We Will Rebuild – Gardening After
Throughout February and March, 2009, Victorian communities were devastated by some of the
fiercest, most intense bushfires this country has ever seen. Sadly, these tragic events led to
significant loss of human life, as well as loss of livestock, livelihoods, remnant bushland, wildlife and
property. In true Australian spirit, Victoria’s fire ravaged communities have promised to rebuild,
from the ground up. Part of this re-building process is, of course, the re-planting and re-greening of
these affected places. From the regeneration of natural bushland, the restoration of public parks and
amenity gardens, the re-establishment of community gardens and the very personal task of renewing
home gardens and vegie patches, this process will play an important part in helping these stricken
communities to recover.
Rising From the Ashes – The Role of Sustainable Gardening
in Bushfire Recovery
It is highly likely that the restoration of gardens in fire affected areas is the last thing on the minds
of most Australians at this time, and with good reason. But gardens certainly have a role to play in
bushfire recovery in the longer term, on both an individual, and a community scale. Gardens have
long been regarded as places of healing, of contemplation, of meditation and of remembrance.
Gardens have the ability to alleviate stress, to soothe, to calm, and to rejuvenate or restore mental
and emotional health.1
Communities will, as they rebuild, need to connect with these spaces of
remembrance, reflection and quiet contemplation.
The restoration of gardens on a small scale, in the home environment, has the added benefit of a
“return to normality” after a traumatic event. The first burst of seeds through the soil is symbolic,
not just of a “re-birthing”, but as a sign of hope, of life rising from devastation, a sharp and welcome
contrast of living green on black. As Paul Kelly, that most famous of Australian songsmiths has told
us, “from little things, big things grow”, and the sowing of new gardens is a representation of hope
and optimism, for individuals and entire communities.
Soil and Vegetation after fires – What to expect
The unprecedented intensity and temperature of these particular fires, coupled with the long term
drought and the unlikely occurrence of decent rain in the short term means that setting up gardens
in these areas may be more difficult than usual. The temperature of the bushfires reached, at times,
1200ºc. The effect of this type of high intensity fire on property, vegetation and utilities, is readily
apparent but what about the damage to the soil? After all, soil is the building block of life, the
foundation of all required to nurture new life.
Soil is a living, breathing entity, teaming with essential life forms eg fungi, worms, microbes, insects
and much more besides. Healthy soil is a porous mixture of minerals, air, water, organic matter,
including leaf litter, tree roots, humus (broken down organic matter) and plant material. All fires,
regardless of intensity, alter the structure and behaviour of soil, but, in many cases, the impacts are
short lived and the surrounding ecosystems recover rapidly.2
This will not be the case in the current
season (2009) of the Victorian bushfires. The extreme temperatures and severity of the fires,
coupled with the low soil moisture content, the amount of vegetation affected and the pre- and post
fire conditions, all suggest that the soils in the areas impacted upon will be severely damaged, and
will take some time to recover. Add to this the extreme amount of ash now present on the surface of
the soil, much of which is probably contaminated, and landholders in this area will face a tough slog
to revegetate and commence growing again.
So, what can fire affected areas expect from their soil? The short answer is not much, at least not for
a fair while. The most obvious and significant issue immediately apparent will be the volume of ash
coating the soil surface. In some areas, it has been reported that the ash is in excess of 30cm deep.
Wood ash is, in small amounts, beneficial for gardens and soil, with the recommended dosage being
a shovel full per metre square. Ash is generally utilised as a liming agent, due to it’s high alkalinity,
and is also a beneficial source of potassium, calcium and magnesium. However, the volume of ash
now present exceeds any recommended maximum, and the temperature of the bushfires will have
rendered this ash almost completely useless.
Ash also has another unfavourable characteristic, in that, due to its small particle size, it will repel
water, and thereby act as a barrier to rain and any other irrigation from permeating the soil. Known
as hydrophobicity, this water repellant characteristic of ash, coupled with the existing hydrophobic
nature of much of Victoria’s drought affected soils, will leave landholders in this area despondent for
Ash is also incredibly light, and easily shifted in light as well as gusty winds. This has already been
evidenced by much of Victoria on the 3rd March 2009 when extreme winds saw much of the state
covered in what appeared to be fine dust. This was, in large part, due to dispersing ash from the
bushfire areas. Heavy rains (although we need them) will see much of the ash in these areas become
a sludge, moving amoeba-like down slopes, and coming to rest in dams, waterways and low lying
areas. Landholders attempting to protect water resources in these areas will need to consider the
construction of “ash barriers”. These are low net like constructions erected around water ways,
especially those that connect to larger water courses, or those that are used to supply water to
stock. Ash generally contains a high level of potassium (although this is not definitive with the ash
residue from these fires) and as such, has the potential to turn a pristine dam into a blue-green algal
nightmare. In addition water for livestock should be kept as free from ash contaminants as possible.
So, is the solution to send in machinery, and scoop away the voluminous quantities of ash to give our
soil a fighting chance? And, if so where will this ash end up, as much of it, especially from built areas
is potentially contaminated with all manner of nasties. Asbestos is the most obvious contaminant, but
consider the less obvious “baddies”. The popularity of treated pine in garden scapes, for edging,
surrounds and play equipment has never been greater, and it’s termite resistant properties make it
an excellent choice for bush areas. However, it is these very properties that will now be present as
contaminants in our soils and ash. Treated pine, also used by the construction industry, is generally
impregnated with a potent mix of copper, chromium and arsenic (CCA)….all of which now lie
inherent in the ashes of our damaged landscapes.
So what to do with the ash? In the short term the answer may be nothing. There is the potential for
some areas to recover naturally, especially as seed and leaf litter become embedded in the ash over
the next few months. Allowing as natural a recovery as possible is ideal, with the exception being
areas that are to be utilized as vegetable gardens. In small areas ash removal can be done, after
taking some practical and sensible precautions. DO NOT ATTEMPT to remove any surface ash
without wearing appropriate protective equipment. Long sleeved clothing, gloves and a good quality
face mask are all absolutely essential. Choose a still day (not windy) and advise all others not
involved in the ash clearing operation to stay well clear, particularly children, animals and those
with respiratory conditions. Then carefully scrape up the cold ash (but not the soil beneath), and
place in large 44-gallon drums with lids. This is probably the best short-term solution for small
spaces, including residences, schools and community gardens. For larger properties… I am still
waiting for the light bulb to go on. If anyone has any suggestions for this, as wild as they may seem,
please let us know.
Part of the healing process that communities need to go through is the process of re-building and re-
connecting and all Australians, not just Victorians, are more than willing to lend a hand, to help a
mate (even those we don’t know) and to share in what ever way they can. Establishing gardens, be
they private, school or community, will be part of this process of re-connecting and of finding a way
to work in harmony once again with the Earth.
Note: Over the coming months SGA will provide regular articles in Cuttings to assist people in
bushfire areas as they slowly re-built their lives and their gardens. We are happy to take suggestions
from readers if there are any specific articles that should take priority. Please email
While donations of plants to fire affected areas are appreciated, it is imperative that
invasive plants and environmental weeds are not introduced to these areas. Please consult
the relevant shire invasive plant listing BEFORE introducing plants. If you are unsure of
appropriate plant choices, please contact Sustainable Gardening Australia.