Volcanic awakening

volcanoPublished in Green magazine, July-August 2010


One of the positive things to come out of the decade- long drought in Southern Australia has been the development of some innovative water-saving plans. One of the most impressive is that of Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens. Jane Canaway meets its senior designer, Andrew Laidlaw.

After being held in the fierce grip of drought for the best part of a decade, the “wasteful” sound of running water has become a distant memory in much of southern Australia.

In Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens, the Fern Gully has been dry for many years, except after occasional rain, and visitors have grown used to ducks dabbling in muddy puddles where lakes used to be. However, a solution is in sight, and a key to its success lies in the recent re-awakening of a long-dormant volcano in the Gardens’ south-east corner. That landscaping project – completed this March – is stage one of a longer-term plan to create a sustainable water supply for the RBG, starting with approximately 68 megalitres of stormwater harvested from the nearby suburb of South Yarra. This water will enter the gardens through two stormwater pipes that will deliver the water into the Gardens’ lakes where it will be filtered on-site through a series of wetlands. This has the added benefit of removing 68 megalitres of diluted oil, dog faeces, salt and other pollutants washed from nearby streets that would normally run into the Yarra River.

In 1876 William Guilfoyle designed a reservoir in the shape of a bluestone-lined volcano that appeared to rise from the highest point of the Royal Botanic Gardens, with lawns created to mimic the lava flows between massed planting of shrubs, representing outcrops of land. For nearly 70 years it was filled with water from the Yarra River, which was then gravity fed to the rest of the gardens.

“It was possibly inspired by Guilfoyle’s plant collecting trips around the South Pacific,” senior designer Andrew Laidlaw said. “The Volcano was designed as a ‘Garden Folly’, a feature that visitors would come across in their meanderings around the gardens. “It holds 1.4 megalitres of water, which is enough for one cycle of our current irrigation.” However, Guilfoyle’s plan was plagued with many problems – including the loss of fresh water in the lower Yarra after waterfalls at Queens Street were blasted in 1879 to alleviate flooding and allow larger boats upstream. By the 1950s the irrigation system was attached to mains water and the volcano was locked up and slowly forgotten. Hidden by dense stands of olive trees, eucalypts and weeds, it was passed by generations of joggers and walkers without its being noticed – until a 1997 master plan called for its redevelopment.

Then drought hit. Toxic blue-green algae became a regular problem in the Gardens’ lakes, and mud flats were a common appearance in the Ornamental Lake – so a rescue plan seemed more appropriate than a simple redevelopment.

Laidlaw considers himself “very lucky” to be the one who landed the “plum job” of revitalising the feature – and he believes the timing was perfect, too. “If I’d been doing this five years ago we would probably have just done a pretty water feature, but now with the current water crisis it’s become an integral part of the Gardens’ water system,” he said. Along with Richard Barley, Peter Symes and Stephen Paterson, Laidlaw is part of a highly water-smart team that meant the RBG was one of the first Australian Botanic Gardens to develop an award- winning irrigation management plan that has been used overseas as a blueprint for other gardens.

While working on a revamped layout and drought-friendly plantings, Laidlaw consulted with both hydraulic and civil engineers about the possibility of filling the volcano with stormwater. “It was discovered that large amounts of stormwater from nearby suburbs was going straight into the Yarra [River] or to Albert Park and into the sea. Because stormwater hits the river fast it stirs it up and affects the flow rate, as well as carrying road rubbish and pollutants. By redirecting water through the gardens first, it reduces the water flow rate and cleans it. “The extra 68 megalitres is not enough to water the whole gardens but eventually, as part of stage 3, we hope to siphon off 120–150 megalitres of water required through a sewerage–water harvesting scheme,” Laidlaw said.

Becoming totally water-sufficient will be expensive, but Melbourne City Council wants all its parks off potable water-irrigation. Revamping the volcano cost $1.5 million and the next stage is to build the Working Wetlands in the Ornamental, Central and Nymphaea Lakes, which will cost about $2.5 million. Project Manager Stephen Paterson said tenders have been called for and it is hoped the 12-month project will start later this year.

