The cuckoos invested in nests this year in a culvert. Want to know the weather forecast? Watch the birds. High nests mean a wet summer to come. Investing in a nest in a culvert is about as low as you can go.
Not that we needed swallows to tell us it's dry. The gum trees have lost almost all their leaves, the fruit trees have wilted and most bulbs and tubers sensibly are not doing anything at all. We haven't even had the first green dahlia shoot.
Gardens drought-proof themselves more than we often give them credit for. Grass browns quickly, finally leaving only the roots. I've known bare ground here for over two years, but three days after it rained the grasses all regrew. Deciduous trees that had been leafless for nine months of the year, not just winter, suddenly put out new shoots.
Lesson 1. Don't think it's dead. Most is just waiting. Hydrangeas can be burnt in a bushfire, and the roots wait another three years before sneaking up green shoots again. Roses do the same - though when plants dry back then regrow you may find you have the hardier rootstock, not whatever was grafted onto it.
We had approximately 6.5 daffodil flowers this year, and no tulips. But the bulbs are still there - I've checked. They're waiting, just like the dahlias. A friend moved house and forgot she'd taken her dahlias with her, till three years later she found the tubers on a shelf, and planted them - and had a stunning display the next year, as if to say ''See! This is what we can do if you look after us.''
Lesson 2. Prune. Prune now and prune hard. A radically pruned trees or shrub will need less water. If branches die back now because the roots can't nourish them there'll be dead wood that may be a home for wood rots which may spread.
Lesson 3. Only mulch if you are going to water. Mulch helps keep the soil moister, and also in better condition so that rain can penetrate when it finally does rain. A sudden, glorious downpour may run off the hard packed soil, leaving it dry underneath, but the water will soak in where you have mulched.
But... (dramatic pause here) mulch also soaks up moisture. Most rain in droughts comes in measly 1-5mm showers. The mulch in a carefully tended garden can soak up 5mm easily, with none reaching the soil below.
Lesson 4. Go deep. Use water spikes so the water spreads under the soil, rather than running off or evaporating. If necessary, crow bar a few holes under big trees to fill with water. One drought tip is to bury lengths of polypipe slightly deeper than the tree or shrub when you plant it, with the top just at soil level. Fill the pipes with water and they will not only percolate instead of evaporate, but will tempt the roots to go down deep, foraging both moisture and nutrients.
Lesson 5. Think roots. Lettuce has shallow roots, 30 seconds with the hose. Citrus trees have most of their roots close to the surface: three minutes may do for them. Big trees and deep rooted shrubs need a long slow trickle, probably longer than you are prepared to stand with a hose. Collect two-litre milk bottles or anything else that is plastic and can contain water. Place them under tree or shrub, cut a few tiny holes in the base, then fill the containers with water instead of watering the tree. The long slow seeping will refresh your garden far more than half an hour's direct watering.
Lesson 6. Imagine a European leafless winter. The trees are resting. Gardens and the bush rest in droughts, too. A drought weeds out the weaker plants, and those no longer suited to the changing climate, and leaves the bush and a garden stronger.
Which is what I am telling myself as the gum trees here lose their leaves, and most of my trees have lost leaves too. This drought is different from the many I have watched in 65 years. But there will be survivors. Gardens handle drought with more aplomb than gardeners.
This is the week to:
- Buy one really lavish indoor plant, like a giant fern or any of the tempting December vegetation that all good garden centres stock up on at this time of year. You can give the pot away in a few weeks, but buy it now, so it spends the intervening time brightening your life, not the garden centre's. We all need at least one green and lavishly growing plant when the hills are brown.
- Buy six hanging baskets, one large bag of very good potting mix, and seedlings of rabbit ear lettuces, parsley, basil, perhaps curly mint or oregano: a herb basket, or a salad basket, or a miniature rose surrounded by basil, beautiful and useful, with a note to replace the basil with pansies for flowers all through next winter and spring. Three weeks' growth from now will turn each basket into lavish gifts. Everyone has room for a hanging basket or two, even if they have to hang them from the eaves outside a window.
- Remember the smell of water on hot earth. If you leave the window open after you've watered in the evening you will have that scent all night.
- Be smug if you have succulents, bougainvillea or a magnolia grandiflora or 30-year-old roses that have a root system that is deeper and stronger than most house foundations. They won't even have noticed it's a drought yet.
- Be even smugger if you have both old roses and a hose. Roses adore droughts. One watering a week, one feeding a month before you water, and some deadheading, and you will have the best display of roses this year you've seen for at least a decade.
- Plant strawflowers, also known as everlastings. I never have, as we have the native yellow ones blooming every summer (even the hottest driest ones) in every inhospitable corner, like the middle of our driveway or under the shade of wattles. They'll even colonise a wombat track. They are one flower that will give you a whole summer of blooms, and never notice we are in drought. I like that in a flower.