The drought-busters


Anne and John Heyes' gardening story spans two homes, a decade-long drought, heat-wave innovation, and a complete change of approach toward gardening. In 2012 they ended up winning City West Water's Healthy Sustainable Garden competition from hundreds of entries. This is their story.

The drought busters
Anne and John Heyes’ gardening story spans two homes, a decade-long drought, heat-wave innovation, and a complete change of approach toward gardening. In 2012 they won City West Water’s Healthy Sustainable Garden competition from hundreds of entries. Read about why they went from pop-up sprinklers to raingardens, and see images of their beautiful drought-tolerant garden.
Anne and John Heyes
Our first house when we first moved in (pictured next) was quite bare. It had nothing to shield it from the sun and heated up straight away in summer. Back in 1996 we had our yard professionally landscaped and on the landscaper’s advice installed expensive instant roll out grass and pop up spray sprinklers.Then came the drought. We bucketed shower water over a couple of summers, desperately trying to keep it alive, waiting for the drought to lift.
Our first house when we first moved in
After the second summer of drought we just had to surrender and let it die. When I think back, the time, energy and effort to keep the lawn and garden alive was not the most intelligent thing we did.We kept hoping the drought would lift, but in hind-sight it was ridiculous, the amount of lawn we had, the plants we chose and the sprinkler system we installed.
Our back yard
With the drought our soil became water resistant, sounds crazy and unbelievable doesn't it? The soil was like a rain coat. The rain would hit the garden and roll off in bubbles down onto the path. I would go out after the rain and go to dig and the garden was completely dry, other than a tiny dampness on a few grains of dirt on top.
Dry patches
So, as the drought dragged on, we decided to change our approach to gardening completely. It was too depressing and stressful to see our garden die – the cost and work got too much. Mulching was the key – 10cm deep. We mulched everything. We even mulch our nature strip – it’s great for the tree. We also mass planted, crowded things in so no soil was exposed to the weather. We planted nectarine and peach trees all down the side of the house and put awnings in. Amazingly this bought our internal summer temperatures down by at least 10 degrees. The house was so much better to live in. Being deciduous, the fruit trees didn’t block the winter sun either.
The side of the house
Trees shading the house
Mulch on the nature strip
We have lots of discussions about what are suitable plants. We plant heaps. We just keep cramming them in, it is all trial and error. If a plant dies in a certain spot we will try something else. If it is a plant we really like, it might get a second chance. But if it dies again in that position we’ll buy a different species for that spot. We water plants in for their first summer. After that it is up to the plants to survive on their own.
More lush scenery
The patio area
We had a My Smart Garden workshop at our home to show gardeners how to install a raingarden. It was loads of fun and we all learned so much. Apart from growing plants and produce, raingardens remove pollutants from the water and reduce local flooding when it storms. The raingarden was the last downpipe at our house to be diverted to a more useful purpose, rather than our water running off down the street gutters.  All our other down pipes had been diverted to water tanks.
Getting some assistance
Learning about down pipes and water conservation
We decided to plant our raingarden out with indigenous plants that could cope with lots of water rather than complete dryness. But people do plant veggies in them too. We’ve moved house now, but last time we saw the rain garden it was flourishing with growth. It didn’t need any maintenance, and looked after itself. It has an overflow pipe if ever there is an excessive deluge of rain. In the time we lived there we never saw the overflow pipe used. The raingarden appeared to cope with a huge amount of rain.  
Here's an installed downpipe garden bed!
We have had great success planting lettuce and strawberries in reused polystyrene boxes. It’s much better to re-use these boxes in the garden than have them going to landfill. Anything with a shallow root system works well in the boxes. Strangely, in my experience, it appears snails and slugs, for reasons we don't understand, don't climb the poly boxes to eat these plants. Less water is used for them to grow successfully, and there is a very consistent temperature in the boxes which is great for the plants to grow successfully. The boxes are also extremely light which makes it easy to plant them up and shift them into different sunny positions in the garden as the sun moves and the shadows change. 
Veggies in polystyrene boxes
Then we decided to move house. Starting over again was an opportunity to redesign the garden and change a few things.  Of course the garden wasn’t much to look at when we arrived!We now have less lawn area and we have put in three extra veggie garden beds whereas, we only had one veggie patch at our old place.
The porch view
Even though the drought is over, gardening still has its big challenges. When we had the big heat-wave in January 2014, we draped linen sheets over our trees and plants for the week to protect them from the sun. Everything we couldn’t cover got burnt to a crisp. It just disintegrated in your hand after.  The covered plants drooped a bit, but perked up ok after a bit of water. Someone should invent a pull-out cover for gardeners – like those retractable clothes lines! Especially if there’s more heat-waves on the way.
Lush foliage
We still have a very water-wise garden. We harvest 3000 litres in tanks, run our air-conditioning hose into the garden and have a downpipe diverter. Council, gave them out for free a while back. We got a plumber in and installed it. We leave it open at all times for the water to divert to the garden. So far we have never had to turn it off as the yard has never flooded. The mulch holds the water beautifully.
Water conservation tanks
We have chosen a drought tolerant lawn. Well we have hardly chosen it, we have allowed the kikuyu grass and another runner grass to grow which keeps lush and green in summer. It’s easy to mow but yellows/browns off in winter. But that’s ok. We don’t have picnics in winter on the lawn. If we are spending money on water for the garden I justify it by gaining produce.
The lawn
There’s far more awareness today about using eco-friendly products to grow things in the garden. There were more poisons used back years ago. Pesticides that killed bugs but had a terrible knock-on effect up the food chain.  Today, if things are getting eaten in the garden, we just try different non-toxic methods until something works, a ‘suck it and see’ approach.
Espalier tree
Hanging baskets
The most difficult part of our journey has been watching development in the neighbourhood get rid of the vegetation and trees. Some places are just concrete bunkers. We saved our ex-neighbour’s nut and olive trees from the chainsaw by offering to care for them ourselves. The birds came every year to enjoy them and we loved that. But the house was later sold and extended, and the trees were chopped down anyway. I wonder what the birds thought when they came for their annual tuck-shop visit that year, and where they go now.
A rainbow lorikeet
A garden is a great environment to be in. A garden is happiness. It’s very self satisfying. People respond to the sky and nature. We have a rule to see the sky and nature out of every window of our home. We often take the newspaper or a book out in the garden with a coffee and enjoy watching the birds. Nature  just looks after itself here.
Nature taking care of itself