Of the 68 megalitres captured, allowing for evaporation and overflow, “the modelling indicates we will be able to substitute about 40% of potable water with harvested stormwater,” Paterson said. The sewerage-harvesting scheme – if funding can be found for it – will cost at least $10 million. By contrast, water costs the gardens between $100,000 and $120,000 a year – and that is after spending $4 million on a new irrigation system in 1993, which has cut water use by more than half to 130 megalitres a year. “What’s exciting is we’ve got a whole new way of working with water that is environmentally friendly. And we’re actually bringing water to Fern Gully for the first time in years and bringing water to the parts of the garden that need reinvigorating. All based around the volcano.”


Two stormwater pipelines will be diverted to the RBG, carrying about 68 megalitres of water a year into the Ornamental Lake and a receiving wetland in Nymphaea Lake. The water goes through a gross pollutant trap to remove larger pieces of rubbish and sediments before flowing through a series of wetlands where less visible pollution is removed. Wetlands will be constructed in the Ornamental, Central and Nymphaea Lakes. The lake silt will be removed and clay used to line the area and build levees, creating pools of varying depths to hold the stormwater and selected wetland plants, which will grow in different depths of water. A bio-film of bacteria and fungi will grow on the large plant surface area and act as the engine of the wetland, removing nutrients from the water as it slowly flows through the wetland. Plants are also chosen for their ability to take up nutrients and top growth will be harvested and composted to remove the nutrients from the system.

Water from the Nymphaea Lake then flows through the Fern Gully – where waterfalls and mini rapids aerate the water – and into the Central and Ornamental lakes. Water will be circulated through the lakes and wetlands and pumped to the highest point in the Gardens, Guilfoyle’s Volcano. From this reservoir, garden beds on the Volcano slopes will be watered by sub-surface irrigation. The water will then flow back to the Nymphaea Lake and so will circulate through the wetlands; the whole cycle takes about 30 days. By pumping water from the deeper parts of the lake any layers of warm and cool water are mixed, which helps reduce the frequency and duration of Blue-Green algae blooms. Floating garden beds will be installed in the lakes and act as treatment wetlands, as the plants’ bio film-covered roots remove nutrients and improve the water quality.

After the fires: The healing power of a cuppa



New, green tendrils contrast with the charred timber of a lost home

Strathewen resident Robert Bell thought he’d been coping well all year.

A sensitive man by nature, he fiddles with a home-rolled cigarette and cup of coffee while remembering his escape from the Black Saturday fires with his 94-year-old neighbour, but his voice remains calm and doesn’t recall feeling afraid.

Nearly a year later, he is still looking for a shed to live in, but he has developed a daily routine that helps: mornings spent weeding the bush – for the love of it – a lunchtime visit to the Hurstbridge support centre for a cuppa and a chat, then off to his shift work in a haulage firm.

Then, around Christmas, he suddenly felt a huge loss.

“I feel like I’ve lost my whole identity,” he said then, surprised by the force of it. “I think it’s only just hit me.”

Individuals are finding each their own path to recovery, which has to be taken at their own pace, but as they prepared for the February 7 anniversary, many spoke of an overwhelming exhaustion.

Driving along the St Andrews-Kinglake Road, there is a mixture of rebuilt homes, new slabs showing promise for the future – and land for sale by those who got so far then decided they could go no further.

“Everyone was going to return to start with,” recalls Sonja Parkinson, whose house was one of about 30 lost in Ninks Road, St Andrews. Miraculously, no one was injured – at least not physically.

“I think for some people it suddenly all got too hard.”

Weighed down with a chest infection, a fractious three-year-old and a mountain of work to be done rebuilding both their business and a shed for temporary accommodation on their creek-side site, she had almost hit the wall herself.

“I don’t want to sound like I’m whinging because all the government help and donations have been really good, but everything just takes so much effort – everyone’s exhausted.

“It’s a lot of paperwork and a lot of people who are very vulnerable will find it really difficult to get through – I wouldn’t be surprised if not all the money had been accessed at the end.”

Applications for grants close in February and many credit the Hurstbridge Support Centre – run by a band of volunteers since March – with helping them sort through the paperwork and keep going.

