and have the habit of rooting into the ground at nodes. Each rooted node needs to be unplugged, or a new plant grows. Left undisturbed, any of these vines can cover vast areas.


Bushcare is a bunch of local volunteers trying to regenerate the natural vegetation here. The Bushcare team set up by the mayor’s wife is a mixed bunch. A couple of urban hippies, a retired librarian, a well spoken older gentleman, a woman with MS, a couple of 20-somethings who come and go, and coterie of middle aged women who comprise Mrs Mayor’s personal entourage. This woman confounds me. Not for her, the dirty, broken fingernail honour badge of bush regeneration work. She’s drawn to the burnished throne and strange synthetic perfumes of celebrity. I can’t work out what she is doing here. Her self-regard revels in the status of leader and the cool aura of environmental activist. Bubbling with bright-eyed enthusiasm and ready advice, it’s clear she is the reason why half the group is here at all. But while she might inspire some, this dirty work is clearly not her passion. Behind the cheery know-it-all leadership style sits a complete lack of the field experience or knowledge born of love of this work.

Unlike Mrs Mayor, basking in her gilded image reflected back from the wider community, Glen’s horizons extend only as far as the ridges of the gully. He is a classic greenie – dour pessimist, always bending your ear to whinge about all that is wrong with the world from a predictable green-left perspective. But, he’s got a good eye and a detailed knowledge of local ecology. He germinates rainforest seeds just for fun, and the gully is a great location to grow them to maturity. Once in the ground he nurtures them through that first precarious year. Through trial and error he’s learned to pick the winners, those plants able to grow to maturity, set seed, and have that seed germinate to produce a new generation of plants.

Despite council’s directive to plant only heath species on the steep slope, Glen sneaks in rainforest species. ‘Things are different now’, referring to urbanisation and climate change. ‘No-one knows exactly what was here originally anyway. So as long as rainforest species can survive and reproduce viable offspring, they’re in.’ So he squirrels away his rainforest plants up the slopes of the gully, another rainforest junkie. Glen’s consistency of care is the guts of the gully’s repair. But the local council that owns this land just doesn’t get this. As an endless torrent of environmental rhetoric gushes out, council does nothing to clear away the weeds. While other councils employ teams of workers to follow-up weeding once the initial clearing is done, ours has not one person. The upside of this municipal disinterest is that nobody at city hall has a clue what happens on the ground. With no oversight Glen is free to set the direction, creating his little rainforest in a twilight zone that nobody else sees.


Looking west along floor of the gully. Winter 2003. The tall leafless trees are weedy coral trees. The dark green across the midline is the rainforest plants after 5 years in the ground, 3 of them drought years

November 2005

Between drought and weed, the natives we’ve planted struggle to survive. The drought weighs heavily, pressing in on all sides… in the garden, in the gully, in the countryside, everywhere taking its toll. It’s hard to maintain enthusiasm with so little progress to show for all the work. With no winter rain, there’s been no spring growth flush. None whatsoever. Wandering Jew is the only thing that thrives in the dry conditions, and is now threatening to overrun the ground I stand on. I swear this stuff makes its own water. All else is bone dry or dead. Yet this stuff is as lush and juicy as if it had been raining all winter.

Our band of weeders shrinks. When Mrs Mayor abandoned ship to follow her true calling in politics, I was not surprised. But when her entourage disappeared with her, that was upsetting. Now drought shrivels what’s left of the team. The relentless dry saps people of all get up and go. The few left are enervated by allergies to the asthma weed, soft tissue injuries, and worse. Personally, I think that the dead weight of drought grinds down all enthusiasm. That’s OK. The hands are helpful, but I can get by without the attatched mouths. I’m happy enough with just the plants for company. But drought, disillusionment and desertion leave us nearing the limits of the range we can sustainably manage. While I focus on clearing one area of weeds, they grow back across the rest of the site. In drought only weeds grow. Now, with so few hands left, it’s up to me to do much of the follow up weeding on top of the initial clearing.

As a gardener I am perhaps more sensitised to the cycle of drought and plenty than most city-dwellers. For most urbanites drought means no more than the inconvenience of not being able to wash your car or hose down the footpath. Others are not so protected. As drought drags on the social toll is horrendous in the bush, farmers are depressed, suicidal, robbed of livelihood, dignity, identity, purpose. Here in town, our little band of weeders is a shadow of its former self. It gets hard to see the point of all this hot, dry, dusty, work. Trees have no new growth this year. Those planted in the last three years just sit there, barely alive. We bucket water up from the storm drain, which miraculously continues to flow despite the drought. The ground is so dry that when you empty the bucket, water just scampers off downhill, repelled by dust-dry soil. You have to wet the topsoil first, and go away while it dampens, then come back and water some more, a slow, tedious task. But if it’s not done these plants will die. Mostly Glen does the watering, trudging up and down the hill, bucket in hand, keeping alive the precious charges that he has germinated and nurtured for so long. I continue weeding towards the beach. Not even drought stops the weeds

As the year crawls towards an end, I can’t help but wonder how much my despondent mood is the accumulated frustration of having to deal with the endless nonsense from council and how much is the long term impact of drought. Across eastern Australia dams have dried up, centuries old woodlands are dying, and rural towns are only a tanker of water away from their demise. Arguments rage about how best to manage dwindling water reserves and who has priority of access to the precious few remaining drops. Except a few plants in potsI stopped watering my garden long ago. It is far worse in Melbourne. Shocked to see how many dead plants are dotted through the gardens down there.


December 2009

Late last spring after a year’s respite from the drought, I installed a drip system so the water would penetrate deep into the soil rather than sit wastefully on the mulch and soil surface. But spring was cruel. No rain to speak of. Then summer, still no rain, but humid. What didn’t die of thirst, succumbed to fungal disease. Yet still, hope shone brightly. Cheery chocolate-box cottage gardens filled my dreams. Silly gardener!

It is all well and good to choose to garden in tune with the climate. But the farmers of this country know that means trying to pick those fickle cycles of drought and flood and plant accordingly. What I hadn’t realised was that those last year of decent rain had been restricted to a narrow coastal fringe. Further inland, there was no recovery. Just two more years of no crops and bony beasts. The drought was just temporarily hiding from Sydney.

Less than a month into spring, the trickle of moisture had completely dried up again. The day after my birthday I woke to a pink morning light coming into the bedroom. I jumped from bed excited and hopeful, ‘red in the morning, shepherds warning. It’s about to rain.’ Nothing could have been further from the truth as I stepped out into eerie red haze. In the gully, on the beach, no relief, only slow growing realisation that, suspended here was a dust so fine, it had blown halfway across the continent, and so thick it obscured everything beyond 100 metres, turning gully and beach to Martian landscape, precious topsoil drifting out to sea. Hope dissolved into deep dread. I’ll show you fear in a handful of dust.

Red dust storm at Bronte Beach 23 Sept 2009

It’s creepy, watching my country blow away, my dreams turn to dust, those wonderful rains of 2007 just a memory, an empty promise. This drought is relentless. Here in the gully, even the weeds are struggling.



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