Summertime blues

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Burnt heads of Hydrangea Ayesha

I loved summer when I was a kid. Those long, idyllic days of the Christmas holidays, which seemed to stretch out infinitely ahead, were a joy. Now I have come to dread the season. The prospect of frequent extremely hot days, which have suddenly seemed to become the norm in Sydney, fill me with fear for the fate of my poor garden. Gardening is not a pleasure at these times; it becomes simply all about watering.

Like many others, we received our water bill this week, and it wasn't pretty. Even though I protested under cross-examination that it has been so very, very dry and that surely spending money on watering the garden, than say on expensive shoes or handbags (which would have cost way more) was morally defensible, I felt deeply ashamed of myself. Through this summer, with so little rain falling, I have been energetically watering my garden. Seeming to forget all I ever knew about the right way to water, I have been dragging sprinklers endlessly round the garden and running them far longer than I should have, in the terror that my garden was simply going to frizzle up in every predicted heatwave.

What we should not be doing

I've since tried to bring to the forefront of consciousness all I once knew about watering! Directing water at the roots is a very important point. A recent stint of watering a local community planting of shrubs for a friend whilst she is on holidays has reminded me of this. My friend's advice on spending a good few minutes with a hand-held hose directed to the base of each of the shrubs was a wake-up call to me and I have now resolved to mend my ways and start watering my garden the right way again. The fancy spray patterns of water from my sprinkler may have looked deliciously cool and reviving for my plants, but how much was really getting to the roots? Lots of the water was going anywhere but to them. Meticulous handheld hosing is probably the very best method, but it is certainly time consuming. Installing dripper systems through garden beds is an alternative, so that water trickles only into the ground and avoids wetting the foliage, which can lead to fungal problems. Timer systems can be connected to these to automate them, or they can be turned on and off manually. It's important to check the drip lines periodically to make sure the drippers are not blocked and that there are no cuts in the pipes (due to over-enthusiastic digging!). The irony of all this is that I already have such a system but had assumed in my delirium it would not be sufficient to save my plants!

Example of dripper pipe, laid on the ground through garden beds

Extra cycles of the drippers are surely warranted when real scorcher days are predicted and/or thorough hand-watering of vulnerable plants. Time of day of watering is also an important consideration. Early morning or evening are the best times, because watering in the heat of the day (especially with my sprinklers!) means much of the water simply evaporates before it gets to the plant roots. Frequency and length of time of watering are also issue: frequent, shallow watering can bring roots up to the surface, making them more dependent on surface watering and hence more vulnerable to damage when they don't get it! Far better to encourage the development of a deep root system.

Actually checking the soil to see how dry it is can be helpful in knowing when to water. I have to confess I never did this over the previous few months: I just keep on watering, as if in the grip of some crazed obsession. I also couldn't bear to see my plants wilting; as soon as they started to droop, it was on with the sprinkler again. However, plants generally do recover after the heat of the day is over, and I should have checked the soil first! I recently saw a cute moisture-sensor gadget that a friend had, which could be a useful aid.

Sample of the rough mulch I am using from chopped-up garden prunings, leaves etc

Soil can become hydrophobic, repelling rather than absorbing moisture, so use of a soil-wetter product can be helpful to make sure the water really gets into the ground. I haven't ever used water crystals to increase the moisture in the soil, but they are an option. Regularly adding organic matter to the soil will also help its water-holding capability. Covering the soil with a surface mulch is also vital in helping to retain moisture. In previous years, I have used cane mulch for this purpose, and it is very effective; however, I am currently experimenting with using the partly-decomposed material that has been put through our mulching machine and allowed to rot down for a while: a combination of such things as autumn leaves, woody prunings and spent annuals with lawn clippings. This is a coarse, rough substance, certainly not compost, but my hope is that it will ultimately break down into a useful addition of organic matter, but also act as an effective mulch in the meantime.

Keeping weeds under control is also a way of making sure the water you add to the garden is not being siphoned off by these unwanted plants. The mulch should also help to keep weeds down to some extent. Gentle watering is also best, as a deluge of water is likely to simply run off and be wasted, and can also compact the soil around the roots, to their detriment. Mounding mulch into a wide, shallow basin around shrubs and trees can help the water that is applied stay close to the plant rather than simply flow away.

Potted plants such as this basil need daily watering in hot weather

Of course, vegetable crops need frequent watering, and pot plants and recently planted specimens will need daily watering on very hot days, as the root systems of the latter will not be well developed. It certainly isn't the ideal time to be planting! I have noticed that certain plants that have borne the brunt of the worst of the heatwaves are ones that should have been placed in shadier spots. I am starting to appreciate shade in the garden in a whole new way, as it provides protection to plants on the hottest days. It is possible to provide temporary shade to plants by throwing old sheets over them whenever a heatwave is predicted. Anti-desiccant products such as DroughtShield can be sprayed over foliage to reduce transpiration on hot days, though I have never done this much myself. I am also taking note of those plants that have not turned a hair through the whole awful summer to date. I have toyed with the idea of populating the garden totally with tough succulent plants that can sail through summer unscathed - but we are surely likely to get a lot of rain again at some stage (remember March 2017?), at which time succulents can rot off.

In any case, I certainly feel I have learned valuable lessons about watering this summer. Hopefully the next water bill won't be quite as bad!? I would love to hear from readers as to your watering methods and tips for helping your gardens survive!