For at least six days a week over the past 10 months, a band of volunteers has been there to support those affected by the Black Saturday fires.

Ask how they did it and organiser Helen Legg will say the team could not have managed without the support of the survivors themselves, some of whom cooked meals, others unloaded trucks of boxes and furniture and one even donated $1000 after burglars broke into the Hurstbridge-based centre and stole money from the sale of fund-raising calendars.

“Most of these people are very independent and they need to give something back,” she explains.

In-kind gifts and those who keep giving

There has been a lot of giving over the past year – first the generous donations of cash and in-kind goods and help in the immediate wake of the fires, then the ongoing kindness, labour, sympathy, and non-judgemental support that volunteers have contributed since then – some on a daily basis.

At the Hurstbridge centre – unofficially nicknamed Helen’s Place – a dedicated band of women have put in hours of effort to meet the ever-changing needs of displaced residents from nearby St Andrews, Strathewen, Arthurs Creek, Strath Creek, Kinglake and further afield.

Begging the use of an empty weatherboard opposite the primary school – generously given by an owner who turned down an 18-month lease in favour of its community use with no guaranteed rent – the centre has become a second home to many survivors who call by, often daily, for a coffee, chat, quiet cry or just a packet of toilet paper and some new clothes.

“In the early days we had a lot of people who were very traumatised and who still hadn’t even accessed any government support. There were people who were still shell shocked and a lot of elderly people who were trying to cope with the whole cleaning up their house and just became so overwhelmed because every time they thought all the black soot had gone the wind would blow it all back in,” Helen recalled.

The mix of personalities at the Hurstbridge centre helped them break through, buoyed by the constant banter and laughter that the close friends all share – although when the visitors have gone for the day and a bottle of Chardy is opened, the humour often turns dark: “That’s how we coped,” Fiona explained.

Quieter visitors tended to hang around in the back rooms with down-to-earth, natural comedian Fiona, who would put folk at ease until they were ready to talk about accessing more formal aid.

“We’d be constantly taking people down to Arthurs Creek and Diamond Creek to get them hooked up with those official government services, or to get them a blue form that gave them access to Salvos or St Vincent de Paul and other grants,” Helen continued.

In the winter – one of the coldest on record and a nightmare for those still ‘camping out’ – the centre set up a cosy lounge area and a makeshift laundry in the carport, and the girls would do people’s washing as they shopped or battled the endless paperwork.

When Mick Gatto reportedly had a run in with Christine Nixon about donating $800,000 that she allegedly rejected, Helen rang Jon Faine on ABC Radio “just for a laugh” and said “if Mick Gatto wants to do something I’ve got a long list of people who need white goods”.

While Helen never heard from Mr Gatto, she did get a call from the Bayside Church who’d been wanting to contribute; they agreed to set up a white goods program that is just starting to wind down, after contributing more than $200,000 worth of new cookers, fridges, washing machines – all specially chosen to meet families’ specific needs – as well as laptops for Year 12 students and businesses.

Back in her ‘normal’ job as a flight attendant, Helen met Bill Shorten on a flight and asked him to organise a visit from Beaconsfield mine survivor Brant Webb.

“He really spoke to them – he really understood what they were going through and put in so much time with people,” Helen said.

Then there was lobbying for containers for people to store this largesse, as well as specific projects, such as a replacement piano for a musician who’d lost everything and a new motorbike for a teenager who lost both his brand new bike and his best friend in the fires.

“He’s a great lad but his world had just crashed.

“We spent ages with him looking for the right replacement. Jake saved $1500, his mum and dad gave $1000 each, the two community health services in Nillimbuk gave $500 each, Diamond Valley Baptist Church gave $500 and Bayside Community Care gave $2500 and we gave a measly $100 for some gear, and we presented it to him two weekends ago,” Helen said. “I got a lovely text from him last weekend saying ‘I’ve been riding it all weekend and it’s sweet as – thanks so much’, and his mum texted to say ‘I can see a change in him already’. “

Being caught up in such a flood of physical and emotional needs have seen many volunteers – and survivors – develop a whole new set of skills. Others have re-thought their lives and, embracing the new, have moved on from lifestyles or relationships that suddenly seemed flawed.

