Summer is a much harder gardening season than winter in Australia. Most years there’s a set of frizzle days sometime over the summer – days when the temperature is up around 40ºC for a few days in a row. It can be really disheartening. Your garden can be looking good one day, then a few days later it’s all fried.
What to do:
Shade. Don’t be afraid of shade. European gardening advice is go for full sun, but not much likes Australian full sun in summer. The perfect garden site has full sun from the north east round to the north west (because the winter sun actually rises in the north east and sets in the north west), but it has shade in the east and west. Short lived trees like leucaena work well in my subtropical climate. I can plant them on the east and west of my circular garden beds and they create dappled shade in summer. They are legumes so as a side benefit, they fix nitrogen from the air, and I can use the prunings for mulch as well.
I also plant very intensively so my garden plants shade each other. Using up all your water and other resources on a small area makes much more sense than spreading it thin to maximise your garden area. Closely spaced plants shade each other. And I use the fencing in my very intensively fenced beds as trellises, and grow climbers in preference to dwarf varieties of everything possible. Climbing beans, cucumbers, tomatoes and squash add to the shade.
Mulch. I try to have a good 15 to 20 cm of mulch cover over my whole garden before the start of summer. I use huge amounts of mulch, for no-dig garden bed creation, for sheet composting and for weed eradication. In summer though its most important functions are water conservation and insulation. My most important garden tool is my 5 hp Honda walk-behind self-propelled mower. With it I can get a trailer load of mulch in less than an hour, and it’s good exercise and meditation at the same time.
Unfortunately the better your soil, the less long-lasting the mulch cover. Mulch cover over very biologically active soil disappears before your eyes, eaten by all the soil-living creatures and turned into compost.
Water : You do need a fair bit of water. I just use sprinklers and a hose because I have to be frugal with water and that gives me more control. I’ve never tried wicking beds but the idea is interesting and the theory is sound. I avoid fixed watering systems because I don’t think they actually save labour. Luckily I’m a morning person because the best time to water is in the early morning.
This year is a La Nina year and the dams are full. Some years though I am trying to eke every skerrick of value out of every drop of water. But even in La Nina years, I don’t water every day. Seeds and seedlings in the shadehouse get water every day. My advanced seedlings get watered in well at planting out. But the garden beds only get a sprinkler if there has been no rain at all for a fortnight or so. If you water too frequently, root systems learn that the best place to get water is the top 10 cm, and they concentrate there – which is exactly what you don’t want in a heat wave. If you water deeply and infrequently, they chase the water down and that sets them up much better for frizzle days.
Plant the right things: Leafy greens have a really hard time – I generally don’t plant them during summer much at all. Big leaved things like cucumbers and zucchini like the heat but have a hard time unless you really have lots of water and mulch, so I plant few of them and give those few all the water, rather than having too many and spreading the water too thin.
Plant sequentially: A week of frizzle weather will wipe out everything adolescent in the garden, but seeds and seedlings in the shadehouse are likely to survive, and mature plants with well developed root systems are likely to survive. If you have used up all the space you have available for pumpkins, for example, in one planting, you’ve put it all on black. If instead you have some at every stage, you’re only likely to be facing a few week gap in the harvest.
We are close now to Lammas, the traditional festival that marks the point when the day length passes the point, half way between the solstice and the equinox, when the days begin to shorten at an exponentially faster rate. (There’s a nice simple graph that explains it here.) The odds of getting more frizzle days now are rapidly shrinking. The season coming, at least here in northern NSW, is a much better one for gardeners. The best thing I can do for my garden this time of year is go to the beach. The chooks need some cuttlefish and shell grit, the seaweed brew needs refreshing, and I’ve already ticked off one of my New Year’s resolutions.