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Rescuing gardens after the deluge

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Rescuing gardens after the deluge

The upcoming Queensland Garden Expo in Nambour will feature an expert who has helped resurrect hundreds of flood-damaged yards and is keen to share her knowledge. WORDS: Lucinda Dean.

If this intense rain is making you potty, spare a thought for how your garden is faring – in particular, what’s happening at a microbial level in your soil.

While the Coast has a real mix of soils – from our coastal strip, which is very sandy and drains quite readily, to places such as Nambour which has quite a heavy soil – chances are, your garden has been impacted by the ongoing deluge.

Kate Wall, author, gardening expert and coach, wrote the free e-book Gardening After a Flood (2022) in response to the 2011 Brisbane floods in which she witnessed her neighbourhood of Yeronga go underwater.

Kate had the knowledge to fix flood-damaged gardens. So, she established a volunteer group and together they reclaimed more than 160 gardens.

“Tidying up yards and making our neighbours’ yards look neat and alive and green instead of just a muddy overgrown mess brought hope back to people,” she says.

Kate says it was an incredibly easy decision to make the e-book freely available. It was published at a time when eastern Australia was going through extensive flooding again (2022) and she realised she simply couldn’t be everywhere to help everyone. Her e-book was a vehicle to get her knowledge into the hands of people who needed it most.

Coast gardeners can take a leaf out of Kate’s book, which is still very relevant if your garden is waterlogged. It gives plenty of guidance on how to reclaim your garden.

Kate asserts what gardeners really need to do first is restore the soil, but that means recognising that damage has been done in the first instance, and a lot of the time, that’s not very obvious.

One indicator, though, is finding fewer worms in your soil as microbes drown in waterlogged gardens. Kate says that while we can’t see microbes, a reduction in worms is an indication that all life in the soil is diminishing. She recommends topping up microbes after waterlogging to put the good stuff back into the soil.

Too often, though, Kate sees people treat the visible problems with their plants, which are actually soil-related problems. Insect attack can also cause plant stress and this stress arises from poor soil conditions.

“Applying more and more chemicals to the top of the plant is only a band-aid solution that’s ultimately making things worse, not better,” she says.

Kate’s past profession as an environmental biologist informs her holistic approach to gardening. She says fixing soil problems is the first step to reclaiming, restoring and building a fantastic garden.

“My approach to it all is to go back and make a healthier ecosystem in our garden so we don’t have to interfere quite as much.”

Another major sign of waterlogged damage is leaf drop, which will become apparent as soon as the rain starts to ease.

“If your plants are dropping a lot of leaves, that’s an indication you’ve probably got root damage from the waterlogging,” Kate says.

“When the soil is waterlogged, the plant’s roots start drowning and dying. When you’ve got a smaller root system, your plants can’t take up water as effectively and they’ll start dropping leaves.”

Another indicator of damage are discoloured leaves. The green might be pale or mottled and this could be a sign of nutrient leaching. Gardeners may also start to see that the new growth on their plants is discoloured or deformed.

“Deformed new growth is a key indicator that you’ve got nutrients leached out of the soil – in particular, calcium, which can leach out quite easily.”

The absolute gold standard to remedy all this would be to put plenty of compost onto the soil and rock mineral that’s high in silica (as silica helps to break open soil compaction).

It’s important, however, not to add fertiliser to the soil because if you have a stressed plant, adding fertiliser can compound its stress, Kate says.

“You don’t necessarily need the high nitrogen (contained in fertilisers) because with all the storms and rain we’re having, it’s pushing plenty of nitrogen out of the air,” she says.

“It’s not necessarily what’s missing. It’s the other minerals that are missing.”

Ideally, compost should be homemade. If not, you can buy compost. Aged manure from the side of the road also works well.

Kate urges Coast gardeners to start working on their soil right now because compost breaks down really fast in hot, wet weather. “You will get much faster results now than if you wait until things are drier and cooler,” she says.

Organic mulch and composting will help build a stronger, more-resilient and healthier soil, which means plants are going to cope better – regardless of what the weather does in the future.

In September 2023, the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) declared an El Nino weather pattern in Australia, heralding warmer, drier conditions ahead.

However, in January alone, Tewantin set a new record for rainfall in a month, recording 489.2mm, eclipsing an old record of 386.2 in 2006. To put things in perspective, the average rainfall for January for this area is 151.8mm, BOM reports.

So, was BOM’s 2023 El Nino declaration catastrophically wrong?

“Apparently, an El Nino is not always dry. It’s usually dry further south, but it’s not always dry here and the wet comes with storms, which is what we’ve had this year,” Kate says.

“When you look back to 2022 and all the flooding, we didn’t get all the storms.

“We got intense rain, but we didn’t get the storms. The pattern that we’ve seen over the last few years is either too wet or too dry. We’re not getting that comfortable middle zone. We seem to be switching between the two very dramatically, rather than gradually going from one to the other.”

These sudden flips from extreme wet to extreme dry are very stressful for our gardens. “The best thing we can do as gardeners is assume the weather’s going to be unpredictable and to counteract it by building soil resilience,” Kate says.

Kate is a guest speaker at the Queensland Gardening Expo from July 4-7 at Nambour Showgrounds. She will discuss: how to build a strong, healthy soil; how to cultivate resilience in your garden regardless of the weather; understanding microclimates in your garden and where to plant what; and how to manage weeds.

Visit qldgardenexpo.com.au and katewall.com.au.

Tips for the potted gardener

Nearly more than a quarter of Coast residents live in units or high-rise, so balcony gardens are the best way to enjoy natural greenery at home.

There are a few things you need to do differently with a balcony garden because you’re gardening in pots.

Here are a few tips and tricks to achieve this.

Put plants in large pots rather than having many small pots. A small pot has a tiny area to put down roots so it will dry out quickly and needs much more care. A larger pot will keep your plant alive and happier for longer.

Always use a good-quality potting mix. Never use cheap potting mix, as that’s a sure-fire way to kill plants.

You need to learn to stick your finger in the soil and see if the plant needs watering or not. This is one area where people go wrong. They either over-water or under-water.

Match your plants to your living situation. Often times, what people do on balconies is to assume they’re growing indoor plants but they’ll be copping the western sun. Or they’re doing the opposite, by growing a plant they think would be lovely in a garden but it’s a south-facing balcony that’s getting no sun. Think about your balcony’s orientation and buy plants suited to that aspect.

Queensland Garden Expo, July 4-7, Nambour Showgrounds

With seven hectares of gardening inspiration, this popular expo promises something for everyone – from gardening ‘virgins’ to seasoned green thumbs.

This year, the expo celebrates 40 years, with an expanded four-day program including gardening royalty such as Costa Georgiadis, Sophie Thomson, Jerry Coleby-Williams and Phil Dudman.

Expo highlights

Last year’s crowd favourite, the Poultry Spectacular, returns bigger and better, and with a few surprises. Visit the kitchen garden and learn how to grow your own produce at home from the experts. Whet your appetite at the Cook’s Garden stage with chef Matt Golinski and ‘Sunshine Coast Foodie’ Martin Duncan.

For tickets and other information, visit qldgardenexpo.com.au.

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