Volunteers co-ordinated a number of working bees in the St Andrews area until public liability insurance became a problem. In Nillumbik, the council has taken over this task and is still keen to sign up new volunteers.

“We’ve been getting the Conservation Volunteers Australia to help out recently because all the regular volunteers are exhausted after helping all year,” Council co-ordinator Sue Aldred said.

First, swallow your pride…

Rebuilding: Colin, Sonja and Bobby are determined to stay.

Rebuilding: Colin, Sonja and Sam are determined to stay.

Ironically for folk who have spent the past 20 years supporting the East Timorese people through the Dili All-Stars, trombonist Sonja Parkinson and her husband Colin Buckler – former drummer with the Painters and Dockers – have found it hard being on the receiving end of help.

“We’ve found it really uncomfortable accepting all these things but we’ve had to learn to. It’s easier to accept the official grants than cash from individuals.”

After a distant cousin read about Sonja and Colin’s story online – how they sheltered in the burning house with three other families until the last minute, then escaped to a creek refuge, along with two lyre birds, just seconds before the house collapsed – Sonja even received help from an unknown Parkinson in Canada, who worked out they were related and sent cash.

The many thoughtful gifts have had a huge impact.

“Our case worker got us a Christmas tree, and Sam was given this lovely little table and chair set from some part-time bus drivers in Bacchus Marsh, plus we received a beautiful quilt… there are so many kind people.”

It’s good to have some positives to balance out memories such as the week after the fires, when each day would bring news of another friend confirmed lost from the hill above their house – Kinglake’s notorious Bald Spur Road, where only three people survived.

The journey home

Sonja and Colin kept visiting their block from day one, but others who stayed away are finding it harder to return.

Helen Legg has found that those who left their homes before the fires hit are dealing with rebuilding better than those who experienced the inferno. Those with young children are also finding the rebuilding hard work and Helen is also concerned that former residents who have found accommodation out of the area are not been getting the support they need.

Further along Ninks Road, retiree Steve Law has been slowing working away at preparing his block for rebuilding – a new house site has been excavated and the old footings will form the basis of a memorial garden – but when he finally reached the point where he felt ready to get his block BAL assessed for fire threat level, he discovered the free scheme had closed. He still plans to get a shed up and caravan onsite by February – but isn’t so optimistic about how he’ll persuade his wife Vicki to return.

“She’s not real keen,” he admits.

They stayed to fight the fire but, despite their toughened glass staying intact, their curtains exploded into flames from the radiant heat, forcing them to find refuge by the Diamond Creek – along with a small herd of goats, some ducks and a singed wallaby.

For many of those receiving rental help from insurance companies, the money runs out in early February – some earlier – so the financial pressure is on, too.

“People think we’re rolling in insurance money, but it’s cost me $19,000 just getting the block ready and, with the new building standards, everything’ll cost more, too,” he said.

No one is quite sure how they will react to the first code red day this summer; one case worker said it took her several hours to calm a Strathewen survivor who thought she smelled smoke on a 39C day in December.

Then there is the anniversary itself to deal with.

Sharing the experience – and strength

But there is a strong sense of sharing. A survivor now living in a caravan on her land relates how touched she was when a young man pulled up one evening with a six-pack of beer.

“He said ‘I’m living in a caravan too and I don’t know if your husband enjoys a drink, but I’ve been driving past every day on my way home from work and decided it was time to call in and say hello’.

“They ended up talking for hours.”

It’s the women who have really led the way with looking after each other.

One of the strongest support networks that has emerged in the aftermath of the fires is the Ladies of the Black Belt, formed when a group of St Andrews women realised how few of their neighbours they knew – and how many needed help and support.

“Most of us live on acreage so you don’t see a lot of your neighbours; we thought afterwards we really should get together and help each other through this thing,” Rae said.

A list of about 78 directly affected women in St Andrews North was pieced together and in May, 21 of them returned to the Black Belt for a lunch – held at the repaired vineyard home of Cathy Lance.

