Gardening in high summer

Gardening tips from horticulturalist Martin Howe at Wykeham Mature Plants

The Gravel Garden at The Beth Chatto Gardens

High summer is here and, well at least for those who don’t currently have children of school age (for whom holidays will have to wait until the school break), thoughts turn to getting away. But for many keen gardeners the idea of leaving their pride and joy for a prolonged period is not appealing, especially with the possibility of dry summer weather potentially undoing months of work. But gardening should be a passion not a chore, and certainly shouldn’t restrict other leisure activities, including holidays.

If you are going away on holiday but don’t have a garden specifically designed for drought tolerance, and don’t have anyone to do any watering for you whilst you are gone, there are some basic steps that can be taken to help the garden make it through a summer holiday without you.

It’s well worth investing in a basic automatic watering system if the need is there; pots and hanging baskets can be grouped together wherever possible to make it easier for setting up a drip irrigation system with a timer connected to an outside tap or water butt. Similarly, for newly planted hedges, a length of soaker hose attached to a timer will efficiently irrigate, usually using less water than traditional methods. After a pretty wet winter one might hope that there won’t be any hosepipe bans this year – but after an extremely dry spring and early summer that could change – and for future reference it should be noted that although water companies have previously clearly stated that drip irrigation systems will be exempt from hosepipe bans the statements regarding soaker hose systems are far less clear cut. Therefore, in the event of a hosepipe ban in future years it would be sensible to check the latest advice then. Sprinkler systems will of course still be included in any hosepipe bans – personally I’m not a fan of them anyway for most uses as they can be an extremely wasteful method of distributing water, not to mention the other problems that they can cause, but they are commonly used by people after first putting down new turf so be aware of the possible restrictions before laying a lawn, especially in the summer months.

The Gravel Garden at The Beth Chatto Gardens

Other, more drought tolerant containers can be moved to a shady spot to minimise evaporation, and there are various products available which slowly release water from their own reservoir which can be used to increase the time period between waterings. Established plants in the garden soil should be fine, but applying a mulch to beds and borders to help hold moisture is always a good idea. For newly planted trees you can increase the time between waterings by using a product called a ‘Treegator’, which is like a large bag, made from a heavy-duty plastic and which can be simply zipped around the stem of the tree. It gradually releases its fifteen gallon reservoir of water over a period of about six hours, minimising run-off and wastage to evaporation.

In the vegetable plot, salad crops could well have bolted by the time you return from holiday. Bolted lettuces are really only fit for the compost bin, but if you grow salads as a ‘cut and come again’ crop rather than as whole round heads of lettuce, successive sowings quickly produce more for the kitchen. If space allows you can leave some bolted Rocket in flower as, although it is too bitter to eat, it will attract hoverflies, which will in turn feed on aphids nearby, and if allowed to run to seed this will of course provide plants next year. Indoors, houseplants can be grouped in a bathtub with a shallow layer of water, and standing them on an old towel, which will act like capillary matting, will help to keep them moist without waterlogging whilst you are away.

I’ve already mentioned newly planted trees and hedges, which will need regular watering until they become established. For larger pot-grown or rootballed stock this can be up to two years, or even longer, so watering is a significant factor to consider before buying, but even very small plants will need a little helping hand for a period of time when first planted. Therefore, if you know that you have a holiday planned and that watering might be a problem, it might be prudent to delay any planting, depending on what it is and on the time of year, until after you get back.

A drip irrigation system

Of course all of the above are simply methods to help an average garden to muddle through whilst you go away for a short period. If you are likely to be absent for longer periods, or on a regular basis, it would make more sense to have a garden more able to withstand drought and to plan the garden for this from the very start. The basic principles of gardening for dry conditions tend to be a combination of good practice and common sense, such as by minimising the number of container plants which need watering, but most of all in choosing plants which have evolved to cope with drier conditions in the first place. Rather than going into any detail myself here I will simply recommend reading ‘The Dry Garden’ by the late, great Beth Chatto, which was first published in 1978. This book contains a wealth of both guidance and inspiration based on actual practical experience creating a garden on a very freely-draining site in one of the driest parts of the country, as well as on sound horticultural knowledge.

Things to do in the garden in July

One of the highlights of summer for me is visiting a country fair or flower show. There’s plenty of big shows to choose from, such as the Great Yorkshire Show, the Eccleston, Garstang and Driffield shows, further afield there’s the Hampton Court Flower Show, the The Game Fair at Ragley Hall in Warwickshire, and of course lots of smaller local shows which need our support.

If there are gaps in beds and borders, remember that plants in pots can be planted at any time of year as long as the ground is soft enough to dig (i.e. not frozen solid or baked so hard that you’d need a pickaxe to dig the hole), but remember that they will need regular watering until they have properly established enough to look after themselves. Alternatively, for seasonal colour displays, why not position pots of annuals or bedding in these gaps which can then be moved/replaced when they go over?

Rather than just tipping it down the drain, ‘grey’ water can be used for watering ornamental plants in the garden. Unless something has already been plumbed in, getting used bathwater to the garden may involve some kind of siphon pump and a hose out of the window, which is quite frankly more hassle than I’m prepared to put in, as much as I like the idea of it. However, even with more and more of us having dishwashers at home, most of us still have a bowl full of dirty washing up water from time to time which could be tipped on the garden rather than down the drain. Similarly, if the water from boiled vegetables isn’t going to be used elsewhere in a meal, I like to leave it in the pan to cool before tipping it into my hanging baskets. As well as watering them, the plants in the baskets will benefit from nutrients and trace elements from the vegetables.

Keep feeding seasonal flowering containers, such as hanging baskets, window boxes, and also tomato or pepper plants in pots or bags, with a high potash fertiliser, such as a good brand of tomato food.

Regularly dead-head roses, early sweet peas and other flowering plants to prolong the flowering period.

If we’re lucky enough to get a period of hot, dry weather, avoid applying granular lawn fertilisers on exceptionally hot days, or particularly when the lawn is suffering from drought stress, as these conditions make the grass more likely to scorch. Always read the label and follow the application instructions carefully. The same applies to feeding plants in general; never feed plants with dry roots or when suffering drought or heat stress as this can shock the plant.

Martin Howe is a professional Horticulturalist, currently working at Wykeham Mature Plants near Scarborough (www.wykehammatureplants.co.uk, Twitter @MaturePlants), a 150 acre nursery specialising in “instant” hedging, large trees and shrubs in sizes larger than are normally available at Garden Centres.

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