What I learned last summer

Sunday, 15 April 2018

My Fuchsia Pixie did not like the hot days of our recent summer

Is summer over yet? It certainly should be by now, and I keep waiting for it to be so I can write this blog! It was certainly one of the cruellest Sydney summers in my memory, with the extreme lack of rain and day after day of intense heat. It certainly wasn't like the summers I seem to remember 10 or even five years ago.

However, I have certainly learned a lot from it. The obvious thing to me is that our summer weather patterns are certainly seem to be changing. Even with my rustic, handwritten rain gauge charts going back several decades, I can see that we no longer get the summer rain that we used to experience. I don't keep temperature records but it appears that the number of days over 35 degrees C each summer in Sydney has increased dramatically over the past decade. Gardeners, on the whole, are very attuned to weather, perhaps more than many of the population.

Salvia dorisiana needs a better spot in the garden to survive

As an individual gardener, what can one do? I've decided that I can no longer keep those thirsty plants that complain and wilt dramatically on the increasing number of hot days. Out they must go! However, in some cases, the problem can be resolved by moving the plants to a shadier and/or moister location in the garden, if they are special favourites. I'm increasingly realising that shade is a precious commodity in our hotter summers, and plants that fry in full sun are much more likely to survive if they can have the protective canopy of a tree or tall shrub, where temperatures can be significantly cooler than positions in full sun. We probably need to plant more shade-giving specimens in our gardens! Examples of plants I plan to move (when the weather does eventually cool down!) include Salvia dorisiana (pictured above) and some other large-leaved Salvia; some of my fancier cane and shrub Begonia specimens, which can tolerate some sun but really suffered on the very torrid hot days we had last summer; and ditto my Fuchsia hybrids. I have realised that we simply may not be able to grow plants that will be out of their comfort zone if these hot, dry summers become the norm. I lost two mature shrubs this summer and some other smaller plants. We need to look at plants that do seem to be able to cope, and plant more of them. Not surprisingly, they are mainly plants from semi-tropical parts of the world that enjoy heat and humidity!

I am still waiting for cooler days to plant

I also found out, the hard way, not to plant new specimens in spring any more. This used to be a good time to plant, but these days, the heat starts arriving much earlier, before plants have time to really establish themselves. Autumn now seems the best time to plant -- yet even so, I am still waiting for an opportune time, because of the ongoing heatwave! This April has already broken records for unseasonably hot days. Perhaps May will be cool enough? We ideally want a time when the soil is still warm to allow roots to establish but not too hot. Traditional gardening practices look set to have to change if these weather patterns persist. As another example, I won't be taking cuttings in spring in future, because it is too hard to keep the rooted plants in pots alive over summer. I also plan to cut down the number of potted plants I have in general, because of the ongoing need to water them in heatwave conditions.

Gaura lindheimeri can be cut back in summer for new blooms

A more positive thing I discovered last summer was about the phenomenal growth that goes on throughout the season, and how this can be harnessed to our advantage. I had a garden group visitation in early March, and I decided to lightly cut back plants that were looking a bit ratty back six weeks before that, at the start of February, including all my summer-flowering Salvia cultivars, seaside daisy (Erigeron karvinskianus), Gaura, perennial Ageratum, Cuphea shrubs, perennial Cleome, Tulbaghia violaceae (cut completely to the ground) and foliage plants such as Iresine, Alternanthera and Artemisia. I felt rather nervous about doing this but they all grew back well and were flowering again by the time of the visitation.

Dahlia Mt Noddy benefits from regular deadheading to produce more flowers

I also deadheaded spent flowers regularly - particularly Dahlia cultivars, Canna, Pentas shrubs, summer-blooming Spiraea japonica and perennial Phlox. This small task really pays off in terms of prolonging the floral display. I also continued to deadhead the plants that I had cut back at the start of February once these began to flower again. I didn't fertilise much this past summer because I felt the weather was too hot for it, and I was hopeful that my new way of mulching, using half-decomposed shreddings from the mulcher, mixed with cow manure, was helping to feed the plants as it broke down.