Since that first emotional meeting the group has remained in contact, meeting two or three times a month, cementing friendships, having fun and sharing enormous support.

“It is the silver lining that now we have discovered the friendship and support of so many talented, interesting individuals,” says Cathy.

“We meet for coffee about every three weeks,” adds Elizabeth, who knew 17 of those lost in the fires.

“It’s the only group of people I feel truly safe with.”

Widowed and rendered homeless on Black Saturday, Elizabeth admits she still has very bad days when she does not cope.

“I bumped into a neighbour outside the shops the other day and he said: ‘You good, Elizabeth?’ I’d had an awful week and just went off at him: ‘Of course I’m not good! How could I be good?’ “

But all agree that, without the fellowship of the Black Belt – and support from centres such as Helen’s Place – they would be far worse.

“We didn’t really have a plan when we started, and we still don’t have plan,” laughs Fiona, wife of a CFA volunteer, and a stalwart of the Hurstbridge support centre since day one. “We thought ‘Well, it’ll stay open at least a month’.”

Now they are hoping the centre might become a place to sell the art and handiwork survivors have created.

“I think that’s our strength,” counters Helen. “We changed to meet people’s needs as they emerged, and we’re still evolving.”

POST SCRIPT June 2010: Steve was right; his wife didn’t want to return and they have now bought a property in Albury, where they are settling in well. Rob has now retired and weeds all day long if he can – and feels a lot better for it. But, as the second winter sets in, Rae is still living in a caravan. At least one other person in this story is now divorced, and one is in a new relationship.

Greener lawns

Published in Sanctuary magazine, Issue 11


Words: Jane Canaway

Myoporum parvifolium used instead of grass in a nature strip.

Myoporum parvifolium used instead of grass in a nature strip.

A shady place to read; somewhere to catch the sun; a flat spot for games; lawns can provide all these and more, but their cost in terms of water use and maintenance has relegated them to the bottom of the green league.

Luckily, canny landscapers have been busy devising clever alternatives, including drought-tolerant turf and native grasses.

When considering the various options, gardeners should consider what it is they most want from a lawn. Should it be a place to play or to entertain, or do you want a lawn for purely aesthetic reasons?

Lawn Alternatives


If your aim is to create an area of low-growing, lush greenery to set off surrounding beds, then groundcovers may suffice. “I like to use Myoporum parvifolium to create an area of green contrast, with stepping stones set into it,” says garden designer Wendy Clarke who, after training with Sustainable Gardening Australia, is accredited to offer environmental advice. “You can’t walk on it but it has pretty pink flowers in spring and it looks lovely all year round.”

Other hardy plants that create a dense cover include many saltbushes (such as Atriplex semibaccata, Enchylaena tomentosa and Einadia nutans), which are also fire-retardant and provide habitat and food for skinks.

Many non-grasses will not tolerate traffic, but the new fine-leafed Lomandra cultivars are impressively hard wearing. Garden designer Liz Turner used it to great effect to replace some dead lawn around a trampoline. “The site is in full sun and the soil was pure clay so I dug in lots of compost first, then planted it out with Lomandra ‘Lime Tuff’,” she said. Two years later and despite heavy use by four boys and a Labrador dog the soft, tussocky mounds are looking lush and healthy.

Synthetic turf

If you worry about embedded energy costs in petroleum-based products, skip this section, but if a perfect green sward is your thing, read on.

Pros of synthetic turfs include year-round colour, shade-tolerance, a mud-free edge to pools, great drainage, rain-permeability and no mowing. Cons can include high upfront cost, heat retention, limited warranties, sterility – synthetic turfs produce no oxygen and provide no habitat – and the need for maintenance.

Hard surfaces

For high traffic areas, timber decking or stone paving may be preferred. A major consideration, however, is the extra heat pavers retain on a hot day. Shading a paved area with a deciduous tree or carefully designed pergola can help. “I try to reduce the amount of hard surfaces I use,” says garden designer Phil Johnson. He stresses the importance of considering stormwater: “You need to think about using the run off; if you get in early in a project you can also collect the water from underneath by using permeable surfaces so it drains through.”

