Summertime and the garden is, well, rather thirsty. All that rain in the winter and the spring was very useful, but some of our plants haven’t learned to make the most of it and could now be looking parched. Apparently this is the way it will be now – wet winters and hot, dry summers. There are lots of plants that like it hot and dry and also many that will appreciate a warm wet winter – few that will tolerate both. This makes it all a bit tricky, but not impossible. There is some good news too though. Less weeds will germinate in hot, dry weather and grass doesn’t grow as fast, so mowing won’t be quite as much of a chore. Slugs and snails will be hiding in shady nooks for much of the time too and don’t like travelling over dry soil. Dry conditions will also make plant growth less sappy and sumptuous for all the pesky sap-suckers out there. Here are some tips that will help your plants to thrive through the driest months:
Retaining soil moisture
Whether your garden soil is heavy clay (which will retain more moisture, but eventually bake hard like concrete in hot dry weather) or sandy (allowing water and nutrients to pass straight through it), or even (lucky you) something in between, it will benefit from the addition of organic matter. This can be incorporated at planting time, in the autumn or spring, and also laid on top of the soil as a mulch. Mulching your borders regularly is probably the single best thing you can do to improve the structure of the soil, it will also encourage beneficial micro-organisms that contribute to healthy plant growth. The mulch should be deep (around 4cm), but make sure you don’t overwhelm the stems of plants. If you’re staring at your parched soil today, then this is not the moment to add it. Mulch needs to be applied to damp soil; if you pile it on top of dry soil, it will act as a barrier and stop any rain from penetrating through. So either water very deeply first, or apply in the autumn or spring, when the soil is moist.
When, how and what to water
Water deeply – the water needs to reach the ‘rootzone’ of the plants, and watering the surface will encourage the roots of plants to stay at the surface instead of heading down to the damper, deeper soil below. Water slowly to allow the moisture to penetrate.
Seedlings, young plants and anything newly planted need careful watering until they establish. This is especially important for new shrubs and trees which will need watering through their first few seasons until their roots grow deeply down into the soil. Water in the evening or early morning, before the sun gets hot and evaporates all your efforts. If slugs are a problem in your garden, watering in the early morning could be a good idea, as the surface of the soil will dry out during the day and put them off – a bit. Only water plants that actually need it, as spraying water everywhere will encourage weeds to germinate and slugs to celebrate.
The rate of growth will be much slower in hot weather, but it won’t stop growing completely. Keep the mower blades raised to prevent the extra stress of a close shave. In prolonged dry spells the grass will turn brown but it won’t die. This is the plant’s natural response to the prevailing conditions – it’s retreating back to its roots (like unemployed offspring) to wait out the drought. It soon greens up again once it rains. Scarifying (raking out the build up of thatch/clippings) in the autumn will allow the roots to breathe and aerating the soil with a fork or hollow tined aerator (which removes small plugs of soil) will help water to penetrate to the roots of the grass. If you have to water, then give the lawn a good soaking every 10 days or so in the evening, rather than a light sprinkling every night, which won’t get down to the roots.
Small pots and hanging baskets will dry out very quickly and may need watering twice a day. Mulch the surface of the soil with something like gravel or slate chippings and consider using water retaining granules (but be careful how you use them as they expand and may explode all the compost out of the pot). A better idea is to grow your plants in bigger containers that won’t dry out quite so quickly. Group pots together to help conserve water and make the chore of watering easier – there’s not much sadder than an isolated pot frazzling on a baking patio. Locate pots near to water butts to save on trudging around with a heavy watering can.
Conditions within your garden can vary dramatically, depending on where buildings, large structures and trees are situated. There might be sloping, well drained areas, or shady, even boggy flat spaces; it could be sheltered in some parts, open and baking elsewhere. Even the soil type can be different in certain parts of the garden. Test how moist the soil is first – dig down with a trowel and then feel the soil with your fingers. The surface will be drier than the soil below.
Right plant right place
Learning a little about where your plants have come from will help you find a suitable place in your garden for them to thrive. Understanding the (Latin) name of the plant will also help you work out where to plant it – for instance ‘repens’ means creeping, ‘nana’ means dwarf, ‘sylvestris’ of the woods, ‘argenta’ silver. This does rely on learning a little Latin, but a few words will go a long way to understanding the habit and nature of the plant. Plants from the Mediterranean will prefer free-draining, warm, dry conditions and won’t need extra watering. They put up with cold weather too, but not if it’s excessively wet. These plants have adaptations to a dry climate, like light-reflecting grey foliage and a tough, hairy or even woolly surface to the leaves, which helps them conserve moisture. The sap is often aromatic and resinous, an adaptation that we’ve put to good use in the kitchen and Simon & Garfunkel put to good use in their song: Parsley, Sage, Rosemary & Thyme. Parsley isn’t one of those wiry grey herbs, but manages because it has a long tap root. Umbellifers (Fennel, Dill, wild Carrot and cow Parsley etc) have long, water-storing tap roots that enable them to search deep into the soil for water and nutrients. Plants like succulents and Sedums are able to store water in their leaves. And bulbs have adapted in quite a dramatic way to make the most of the brief spring rains in their native habitats, popping up in spring, doing their thing and then retreating (I know how they feel) under the ground to wait out the arid summer and cold dry winter until the spring returns. It’s important to give bulbs free-draining conditions, as they don’t like to sit in the wet through the winter – a little grit in the planting hole will prevent a soggy bottom.
This could be the way forward for our gardens here in the South East, where we are likely to get less and less rain. The great thing about gravel is that it provides a mulch in summer and good drainage through the winter months. It is a different style of gardening; not as lush looking as a lawn with borders, but in a scorching summer a gravel garden will still be looking fresh and floriferous, while a traditional space will be (along with its owner) frazzled and brown. Beth Chatto is the pioneer of this type of gardening, making her gravel garden in what was once the car park of her nursery and garden in a part of rural Essex considered one of the driest parts of England. Other gravel gardens to visit for inspiration are RHS Hyde Hall, also in Essex and Denmans in West Sussex.
- words: Jo Arnell
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