"Summertime blues"

How to keep our plants alive?
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.

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!

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.

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.

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!

 Reader Comments

1/10  Barbara - 2580 (Zone:8-9 - Cool Temperate to Alpine) Monday, 15 January 2018

For years I"ve been using fallen leaves, light prunings, spent annuals, etc. as mulch. Yes, it does break down but, in the process, uses nitrogen, so I add a light dressing of blood and bone as I go. I dig the mulch into the soil every year before adding the next autumn"s offering of leaves. Thanks for making this point, Barbara; I will do likewise. Deirdre

2/10  Peta - 2758 (Zone:9 - Cool Temperate) Monday, 15 January 2018

Sorry no magic solutions from this gardener. I went for an early morning walk with the camera and can see that the hoses are going to have to be dragged around again today. I think you"re right about the hand held, aim at the roots method although an evening gentle misting can work wonders for the garden and its carer"s sense of well being. I began a comprehensive list of plants that were surviving well. Some surprised me. Cotinus (I prune this hard), Loropetalum, Spiraeas.....no more words! Thanks, Peta. Sadly, one of my loropetalums is a casualty of the drought -- I think it was planted too close to paving. Deirdre

3/10  Barbara - 6025 (Zone:10 - Mediteranean) Monday, 15 January 2018

Yes a hard one from the west, soil water repellent that no amount of top soil watering will wet it. In the past when I had access to horse manure it worked wonders to deal with that last problem, I guess horse urine dealt with it. I tried drip systems, they do not work with my water as it contains lots of calcium, so now I use old plastic bottles dug into soil next to tender plants and fill them with water. With a big garden it will not work, I think we need to change our planting choices. I like the bottle idea. I agree we need to rethink some of our planting decisions. Deirdre

4/10  Helen - 7256 (Zone:10 - Mediteranean) Monday, 15 January 2018

We are lucky to have our own water supply. Only need to water about once a week through the driest part of summer. Garden too big for a watering system. Challenge for me is to remember where I am up to in the schedule. New plantings/relocations do need more water in their first year. I mark these plants with a stake and a piece of bright blue baling twine (code for please water me more often). ALSO seeing your plant of the week reminds me I must plant my new rain lilies TODAY! I like your tips on watering! The rain lilies are great -- and tough too. They really do respond to rain -- mine are responding to the downpour we had a week ago here. Deirdre

5/10  Robin - 2121 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 15 January 2018

Hmmm Deirdre it is tricky. Some of my succulents burn (and wilt!) esp. if they are planted near concrete or brick. There are a number of old-fashioned plants like the older geranium and pelagonium cultivars and daisies that can cope and grey-leafed plants like Plectranthus Nicoletta or Argentatus. I agree with Peta about Loropetalum. Mine is in full sun and doesn"t miss a beat. I bucket-water anything "precious" the night before a forecast scorcher but that is labour intensive. Roll on Autumn. I agree that planting near concrete and brick can cause issues, as with my loropetalum. Like you, I long for autumn. Deirdre

6/10  Bren - 2540 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 15 January 2018

I water just enough to keep things alive, which is not ideal, but saves me a lot of time. I usually use a hose directed at the roots. Another thing I do is use a bucket that has sprung a small leak at the base. I aim the hole at the base of the plant I want to water, and fill the bucket. This ensures that that plant gets an entire bucket full of water and there is no run off. Clearly I cant do this for all plants; just the weak looking or newly planted. I like the leaky bucket idea! Deirdre

7/10  Noeline - 2081 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 15 January 2018

After a horrible 45 degree day I used droughtshield on the newgrowth of some of my worst affected plants It has worked a treat since and we have had some hot days , it is supposed to last for 3 months so I may apply it next year before it gets too hot the only trouble is it only will do a few plants so be selective or expect to pay...I water the roots of plants with a hose and use mulch the same way Barbara does as above I think sprinklers use too much water and encourage fungal growth. Thanks, Noeline. Good to know that the DroughtShield worked for you. I am trying to change my ways and not use sprinklers any more! Deirdre

8/10  Virginia - 2125 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Tuesday, 16 January 2018

I can totally empathise with you Dierdre. Previous summers I have rushed out and covered vulnerable plants with shade cloth when I knew i twas going to be over 35 but this year I decided to see what happened and am determined to get rid of or move anything that can"t stand the heat.Of course my fuschias have burnt but surprisingly the oak leaved hydrangea which I always covered hasn"t so it will remain but the fuschias must go. I am now busy planning what I can put in their place. It is certainly interesting to see what copes and what does not. I do think things I have planted in too much sun and vulnerable and I plan to move them into more shade in autumn. Some of my fuchsias seem to cope all right - the very tough, old-fashioned ones. Deirdre

9/10  Gaynor - 5044 (Zone:10 - Mediteranean) Wednesday, 17 January 2018

I do several things; most have been mentioned. Installed a rain water tank, although it runs out before end of summer. Installed a drip system which has worked well so far. I water the roots of vulnerable plants and dig a small "trench" around them so that the water doesn"t run away. I mulch heavily with almost anything, just bought 3 bags of horse manure today. Built a cover over the hydrangeas - some shalon cloth which was left over from another job. Focus on drought tolerant plants. Thanks, Gaynor. I like all your suggestions! Deirdre

10/10  Shaun - 2075 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Thursday, 18 January 2018

Deirdre, I just discovered your site and love the name so just joined. I also live in a Northern suburb of Sydney. I read an article a couple of weeks ago about Brillantaisia and would love to track down a piece as it would fill some bare spots in a hot sunny corner. 8-9 years ago I fell in love with natives and am thrilled this summer to have the best flowering of my two Summer Reds and now Buckinghamias. Glad to have discovered you. Shaun HurleLovely to hear from you, Shaun. Brillantaisia is such a great plant. You may find it at the Friends Nursery at the Botanic Garden in Sydney as they stock a lot of the Acanthaceae family plants. Also you can put a request into our "Plant Share" feature on the home page of our website and somebody may be able to give you a cutting. Deirdre

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