I did water though, as I mentioned in one of my blogs, and I do feel guilty about that. My dripper hose system that normally works well just didn't seem to be coping with the extreme heat and dryness and so I ended up putting the wasteful sprinkler on. I am toying with the idea of reinstalling a mini-jet system -- we once had one and I was very happy with it but at one stage these were banned, so we took the whole thing out. I'd love to know what other readers feel works best for them for irrigation in our 'new normal' summers ... and what you learned last summer.

There will be a huge fundraising plant sale held on Sunday 29 April from 10 am to 3 pm at 45 Parklands Avenue, Lane Cove North, NSW. All funds raised will go to the National Breast Cancer Foundation. There will be a wide range of plants suitable for the Sydney climate, including Australian native specimens. There will be some plants from my own garden, propagated by Keith and Maureene! To find a full list of the plants for sale, visit the website.

Plant of the week
Flowers in February, March, April, May, June, July, December.
See everything that's out this month »

My previous blogs at this time of year:
2009
18 Apr
2010
18 Apr
2012
22 Apr
2013
14 Apr
2014
13 Apr
2017
16 Apr

Reader Comments

  • By Janice - 2069 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 16 April 2018

    Thank you Deirdre, I couldn"t agree more. Begonias and orchids under shrubs fared well under my watchful eye! Janice That is reassuring! My begonias have coped very well. Deirdre

  • By Rosemary - 2320 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 16 April 2018

    I have found that dripper pipe with more frequent holes works well (15 cm rather than 30 cm). Planting under trees has some problems too - my hydrangeas in such a position (under a crepe myrtle and flowering peach) wilt quickly so I assume the trees are sapping the moisture. Maybe under smaller trees? As a "newbie" to gardening in hotter climates I have quickly learnt that autumn is the time to plant and so it is a busier time in the garden than spring. I can imagine that dripper line would work better. The 30cm spaces just seem too far apart. Hydrangeas do not cope very well with tree root competition, unfortunately. I tend to put them in the shadow of the house on the southern side. They also grow quite well in pots as long as these are kept well watered. Deirdre

  • By Janelle - 2132 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 16 April 2018

    My dripper system has also been inadequate this summer Deirdre and hand watering in the early morning or late evening was often needed. And Im with you on the potted plants... its becoming too time-consuming to keep them alive on those scorching days. Hope the weather becomes more autumnal very soon! It is all very time consuming! Luckily we have had some cooler days since I wrote this blog! Deirdre

  • By Maree - 2074 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 16 April 2018

    I live on the upper North Shore in a garden apartment. The complex has a dripper watering system which is not sufficient in hot weather. IN one garden I have hydrangeas under large trees offering plenty of shade and in another garden gardenias in an open situation. I found that watering every morning, using an old rose head sprinkler worked a treat. My hydrangeas hardly wilted at all. This also worked for my pot plants. That sounds great, Maree! Interesting your hydrangeas have coped well under those trees. Your watering regime has worked well. Deirdre

  • By Christine - 2429 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 16 April 2018

    Loved your blog as usual Deirdre. Agree totally re the large leaved wilting salvias but a good final downpour and they were wonderful again and forgiven. I will have to make big decisions next summer. We had watering restrictions in Wingham limited to 1 hr every second day for about 8 weeks....with an expansive country garden zoning was the only way and extremely taxing. Restrictions lifted now but badly in need of rain again. Drippers helped newish hedges but still within watering times!!! It is very hard with the lack of rain. We can only hope we get some soon! Deirdre

  • By Peta - 2758 (Zone:9 - Cool Temperate) Monday, 16 April 2018

    A well timed blog Deirdre. As I write we"ve had at least 2 days of heat and drying gales, very disappointing. I haven"t stopped watering apart from, luckily, a few days of soaking rain. We use dam water, pumped up to big sprinklers but they don"t cover all areas. It"s hand held hosing that I do, for hours. Yes to culling the wilters. I"m currently newly landscaping a large area under deciduous trees because it will be so pleasant in the heat. Plants purchased at last week"s Fair still unplanted. I agree that shady areas in the garden are so appealing in these hot times. Hand watering is so time consuming. Hoping for rain. Deirdre

