Published : 25 November 2015

With Australia again enduring an El Nino period - and temperatures generally increasing every year - it may be time to re-think our gardens. Not just the way we irrigate them, but also what we plant, when, and how we can protect them.

Facing longer periods of extreme heat and drying conditions, we need to start transforming our gardens to cope with climate change.

It's actually nothing new, for those living in those inland regions that get up over 40 degrees on a regular basis. And it makes perfect sense. As lovely as it would be to grow all those cool climate plants, it's just not practical and is a poor use of resources.

According to CSIRO research, the last 12 years or so have been the driest in the 110 years of record-keeping. These are long-term trends and apply to most of Victoria and parts of SA, Tasmania, southern NSW and southern WA. Regions further north, such as South East Queensland, are not immune.

We need to stop thinking of this as an extended drought, but rather the 'new normal'.

Let's say you've just moved into a new home and the garden is lush and green. That probably means it has been overwatered, because the wrong plants were used for the local climate. The first thing to do is reduce watering. Yes, you will lose some of the thirstier plants, but the others will start to build up a better tolerance.

You also need to start considering better ways to collect and use rainwater, such as tanks and drip irrigation. A few ideas for conserving water and protecting plants include:

Plant in pots

They are many plants that will happily live in a pot, thus requiring only a small amount of water. This is a great idea for salad plants, plus smaller fruit trees such as lemons. A handy tip is to use a washing up bowl in your kitchen sink - and grey water-friendly detergent - and use that for watering.

Pop in a pond

By installing a pond somewhere in your garden you will create a microclimate that allows you to grow water-hungry plants along the edges and in the water. By installing it close to the house, you can allocate a small area of roof and gutter to keep it automatically topped up.
Ideal plants to grow around the edges of your pond are lemon and citronella grass, turmeric and cardamom, and several mints, including pennyroyal. In the pond itself you might plant Vietnamese mint and watercress.

Introduce more shade

This depends on your garden, of course. But if your yard gets a lot of sun, and/or wind, try creating more shade, and windbreaks. Nothing dries soil faster than heat and wind.

Improve your soil

This is probably the most basic way of storing water! There's no point in watering copiously if it just seeps straight through the soil. Adding compost, manure and other organic matter will help the soil retain more water for longer periods.

Get mulching

Good old fashioned advice that really works! Mulching is essential to reducing water use. As a general rule, the finer the mulch, the deeper the layer. But don't go too fine or the mulch will stick together and form a barrier, trapping water and not allowing it to soak through. Ideal mulch choices include lucerne hay or sugarcane mulch, layered over compost and/or manure.

Pick the right plants

Some plants survive by slowing down their metabolism, while others may have a naturally slow metabolism which helps them survive. Others may have sufficient water stores in the plant tissues for the plant to continue living until the next rain comes.

A great example of this is the increasingly popular Bromeliad. Grown mostly in mild temperate through to tropical climates, they enjoy a drink but can survive for long periods of time on very little water.

Fleshy plants like cacti and succulents will also hold higher-than-average stores of water.