Keep The Garden Green All Summer !

A month like this July, with soaring temperatures, burning sunshine and no rain, stirs up a mix of emotions in me.
On the one hand I’m a sun-worshiper, I just adore the brilliant sun light on the harlequin colours of summer flowers, contrasting with mysterious shadows under broad, green leaves of shrubs and trees. Some people watch television; I prefer the bees, grass-hoppers and insects amongst the flowers and could watch them all day; if there were a job for someone to stare out of the window, or lie in the sun watching butterflies dance round a hollyhock, I’d be the ideal candidate. Even now I’ve just popped-out to admire the water lilies, which I tided-up last evening, and check how the tadpoles are getting along.
But, on the other hand, there’s the problem of watering the garden – I was going to say watering it adequately – but even keeping it alive can become a battle. I confess I gave up on the lawn a couple of weeks ago and it is now a pleasant golden brown, with a green border. Most days I spend a good hour dragging the hose about, and have carried so many cans of water to the greenhouse and vegetable patch, that my hands swing below my knees. Sometimes, at the end of this performance, I stand sweaty but triumphant, and glare back at my enemy the sun, like Captain Biggles regarding the despicable Herr von Stalheim. ( I suspect this rather dates me. If you don’t understand try asking any of your male neighbours over fifty.)
A couple of gardens I worked in last week, got me thinking about the ways you can help your garden cope with this hot weather. One of the gardens was on clay, quite a common soil in the north of West Wickham, above the traffic lights at the bottom of the High Street. Here my first task was to dig-out a dead shrub. This was the remains of a Red Robin (Photinia fraseri); why it died wasn’t clear, but it stood isolated in the burning sun and the clay was bone dry two feet below the surface. It was well established, so I don’t think it can have been frost damage. Dark allusions were made to a council buggy, spraying weed-killer that passed close by it, but my guess is that it didn’t get enough water to survive.
After an hour of digging and tugging the stump gave a groan, and I help it aloft, like Perseus waving the snaky head of Medusa. My next task was to mow the lawn at the back of the house; here, in contrast, the shrubs and herbaceous plants were perky and green, despite the long drought. Going up and down on my pleasant, rhythmic task, I came to the conclusion that this was partly because of good plant selection, but mainly because the garden had a good mix of sun and shade, being partly surrounded by trees, hedges and mature shrubs. Some gardening experts worn that trees and large shrubs drain water from the soil, but my experience is that the flowering season of smaller plants is greatly extended when they have some shade and that the surface watering we do with the hose is far more effective when the sun doesn’t have the chance to dry the soil out immediately. Come autumn, don’t be too ruthless with the pruning saw: leave some shade for the flowerbeds and borders next summer. In my case this also spares the neighbours the sight of me gardening in my swimming trunks.
The other garden was at the opposite end of West Wickham, in Coney Hall. Here the soil is Blackheath Gravel, broadly round little pebbles with a bit of chalky dust thrown-in. Like many suburban gardens there was also some builders waste;- quarter bricks, bits of dried mortar, and so on;- when will someone educate builders that a garden is not a rubbish dump?
This garden was a tragedy. It had recently been created from scratch by a landscape gardener; the design was excellent, with curving paths of white gravel contrasting with vertical black blocks of polished granite and outer beds of carefully graduated shrubs around rectangular inner beds, edged with box. A clever touch was the accents given by a few large specimen plants each standing isolated, within the inner, lower, part of the garden. It might not be quite to my own taste which, as you may have noticed, tends toward lush, chaotic profusion and broad lawns but, if you like that kind of thing, it was very good. The slight drawback was that half the plants had died.
As the owner and I discussed this, standing under an elegant, but dead, shrub, I cast my eyes around the ruins. One problem was that many of the plants were acid loving evergreens and, with the chalky alkaline soil in Coney Hall, this meant the gardener was always fighting with nature, instead of working with it. But what struck me most was the complete absence of ground-cover. Each shrub or plant was thoughtfully placed in splendid isolation, surrounded by bare earth. Now a large, well established plant creates its own ground cover to an extent, but smaller plants and newly planted shrubs need all the help they can get in a hot summer, and its amassing how greatly the soils water-retention is improved when it is covered with foliage. This can be achieved by planting herbaceous perennials close together, filling in gaps with easy-to-grow annuals, such as Cosmos or Sweet Alyssum or the judicious use of ground cover, such as Bugle or Periwinkle. However this particular gardener was having no truck with such suggestions; her garden would be planted only according to the design. I admired her determination.
So. two tips for keeping the garden green and the flowers blooming all summer; a fair sprinkling of shade everywhere and close planting, that doesn’t leave the soil exposed directly to the sun. Oh yes, and ignore the old saw that a little watering is worse than non; why this should be passed on from generation to generation of gardeners, I don’t know, but it’s completely untrue: balderdash. With a little water my Begonias and Geraniums are blooming and the late summer perennials at the back of the border budding-up nicely, without it they’d be drooping and flowerless.


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