  • By Gaynor - 5044 (Zone:10 - Mediteranean) Monday, 16 April 2018

    I noticed the same hotter summers in South Australia too and I am dreading my water bill because my rain water storage ran out in December and is only just being replenished now. The drip system kept most things alive, but only just. I focused on watering fruit trees. I agree that many things will have change. I have noticed that bulbs seem to do well, especially those of South African origin. They lie dormant during our baking summers and then come up after an early autumn rain. My water bill was hideous. I agree that South African bulbs (and other plants) do well in these hot times. I am rethinking some of my plant choices. Deirdre

  • By Ruth - 4034 (Zone:11A - Sub-tropical) Monday, 16 April 2018

    Living in Brisbane I couldn"t agree more with your mention of shade. But what to plant? My front garden gets the full blast of afternoon sun. I have searched high and low for a small tree with non invasive roots, a wide canopy, that will grow reasonably quickly. I have come to the conclusion that I should plant a tree on the footpath with a wide canopy to help shield part of the garden bed. Any suggestions from your readers would be most welcome. The Salvias do so much better with a little shade. That is a good idea re the tree on the footpath. It is hard to find the perfect small tree, though some tall native shrubs can be trained as a tree to a single trunk; I also do this with sasanqua camellias and like the effect. I have done this with a tibouchina as well. Deirdre

  • By Zenda - 2119 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 16 April 2018

    Diedre, This is a wonderful summary of our summer problems. Thanks so much for all these comments and ideas. I have most of my pots standing in a saucer these hot days. Mossies are not a problem as the water evaporates so quickly. I will remove the saucers when the weather cools. Yes it looks like autumn is the only time to plant. Thanks for that tip re the saucers. Deirdre

  • By Kerrie - 2104 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 16 April 2018

    Been here 2 years now & my garden is north facing with very little shade. I"ve planted a black sapote & coffee tree but they take time to grow. Even my shady bit is gone when next door"s Jacaranda sheds its leaves so I"m about to erect a pergola/ shade house. I have a spray irrigation system i don"t feel guilty about as we have water desalination plant in Sydney now. I got a few irrigation quotes & all agreed the spray heads are best. I run it at night though. We live in hope as gardeners! Thanks for the information on the spray system. I am very tempted to reinstall one. I like your idea of the shade house. My mother had one in our family garden and it was a wonderful retreat on hot summer days! Deirdre

  • By Bren - 2540 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 16 April 2018

    Yes, I learnt this summer that if I want to grow certain things eg brugmansias and abutilons, I will need to put in some kind of watering system. I watered almost daily this summer (dividing the garden into four sections) and it took a huge amount of time because I only used a hose. I need something that will water just the roots of the main plants, but you are saying a drip system is inadequate......Am still pondering on what to do but tempted by low sprayers. Deirdre

  • By Helen - 7256 (Zone:10 - Mediteranean) Monday, 16 April 2018

    It was a very tough summer here too.No rain from end of Oct until Feb. Have had good rain now. I did have water for the garden (farm dams), but the watering regime was exhausting with a lot of new spring plantings. I agree Diedre, with the changing climate it is becoming hard to take cuttings at an appropriate time eg in mid summer recommended as "best time" for some. My new strategy is to do small batches of cuttings at fortnightly intervals, in case an early batch gets frizzled. A good idea about taking successive batches of cuttings. Glad you have had rain where you are! We still live in hope! Deirdre

  • By Valerie - 2121 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 16 April 2018

    Thanks Deidre, totally relate to all you have experienced. I"m limiting the pots and cuttings and I"ve taken to planting tube stock or the smallest plants possible. Even some of the Erigeron frizzled and died this summer! A good idea to plant smaller ones as they are likely to establish better. Deirdre

  • By Sue - 2074 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Wednesday, 18 April 2018

    A very harsh summer, I cannot remember another as bad. We have a temp gauge placed in the shade and it recorded up to 50deg on a few of the really hot days. I hand water and it was "do the ones you love". I want to increase "humus" in the hopes it will help, especially as my tomatoes were fried before I ate them and the beans climbing over wire supports crumpled - a lesson to not use metal supports. I used many cheap umbrellas as well, but it got a bit much in the end. Praying for rain. Those temperatures sound frightening. It has been a terrible summer. I too am trying to increase the humus in my soil by ongoing mulching with half-decomposed compost, in the hope this helps retain moisture. I believe there is a forecast for a bit of rain in Sydney over the next week -- let us hope it actually materialises!! Deirdre

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