Green is good, brown is bad!

Host: Mt. Sarah Station
Written by Kirsty Williams – Manager, Mt. Sarah Station.

With the nearest town having the claim to fame of “Australia’s hottest and driest town,” images of a cottage garden with lavender and seaside daisies weeping over the edge of the garden path probably isn’t exactly what comes to mind. Either delusional or just plain stupid, it’s what I had planned moving to the Mt Sarah. But with weeks of over 40 degrees throughout the first summer, some days reaching up to 48 in the shade, I was very quickly put back in my place. With a large adjustment of the goalposts and with hours of determination, digging, sweat, and far more setbacks than I would like to admit, I have a garden, minus the cottage look.

Green is good!

So for any aspiring gardeners, who also live in the middle of nowhere, I thought I would share a little of what I have learnt, quite possibly the long way around, in the past few years. Not for one second do I think I’m a Don Burke or Costa Georgiadis . . . I am no more than a self-taught gardening hobbyist who has learnt from trial, and a hell of a lot of error!

Starting out – the hardest part

With a reasonably clean slate to work with, getting anything established in the beginning was a tough gig. My first priority was to get a few larger trees and shrubs established to provide some protection. So unblocking dripper lines from ants and shale very quickly became part of the daily routine outside the main yard in an attempt to make this happen. A tap at the end of each dripper line to drain the build-up was a massive time saver.

Having finally got a few trees to grow through the first summer, I couldn’t believe when I found a number of the healthiest trees turning into a shrivelled shell in a matter of a few days. Having never heard of them, apparently it was some form of boring beetle. I tried eco-oil and other so called solutions but found that not much could be done except let them dine on a few trees in hope that they would leave the others alone.

And if it wasn’t for blocked drippers or the dreaded boring beetle, it was something else like caterpillars or grasshoppers or just a 45 degree day with a howling north wind. I just had to hope that if I planted enough, something would surely survive. I very quickly learnt that a tag on a plant in a nursery saying “full sun”, actually meant “part shade” and “drought tolerant” meant “might survive with regular watering”.

The beginning – planting for protection!

Five years on!

Don’t read glossy gardening books but do look over the neighbours’ fence!

The majority of gardening books are aimed at the Eastern States – I think that’s where the cottage garden idea came from so when I say neighbours, I mean within a 300km radius or even just places with a similar climate. I’m forever looking into people’s yards when we go to Coober Pedy (not in a creepy way) but if something can grow in a town where the people live underground, surely it can grow at home. For me natives have been the saviour. What I thought were dull and only used for council median strips, I now think are a godsend. Coming in all different colours, shapes and sizes, with some hard pruning and little other hassles, they can look amazing. Someone said to me one day walking through the yard, “oh that’s just an old weed that grows out in the paddock!” There sat a saltbush that had come up on its own but I didn’t think it looked too bad, it was green and it filled a gap. At the end of the day, I can’t afford to be picky where I live so I run by the motto that if it’s green, it’s good and if it’s brown, it’s bad!

Natives in flower

Newspapers are not just for reading!

I had a lot of sandy areas so had a lot of trouble retaining moisture. Fortunate that both my parents and in-laws have shearing sheds, a bag of sheep manure has found its way in the car whenever there is a space, irrespective of the eye-rolls I get. Also, having the cattle yards close by, a bucket full (preferably a loader and not a laundry bucket) of manure/straw/soil from the yards works wonders.

Newspaper has also been a hero. Mum has always put down 3-4 pieces on top of each other covered in straw in her garden to eliminate weeds, but you need rain for weeds to grow! But the same system also holds in the moisture all the while breaking down and helping the soil. It made getting through summer a heck of a lot easier.

Looking forward to cool change at the end of the week!

Never say no to a cutting but ask if they don’t offer!

I often have snippets of different plants stashed in a bag or sticking out of a bottle in the drinks console in the car after a trip away– at the end of the day – if it dies it didn’t cost you anything, if it lives, it’s a bonus. Same goes with taking cuttings off plants you already have. In the early days I waited impatiently for anything including the grass to be long enough to be able to steal and plug it in another empty gap.

The best time of year!

Use what you have!

I have what looks like a never-ending selection of rocks in the paddock and they’re free. So whether it be lining a garden bed or making a stone wall, rocks have a place.

White polystyrene boxes that I get our fruit and veg in, with lids cut out and covered in cling wrap are great little greenhouses to get cuttings and seeds going. You can move them anywhere and they too are free!

Front yard on arrival.

Five years on – Rocks are free!

Where there is an obstacle there is always a pot!

My biggest fail has quite possibly been citrus. They’re “so hardy” I’m told. I’ve googled, I’ve asked anyone who I thought might have half an idea, but with every trick in the book tried, I’m damned if I can get them to grow in the garden. So not to be beaten, I resorted to pots and at least this way I can keep them alive. Last year I was like a kid in a lolly shop when I noticed the beginnings of three small lemons finally growing on one of the trees. Less than a week later whilst mopping the floors, the kids came running in yelling, “We just found some green marbles!” With no idea what they were talking about, I looked down and there in two outstretched grubby hands sat my three prized lemons, maybe I should have just admitted defeat on this one.

Involve everyone – it might pay off in the future.

My green thumb seems to have rubbed off on the kids. Whilst cutting up veges for dinner recently, Lucy our five year old vanished outside. Ten minutes later I see her walk past with a watering can and when asked what she’s doing, she kept walking and said, “just watering my seeds” having discreetly swiped the pumpkin seeds from the bench.

I have found plastic cups tucked behind curtains on window seals with a napkin stuffed inside with a handful of whatever seeds have been found. Lucy’s usually growing but George at three years old still has a bit of fine tuning with his overzealous watering causing more rot than growth.

Often the kids are out there with watering cans watering the pots – whether they need it or not. My theory is that if they learn early I might be able to delegate the job sooner rather than later!

Mount Sarah Homestead.

Some may ask why I bother when it probably looks like a constant battle. But I can happily say I have persevered mainly because liking I love the challenge and liking what you see out the window makes it that little bit easier living in the middle of the desert. We also spend such a huge amount of time in our own backyard with no playground or play cafes down the road, so I figure you might as well make it so you can enjoy it.