Horribly hot

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

It is mightily dispiriting to see our plants struggling for survival after so many consecutive days in the high 30s, and with no appreciable rain for over a month. 'Why bother anymore?' is a thought that frequently comes unbidden into my head at the moment: being outside is a totally unpleasant experience and it is very hard to remember the balmy days of spring or the mellow afternoons of last autumn, when it was a sheer joy to be alive and in the garden!

However, I simply can't let my plants die so I have tried to think rationally about what to do. In the days before watering restrictions, we would have just left our sprinklers on all day long, moving them round whenever we remembered. But it is all so different now. On the designated watering days, I am trying first to focus on the plants which are really in trouble, then attempting in turn to soak the garden beds as much as I can in the cool of the evening to minimise evaporation. On soil which seems water repellent, I am using soil-wetting agents such as Saturaid, as these help the water soak into the ground. And how I wish I had used water crystals dug into the soil when planting!

Weeds do really compete with plants for moisture so out they must come. I am also cutting back some of the burnt foliage of the worst-affected plants and removing withered blooms, partly to make myself feel better but also in the hope that removing some of the bulk of the plant will reduce its water needs; though I am not sure whether it would have been better to leave the scorched foliage on until the heatwave is over, to protect other leaves beneath it? There are products such as Stressguard that can be sprayed on to leaves to reduce transpiration so they are worth a try. Another good idea I have heard of is to throw old sheets over very vulnerable plants like fuchsias and hydrangeas on days that are forecast to be extreme. Perhaps a dose of Seasol may also help the plants cope with stress - I intend to give that a go. I am not planning to apply any actual fertilisers to the soil at the moment as I think that would do more harm than good. Mulching with straw, cane mulch, shredded prunings or rough compost really does help to keep the moisture in the ground and reduce the temperature of the soil, so this should be topped up in areas where it has become thin. Eventually, the mulch material will break down into the soil to form humus, which helps to hold moisture in the ground.

The other thing to do is to take a look at your plants and see which are coping the best with the heatwave. Who knows whether this summer is an omen of future weather, but it is worth noting the best survivors of heat just in case it is. In my garden, some of the stalwarts are Abutilon, most of the shrubby Salvia, most of the members of the Acanthaceae family (such as Justicia species, Brillantaisia subulurgica, Pachystachys lutea, Mackaya bella, Strobilanthes species and Dicliptera suberecta), Pentas, shrub, cane and rhizomatous Begonia, and all the decorative members of the Tradescantia genus. Stone-dead plants should be pulled out, but before you consign them to the compost heap, ponder whether they were perhaps planted in the wrong place: in too much sun, for example, like my poor withered hydrangea; or whether they just weren't suited to our climate. And cheer yourself up with the thought that you now have a space to plant something new in autumn!