Yes, really. I have four zones in my garden, two of which I am leaving unirrigated, and one of these is food-producing. In Perth, with hot summers where there’s no significant rain for up to five months at a time. It’s a little bit of an experiment, but my intention for both unirrigated zones is that they will be long-term systems. Zone 1 is a woodland native garden that I hope will run for around 50 years with minimal change. Zone 4 is a drylands food forest that I intend to run on a 100 year cycle, and may my great-grandchildren perch in the top branches arguing whether I got it right.
Not watering is a bit of a jump in thinking though, when it comes to gardening. Especially in Perth. So, how did I get here? Well, it’s been many years of listening, learning and watching – and the slow process of noticing when there’s a question that needs to be asked. I’ll break it into three phases. This post is the first of the three.
When I was perhaps 6 or 8, my parents took us on a two week holiday. We stayed at two different farmstays in the wheatbelt, one northern and one southern, for a week each. My memories of the trip are now limited to what’s in the photo albums, but I must have read those photo albums over at least thirty times. My mother wrote comments for the photos to explain things to relatives overseas, the good thing about which is that she couldn’t take for granted that they knew the things we of this culture would. One comment that has always stood out to me was when she told of the drought and potential crop failures one of the farms was facing because of lack of rain. She had to spell out for our Californian relatives that farms here weren’t irrigated.
The farm I grew up on and that my mother still runs is an orchard farm on the South Coast, and it’s irrigated. There is no handy river or stream to pump or siphon from, we’re on a hill – so irrigation relies on dams, which are effectively clay terraces cut into the hill with a big lip around them to stop the rainfall from above moving any further down through the ground. All through my childhood water was a precious commodity – we were always watching how long it had been since rains, which dams were filling or leaking, how the trees were going. Conversations daily included observations of potential leakage spots, discussions of pumps or pipes, irrigation timing, quantities of water in various holds, the level of the main water tank. Every person who learnt to drive the tractor also learnt where the irrigation solenoids were so as not to break them, and every one of us took out one at least once. And every so often we’d here a parent jumping up in the middle of the night because they’d suddenly remembered a tap that hadn’t been turned off. There was never any such thing as ignoring watering.
When I was in year 9, in the late 80s, I went to an agricultural / environmental conference which was some kind of big deal that 14-year-olds wouldn’t notice, but which for some reason had assumed highschool students might want to attend and had invited us. I went because it accidentally caught my attention, and some of the other boarding school girls from out in the farm hinterland came with me because it was an excuse to get out of the hostel that sounded “educational” so would be permitted. There were a lot of old men talking, and some slides. One slide stands out in memory, of a strange pattern of dusty dark green circles surrounded by dusty pale brown. It was a space photo of a spot in the African deserts where groundwater was being used to irrigate. The speaker talked about what that had done to their soils and systems, but I don’t remember much except that it turned out to be a lot more complicated a problem than just magically bringing water to the desert. Mostly what I remember is the other kids daring me to ask a question, so I did – and from then on, a constant awareness of salinity, soil loss and their relationship to water and production techniques has been engraved in my mind. I began to listen whenever it was discussed.
Many years later I was chatting with a friend I hadn’t seen for a while. She mentioned her family’s latest project – they had a block in the forest down South, and they were growing fruit trees just as part of the forest, and they weren’t watering them. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Surely you wouldn’t be able to grow any usable quantity of fruit without watering the tree in summer, not in this Mediterranean climate. She gave me the look which says “You’ve never thought outside this box, have you?” and changed the topic.
I don’t think I thought much about irrigating, or the need to, for a very long time. It was just a background thing. Even in the city as a uni student, when spring comes you start watering your pot plants, and you keep it up til mid-autumn. What changed that, as always changes your ground assumptions, was travel. Which is phase 2. (Phase 3 will be posted on Sunday.)