Gardening in the Desert

Sturt's Desert Pea

It’s 40 degrees in Alice Springs with bright blue skies. It is raining in parts of  northern Australia  but Alice doesn’t get rain every year and with high temperatures and low humidity anything damp is oven baked pretty fast. Clothes dry on the line in the time it takes to have a meal.

How do you garden in the desert?

I was wondering how plants survive at all but there are plenty of clues from the native foliage,  light reflecting, leaves hanging vertically, thick waxy leaf coverings to preserve water and deep root systems. You can use all the micro-climate tricks too. Plant on the east side of the house away from the afternoon heat, runoff from rocks or paving makes the most of the rain, high walls and fences reduce hot drying winds creating cooler micro-climates.

Compared to the desert surrounds Alice is a green haven amongst the red rocks and sparse scrub. The Todd river is peppered with giant red gums drinking the water invisible below the sand. Once you have water you can grow plants if they can stand the heat.

What do the gardens look like?

There are some green lawns but also use of local materials such as stone mulches and gravel as ground cover. There are iconic water tanks and even windmills. The most successful gardens seem to have larger shade trees to the west creating a micro-climate around the house with palms and cycads, veggie gardens and children’s playgrounds. Solid fences reduce wind evaporation and provide artistic opportunities for local talent.

lice Springs House

How much water are the gardens using?

According to Jethro Laidlaw from the Alice Water Smart program the average Alice Springs garden uses 1000 litres every day. Alice Water Smart provides a water audit service and develops watering schedules and advice to help prevent over-watering of local gardens. Local plant nursery owner and the local garden guru Geoff Miers says the problem is people watering too often. Geoff advocates less frequent watering pushing more water down into the ground. This encourages deeper root growth which means plants can access more water and are more resilient.

What plants do they grow?

Plant from an Alice Springs GardenMany people grow natives which have a subtle beauty but can look disorganized to the European eye. Eremophilas and Acacias do well and the Ghost Gums are beautiful. Exotics include Agave, Plumbago and Oleander. Citrus trees are popular, the dry conditions suit their Mediterranean background and the fruit season stretches for 6 months, producing thousands of fruit and using tens of thousands of litres of water.
The heat and dry climate sound harsh, but the locals love living in Alice. The dry inland air feels warm and clean after the dampness of the coast and it has a special light  in the evenings. The days cool down quickly  and the streets fill with pedestrians and cyclists and indigenous groups in the parks and around public buildings. The red stone ranges and green redgums along the Todd river dominate the views and are quietly stunning.

To calculate your desert garden water usage, check out our interactive house and garden built with NT’s Power & Water Corporation.