A common problem I have increasingly en-counted over the past year is the problem of dead, dying and just plain crook plants. This is not just restricted to any type of plant but plants right across the board. We could just blame it on water restrictions and do nothing. Or we can be proactive and get in there and quite literally remove the dead and dying.

Last week I saw a Eucalyptus spathulata that had severe drought damage. This was particularly striking, as this gum tree is normally quite happy to grow on our own sub 250mm annual rainfall. When asked a watering history the client told me that the previous owners had been watering with sprinklers twice a day for ten minutes. For ferns this would be fine but it is amazing this plant had actually managed to survive at all. The root system would have been mostly just under the surface. Then along comes water restrictions combined with new owners doing the right thing and the tree has nothing in reserve to sustain itself.

It is no wonder why plants that really want far more water than our miserly rainfall “allocation” just drop dead or at least show massive damage when frequent watering is removed.

The first step for any wise gardener is to acknowledge that even if full and unrestricted watering is allowed some time in the future would we really want to be putting on the quantities of water that many ornamental plants need to thrive even if money is no object.

Yes, we can minimise damage to trees and large shrubs by regular drip irrigation, but for many species that all it would ever be. Dwarfed trees and shrubs when you are not trying to bonsai them is not a pretty look!

The second step is to remove anything that is obviously dead including pruning out dead branches. Then stand back. What is left can then be more easily assessed for long term “remove or retain”. Many plants can be so misshaped that to retain them can detract from what does look good. So get in and remove them. Many older gardens that perhaps have been over planted in the past can look great just from this process alone.

Finally, once the open spaces have been assessed, it’s time to replant making sure the plant selections suit the long term watering. For example , if there is a canopy of older trees the plants selected need to be shade tolerant but also able to withstand very high levels of competition.
Many of our local species are quite suitable and can blend well in most situations. Just one example is Eremophila subtereitifolia, a prostrate emu bush will grow well with strong root competition and have dense foliage and still flower normally.

For younger gardens that are starting to look “tired” there may not be the quantity of dead wood to remove but regular pruning after flowering (October and November for many) with a follow up prune late summer to ensure compact growth all year.

If plants are watered with drippers it is a good idea to give them an occasional soak through the cooler months and check their operation.

As for all those prunings; fine material for the compost heap and for kindling while bigger stems can be left to dry for the combustion stove. After all that you will have a neater garden, feeling fit from working outside and enough wood to cook a meal in “camp fire”.

This article first published in the Riverland Weekly © May 13, 2010.