When nothing else will do:

Native lawns

Native grasses have low water use, provide great habitat for all forms of wildlife and can offer interesting colours (red leg grass), seed heads (wallaby, kangaroo, windmill and spear grasses) and textures (silky blue and plume grass).

However, most are grown from seed (the deep roots make turf production difficult) and develop slowly, so need patience, hand weeding and some watering until established; chemical broadleaf herbicides are not recommended for the first few months.

Also, because many are tussock forming or have only short rhizomes they are slower to regrow if damaged by heavy foot traffic. Two showpiece lawns have been sown at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne, where they survive well but daily footy matches are not recommended.

At most, native lawns will only need mowing up to six times a year – usually to remove seed heads – and the blades should be kept high, around 25-40 mm. Weeping grass may benefit from an application of fertiliser if the leaves show some yellowing, but redgrass and wallaby grasses rarely need it. All will appreciate watering but have much lower needs than exotic species.

Microlaena stipoides (weeping grass) is the best native lawn grass,” says Phil Johnson. “Having said that, we need to educate people about what is an acceptable-looking lawn. I don’t like a scruffy look, so I choose Microlaena, but I can still see the beauty in an expanse of Danthonia (wallaby grass) with flower heads blowing in the wind.”


* Microlaena stipoides (weeping grass) will survive frosts and extended hot, dry periods, but may lose leaf if not watered during these times.

* Austrodanthonia (wallaby grass) is heat and drought tolerant, green all year round and hardier than weeping grass.

* Bothriochloa macra (red grass) is heat and drought tolerant. It is adapted to acid soils and low fertility soils.


Ko-Warra Native Grasses – www.nativegrasses.com.au; (03) 5480 9778

Native Seeds Pty Ltd – www.nativeseeds.com.au; (03) 9555 1722

Drought-tolerant Exotic Turf

If you want a lush green lawn and you can’t live with a native lawn then the following turfs have been developed for Australian conditions:

* Sir Walter buffalo is one of the best for Australian conditions and lifestyle, combining soft texture with resilience and low water use.

* Buffalo Sapphire is a warm-season grass. It reportedly retains good winter colour in most southern states but will become dormant in colder areas such as Canberra.

* Matilda is a semi dwarf buffalo that is recommended by NSW-based Bill’s Turf Supplies as one of the most drought-tolerant grasses. It tolerates full sun, part shade up to 80 per cent, temperatures below zero, salty soil and clay and rocky soils.


Bill’s Turf Supplies
02 8999 7684; www.billsturfsupplies.com.au
turf, including Matilda, empire and Durban

Buchanan Turf Website
1300 554 442; www.sirwalter.com.au
Sir Walter buffalo

1300 25 2000; www.ozbreed.com.au
sapphire, native species and strappy plants

Exotic lawn maintenance

“Anyone can have a lawn if they reduce it to a sustainable area and use whatever water is on site,” says Phil Johnson. Harvest as much water as possible, including stormwater and greywater. Wendy Clarke estimates 40,000 litres can sustain up to 40 square metres of lawn, based on an average rainfall of 650–700mm.

Preparing the soil for a lawn is also important. “Normally I avoid having too much sand in soil, but for lawns you need a fair bit to avoid the soil becoming too compacted,’’ Wendy says. “To make sure the soil can still hold enough water and nutrients, I always use Hydrocell water retaining foam and try to get as much organic matter into the soil as I can.”

Adding sand to soil will permanently improve its drainage. Gypsum dug into clay soils will improve friability and drainage by chemically binding the super-fine clay particles together to improve drainage.

Turf is best laid in spring; if warmer weather cannot be avoided, help it settle in by deep watering with Seasol or similar shock-reducing fertiliser, and regular watering.

Then there’s maintenance. “One of the most important aspects of having a lawn is how you mow it,” says Phil. “The easiest way to kill a lawn is to mow it so low that the roots burn and the soil dries out. Keep it long and lush and it can retain more water that way.”

The national website of the Savewater! Alliance, www.savewater.com.au, recommends using a slow-release fertiliser once a year and a liquid boost as needed.