Battening down the garden for summer

After a brief flurry of distinctly warm days a few weeks ago when Mark and I were lured into the swimming pool for the first time this season, we appear to have cooled down again and have had plenty of grey days since. But unlike some places, we can be confident that summer will arrive here and at some point we will get a protracted period of bright light, comparative heat and dry…

Unlikely though it seems to us here, there are parts of the world where you put your garden to bed for winter because there is a period of some months when the ground is too cold to work and the days are too short. Most of the UK falls into this category, as do inland areas in Europe, the US and Canada where the ground can freeze or remain under a blanket of snow and ice. Not so here. Winter in Taranaki is a pretty busy time for gardeners and we are so mild that even the grass continues to grow. Instead, summer is the time when we batten down hatches and prepare for harsher conditions. But only relatively harsher. My late mother used to hate summer. Her beloved Concert Programme got taken over for interminable cricket commentaries and there was very little she could do in the garden. Boredom set in for her and she couldn’t wait for the cooler temperatures and autumn rains.

Forget planting trees and shrubs now. All you will do is stress them badly and it can take quite a while for stressed plants to pick up lost growth. You can dig and divide clumping plants (perennials, grasses and the like) as long as you water them in well but it is best to do this after a bit of rain or they can wilt and sulk and look very sad.

Forget sowing lawns, even if you think a sprinkler is justified. Wait for autumn or spring for this activity.

There are few plants that are best pruned in summer. While roses benefit from constant light pruning, cherry trees are the big exception to the winter and spring pruning rule. In fact, the time to get out and prune your cherries is right now. Where you have patches of dense foliage, it is likely you have witches broom and the entire section needs to be removed. You won’t get flowers on witches broom and, left unchecked, it will take over the whole tree. Beyond that, you can summer prune to shape plants and to remove dead wood, but be very careful not to remove too much foliage because most plants only make a spring growth and are more likely to die if you leave them hacked about at this time of the year.

Container plants will need watering every single day, and more than once a day if they are overplanted hanging baskets or congested pots where it is difficult to keep the required moisture levels high. Don’t be fooled if you see water running out of the bottom of a dry pot – it does not mean you have soaked the plant. All that is happening is that the water is finding an easy path straight through and the roots and potting mix can remain bone dry. If it is really parched, you need a surfactant to encourage the water to penetrate. A squirt of dishwashing liquid will suffice. Unglazed pots such as terracotta and wire hanging baskets dry out even faster and will need more attention. Repotting root bound plants to larger containers makes it easier to keep them watered but make sure you soak the root ball until it is wet through before you pot it. I have put most of my pots to bed for summer – brought in under the nursery irrigation system. I will get them out again in autumn. Lacking an automated irrigation system, home gardeners may have to resort to moving their container plants to shady positions, preferably near a garden tap so that it makes watering easier…

You should have had mulch laid on your garden six to eight weeks ago. Mulch works both ways – it retains existing moisture levels but conversely, if your soil is already dry, it stops any moisture penetrating from above. So there is no point in mulching dry garden beds. And if you think a good soak with the garden hose will get the soil moist enough to lay mulch, try it in one spot and then excavate to see how far the water has gone down. In most cases it will only be a few centimetres which is nowhere near enough. Consign the idea of mulching to the “must-do-next-year basket”. Good gardeners mulch. It is not exciting. It is not spectacular but it is good routine practice.

Experienced vegetable gardeners know that soil which is worked to a fine tilth holds water better than compacted soil. While the top layer will dry and form a crust, it is protecting the moisture levels underneath. It should be possible to develop gardening practices which avoid the need to pour on large quantities of water to the vegetable garden in all but the sandiest of soils. Enriching your soil with humus encourages water retention. Raising beds so that you can flood narrow channels between the rows directs water to the roots where it is needed. Always remember that it is the plant’s roots that need the water, not the foliage. And because you want the roots to go deep, rather than stay on the surface, you want to direct water deeply and not just wet the top which does little more than keep down the dust.

There is some amazement right through the nursery and plant retail industry at just how vegetable gardening has taken off this year, along with the planting of fruit trees. Sure some more desultory gardeners may fall by the wayside, but others will now be enjoying the fruits of their labours and finding that it is enormously rewarding to be able to wander out the back door and pick fresh herbs, vegetables and fruit. It is by no means a certainty that it will save you money, especially not at peak times when there is a glut on the market. You need some experience to be able to work your way into a position where growing produce at home seriously impacts on the food bill. And you need time – quite a bit of time if you are going to do it on a larger scale or to aim for self sufficiency. But the rewards are well and truly there for the converted and the ever increasing number of books on home produce and self sufficiency are an indicator of growing interest in this wholesome activity.

The good news is that at this time of the year, vegetable gardening dovetails in nicely with ornamental gardening. At a time when there is not a great deal to do in the flower garden beyond ongoing weeding, deadheading and general light maintenance, the veg garden is calling loudly. This is a time for intensive input with the start of the summer harvests and the preparation for winter crops. In our household, the call of the vegetable garden always gives Mark a perfect excuse for escaping from the house (sometimes, horrors, even from guests) and hiding out, all the while still feeling busy and virtuous. I wonder if this has any bearing on his recent expansion of the vegetable gardens to two further plots a goodly distance across the property?