Two years without rain is a long time between drinks, but it’s not out of place in western Queensland’s desert uplands. It’s not true desert, it’s semi-arid. And the landscape isn’t dead, it’s resting.
With an intense El Nino developing, and a visibly drought-affected region, Barcaldine bloomed. With a population of under 1,400, Barcaldine’s Get Gardening! Expo attracted 600 locals and tourists to celebrate the region’s best food, wine, art, plants, gardens and gardeners.
Two years ago far western Queensland received record heavy falls of rain. Immediately they stopped intense drought started. In a hot, semi-arid climate, this kind of intensification tests everything living. It is just the kind of stressful experience the CSIRO anticipated for central Australia in its long term forecast for climate change detailed in their 2003 report.
At the time of publishing, it was the fifty year outlook. In 2004, I had an article discussing the implications of global warming for gardeners published in ‘Gardening Australia’ magazine. Our climate has been changing faster than anticipated, and two years ago the CSIRO admitted the changes experienced are twenty years ahead of ‘schedule’.
Covering an area of about eight million hectares (roughly the size of Tasmania), Outback Queensland’s desert uplands comprise of a plateau of elevated open woodland, now fragmented by clearing, half draining towards to Barrier Reef and half into the Lake Eyre Basin. It supports Mitchell grass, wire grass and spinifex grasslands and Gidgee (Acacia cambadgei), Ironbark (Eucalyptus melanophloia) and Bimble Box (E. populnea) open woodland. Now very dry and without forage, many farms in western Queensland have been de-stocked, leaving many families searching for ways to sustain tourism and find alternative incomes.
Some places, like Bimblebox, operate as a model of sustainable grazing in a conservation area, the kind of combined landscape management I’m used to seeing applied in British National Parks. In other places, landscapes have been cleared. Currently eaten bare, emus and kangaroos have starved, reducing their populations. Between Longreach and Barcaldine, roadkill feeds the birds – kites are winners – while an increasingly desiccated landscape rests, waiting for a summer storm to kick off the next growing cycle.
The soil at Barcaldine is sandy, hungry, alkaline and infertile. Termites abound – here they replace the environmental services performed by earth worms in cooler climates. Compost worms and Surinam cockroaches still help desert upland gardeners to make compost. They must be protected from extreme heat and wind if you want the full benefits of their soil improving ecological services. In summer the ground becomes hot enough to make wearing thongs and shoes outdoors vital. Compost worms and Surinam cockroaches need cool, damp relief from Outback conditions.
Hot, arid summer winds may scorch foliage. Succulents have been known to explode. It sounds crazy, unless you’ve witnessed it.
In Barcaldine, you don’t need to boil the kettle to kill oxalis and other bulbous weeds as I do in Brisbane. Artesian water is alkaline but hot enough to scald. So what look like rainwater tanks can sometimes be cooling tanks. One gardener accidentally sprinkled his vegetable garden with scalding hot bore water, cooking his vegetables where they grew. The town finds itself with all the hot water it needs as well as a fair few unexploded cacti.
Rallying community spirit in these interesting times to garden, Barcaldine Regional Council invited its gardening and plant enthusiasts to join up and celebrate spring, hosting an inaugural ‘Get Gardening’ Expo.
An exhibition of botanical art of desert uplands flora by artist Jenny Mace opened at the Globe, a veteran pub. The Globe had been acquired by council while on sale and, instead of being demolished, had been repurposed, upgraded into a hub with an information centre, bank, function centre and art gallery. A shrub border was planted by the community and the Globe was surrounded by the garden expo supported by local green business.
The community discussed a possible bid to create a regional botanical garden, and we watched a slideshow interpreting the traditional use of Central Queensland plants. The region includes 77 regional ecosystems with 2,500 plant species, fair proof this is a rich region, and very much not a desert.
The following day, a coach took local gardeners and garden tourists to view, and have morning tea and lunch at the best three winning gardens (20.9.15). Visiting the winning gardens was a great experience for gardeners to network and enjoy being out in a garden in Outback Queensland in spring. A one off opportunity I won’t forget.
I was surprised how many holidaymakers had responded to radio interviews with gardeners on ABC Radio, Western Queensland and adverts placed in local newspapers. People around here and travelling through are responsive.
Was it inspiration or folly to hold a garden expo during extreme drought? Everyone I met was inspired by the Get Gardening Expo. It certainly was a comprehensive and well organised series of events and it brought the community together to celebrate life and gardening.
Said Deanne Chetty, Regional Events Coordinator, Barcaldine Regional Council, “The feedback we’ve had so far has been great“.
Director, Seed Savers Network
23rd September 2015
21st September 2015