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SLIP, SLOP, SLAP!
The early part of the year brings some challenges for gardeners. It’s that time when we want to be picking fresh salads daily, however keeping a productive veggie patch in Perth is tough with soaring temperatures and drying winds.
If we have extremely dry winter, there is virtually no moisture ‘reserve’ in our soils; and by late summer gardens are really struggling. We see many gardeners having issues around then with keeping gardens healthy. Please, really investigate your soil - dig down amongst the bed and assess it's moisture and organic content. Nine times out of ten the problem is simply not enough water getting to the roots.
If you topped up your beds with lots of organic matter in spring, and mulched heavily, you should be having an easier time keeping moisture levels up in summer.
Slip on the Mulch
Check that your mulch is still effective, and is thick enough. You should be able to scrape it away and find soil that is cool and damp underneath. If there’s barely anything there, and you can see the soil easily, you need to add more. A layer of 5cm – 10cms should be sufficient. (Depending on type of mulch you use – the coarser the mulch, the thicker the layer is required.) Maybe rethink using the traditional “black” mulch. Coarser, lighter coloured mulches allow good water penetration and reflect heat. For vegies, straw or pea straw is ideal.
Keep mulch away from the stems of plants to avoid rotting (make a small ‘well’ around each). In vegie patches, if you are using straw this isn’t quite so much of a problem, as the straw tends to be ‘fluffier’ and allow a little more air circulation.
If you are topping up mulch, always water thoroughly before mulching.
Slop on the Water
According to a study done by David Holmgren, co-founder of ‘Permaculture’, (Holmgren Design Services) efficient backyard growers can use as little as one fifth of the water compared to commercial growers per $ value of produce.
I know I still feel guilty turning on the tap to water the garden; but the trick is to plant sensibly (planning your garden) and efficiently (grouping plants and planting densely). And consider recycling your greywater – not on vegies, but great for fruit trees. (I catch the water in buckets as it’s pumped out from the washing machine, then pop them out the laundry door for later to do a few quick trips to the citrus trees. It was a small investment in a heap of buckets; but it feels pretty good not to have all the water going straight down the drain!!)
So we really need to ensure plants are getting adequate water. Even with restrictions we are still able to water by hand. Planting densely provides protection and shelter all around, and means that watering can be concentrated and efficient. When using a hose, use a gentle flow and keep the hose fitting close to the soil surface to avoid disturbance. Aim at the base of the plants rather than watering over the foliage.
The most efficient sort of reticulation is a drip system, but make sure it is laid under the mulch. (Yes, it’s a pain to scrape it all off and re-lay it, but it is a once off effort!!)
Water in the early morning, or if that doesn’t work for your daily schedule; do it in the evening. Try to water at regular intervals (have a schedule and try to stick to it as much as possible), and avoid watering in the hottest part of the day.
If water repellency is an issue, treat with a wetting agent (use one with organic surfactants and humectants, which don’t harm long term soil health as their chemical equivalents do) or a clay based product like Sand Remedy to hold water in the soil. Minerals like clay and biochar do wonders to permanently improve your soil's water holding ability.
Once established, many plants under normal conditions can survive on rainfall only, or perhaps the very occasional water. The exception is vegetables, which need regular soil moisture to ensure peak production. Be prepared to hand water daily over the height of summer.
Stressed plants will bolt to seed in an effort to reproduce before “passing over’. If your salad vegies (eg. lettuce and cucumber) are tasting bitter, the cause is lack of water. Giving them more to drink will ensure they stay sweet tasting.
Slap up some shadecloth
Yes, vegies need lots of sun to thrive, but in the height of summer here they simply get WAY too much!! Remember how you like to soak up the sun in spring? Well, I bet you don’t enjoy it quite so much in January and February!!! Neither does your garden.
So now is the time to provide it with some relief. Simple shelters can be made from stakes or wire or polypipe to act as frames for shadecloth covers. You can string up some rope from trees or the fence or your house and attach some shade material. You can sink a couple of posts in the ground to act as supports. Think tripod, A-frame, or dome shaped frame structures. You can use haybales stacked up as a shade wall.
You are only limited by your imagination and budget. A huge range of commercial shade sails and shelters are available, or at the other end of the scale you can use old curtains, sheets – anything to provide some shelter and relief on those really scorching days. Visit your local op-shop and see what you can find. Also look out for end of roll off-cuts of shadecloth which you can sometimes get for a bargain.
Shelters can be removable, or only provide cover for part of the day – but shade is vital on those very hot days to prevent scorching and, well, sunburn!
If you are looking at a more permanent structure, white shadecloth is the best for plants (this is what commercial nurseries use). Check with us - we usually have this in stock over summer.
It is also necessary to protect plants from hot, drying winds; which is another benefit of using shadecloth covers around your garden.