Beating the Heatwave: my Top Tips for Garden Survival

This summer has been hard on us gardeners, sweating out in the merciless sun every day; but it’s been even harder on our poor scorched gardens. Instead of our usual grass-cutting work, which has literally dried up, we’re mainly clearing the dead leaves drifting down in this super-hot, pseudo-autumn – and doing our level best to help plants and wildlife survive it. So I thought I’d share with you a few top tips to help your garden beat the heatwave:

Plant Survival Tips:
Lawns: if it’s got any green left, don’t mow it! Our completely un-watered pocket-handkerchief lawn is still remarkably lush because, luckily, we didn’t give it ‘just one last cut’ before the extreme heat really started to bite. Shaggy green patches with daisies and clover look pretty enough, they’re providing food for insects and birds, and above all, they’re keeping your lawn alive – if you mow them down it’ll all simply frazzle to uniform brown and take longer to recover when the drought finally breaks. Meanwhile, don’t bother trying to keep it all green with sprinklers – it’ll use a colossal amount of precious water which would be better deployed on your herbaceous borders.

Hedges and Shrubs: help reduce their need for water and energy by snipping back spindly ‘water shoots,’ dead-heading, and removing yellow/shrivelled/diseased leaves. Don’t cut anything back hard – the cut leaves will dry out and look unsightly because the plants don’t have enough water for re-growth.

Borders: despite the long dry spell, our gardens are currently infested with self-set tree seedlings and various weeds, all competing for scarce water – so pull ‘em out! But you might make exceptions for hard standing; some flowering weeds are pretty little plants which can brighten up dull bits of paving, and their seeds – including grasses – are food for the birds.

All these measures will help your garden and its population of creatures weather the extreme weather; but in the continuing absence of rain, plants also need to be watered. This is far from wasteful or frivolous – entire ecosystems depend on your garden’s survival. Equally, during a drought it behoves us all to conserve water as much as possible – so here are some tips for making the most of this much taken-for-granted essential:

Watering Tips:
Water in the evening when the soil is cooling – this maximises the time for overnight absorption before the sun rises again and water evaporates off the surface – or failing that, in the early morning. On sloping ground, apply uphill of the plants so that the water runs down onto/through them.

Water selectively. Prioritise food plants (it’s a great year for soft fruit!), flowering plants and shrubs whose nectar feeds the insects which feed the birds, bats and hedgehogs, plants in containers (especially small pots, which dry out fast and need watering daily), and the most wilted or tired-looking things in imminent danger of death.

Water in rotation if there’s too much to do all at once – it’s better for a plant to be watered once a week than not at all, and even trees or deep-rooted shrubs will appreciate a drink in this weather.
Water hard, baked ground in small repeated doses, allowing time for water to soak in before the next application (or it’ll run off and pool where you don’t want it). When the soil has softened enough, break it up with a fork or hoe to facilitate penetration, then water again. As well as stimulating earthworm activity, for which the blackbirds will thank you, this prepares the soil to receive future watering, and the rain, when it comes, will soak in rather than bouncing off a compact surface.

Apply mulch! Water the ground, not the foliage, around the main stems or in the centre of a clump, then immediately cover the wet earth with a mulch of grass clippings, leaves, bark chippings, turf – you can even use newspaper or cardboard to trap the moisture in. We find a mulch of grass clippings covered by dead turves (soil-side up) works a treat in our orchard; originally applied to stop the resident pheasants from taking dust-baths round the saplings and exposing their roots, it’s enabling the trees to survive and fruit nicely on a half-gallon of water a week – we just lift up a section and pour it onto earth that’s often still perceptibly moist from the last application.

Avoid guilt about watering the garden by saving water in the house! We try never to waste our clean water or take it for granted, and have stepped up our efforts to save it since the Big Hot started. Taking brief showers, never baths – and if I’m not particularly dirty I just scrub myself down with a basin of water and a flannel. Not flushing the loo for a few tiny tinkles, (luckily no-one in Helmickton is grossed-out by this!). And we’re both obsessive about saving the water from rinsing hands, glasses, vegetables, running the tap to get hot or cold and so on – it collects in a washing-up bowl to be poured in turn on the raspberry canes, blackcurrant bush, apple trees or whatever looks most in need. (We don’t use washing up water containing detergent; some sources say it does no harm, but Hubcap fears it may kill essential soil bacteria.

Finally, remember the birds, bees and beasts struggling to find food and drink in these arid conditions. Fill your bird-baths daily, keep the feeders topped up, put some appropriate food and a shallow dish of water (never milk!) out for hedgehogs, pray for some meaningful rain… and with care, everything in your garden will survive until it comes!

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