Digging in for drying times

IT IS the season for lingering outdoors, but summer remains a mixed bag for the garden. Flowers might be blooming, fruits ripening and herbs and leafy greens growing faster than you can eat them, but there is also the matter of plants getting parched and burnt in too much heat, and pests and diseases flourishing in too much damp. Not to mention many of us decamping, leaving our gardens to fend for themselves for weeks on end. Taking all that into account, here are some things to do, see and consider during the summer months.

Mulch

All conscientious gardeners know mulch is an all-year affair, but there's no denying it is essential come summer. It retains moisture, keeps the soil temperature constant, controls weeds … the list goes on. The type of mulch will depend on your garden but whatever you choose, don't let it prevent rain reaching the soil. Pea straw and lucerne are favourites for vegetable gardens, breaking down over time to provide nutrition. Bark-based mulches will last longer and offer a more subtle addition, while gravel and other inorganic mulches are popular but retain heat.

Water

Obvious as it sounds, there is no surer way to kill a plant than through thirst. Watering is best done at night, when the water hangs around rather than evaporating in the sun, but early mornings are good, too, as the plants can then take up moisture through the day.

Shade

Protect your plants from too much sun and hot wind with shadecloth or by moving pots to more protected spots.

Planting

If it has to be done in summer - and sometimes it does - the best time is early morning on days that are relatively cool. On the edible front, the next few months are a good time to plant many herbs and vegetables, including capsicum, chilli, eggplant, lettuce and basil, and you can always go another round of beans, tomatoes, cucumbers or almost any summer crop you want to stagger. If it's ornamentals you are planting, unusual fare will be there for the buying at the Friends of the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne plant sale on December 14 - a particularly welcome event this year, given the Growing Friends Nursery has been closed since March due to myrtle rust being found in Victoria. The sale is for members only (join online at rbgfriendsmelbourne.org).

Deadhead

Repeat-flowering roses and other plants should be deadheaded regularly to encourage blooms. British gardening writer Anne Wareham is wickedly disdainful of the concept (''if it involves that much faffing, do you ever get to enjoy it?'') but the Tibetan Buddhist Society is more amenable to the idea and its rose garden is open today and tomorrow at 1425 Mickleham Road (access via Cookes Road), Yuroke. tibetanbuddhistsociety.org

Prune hedges

A midsummer trim will help keep plantings dense and effective.

Pests and diseases

Heat plus rain often equals aphids, white flies and fungal diseases. Healthy plants suited to the conditions and appropriately fertilised, watered and mulched will be the most resistant. But should they succumb, aphids, if small in number, can be squashed between thumb and finger or dabbed with cotton wool soaked in methylated spirits. Larger infestations can be repeatedly tackled with a eucalyptus or other home-made oil spray.

Sticky traps will reduce numbers of white fly, which can also be tackled with eucalyptus oil spray. Organic treatments for powdery mildew, leaf spot and other fungal diseases include a chamomile spray (chamomile tea brewed for 10 minutes and cooled) applied every few days. Or you can take the chemical route and use a fungicide.

Espalier

The latest stage of the Australian Garden at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Cranbourne has Eucalyptus gregsoniana espaliered over curved steel walls, and espalier expert Chris England says an increasingly diverse array of trees (ginkgos, for example, and waratahs) are being pruned and trained to grow into a plane. Summer is critical for the successful espalier and England, of Merrywood Plants, will hold a workshop on how it is done at Burnley Gardens on December 8, 10am-1pm. He will be concentrating solely on fruit trees, showing how to catch new growth, train it and balance it with fruit production. fobg.org.au

Plan for bushfire

The ''fire-smart'' garden is all in the arrangement and selection of plants, and the Country Fire Authority's Landscaping for Bushfire guide details why. The guide (available online at cfa.vic.gov.au) says gardeners in fire-risk areas should establish an area of land around buildings where vegetation is modified, and create separation between plants, garden beds and tree canopies. There's no talk of exotic versus native plants; rather, it lists a range of characteristics (such as moisture content, branching pattern, texture, density and the presence of oils, waxes and resins) that affect the likelihood of ignition.

Temperature control

If, as temperatures climb, you find yourself enduring an increasingly hot house, consider how vegetation, particularly trees and climbers, could be used to cool it. It might be too late this year, but watch where the sun hits and plan ahead.

Open Gardens

Forget your own and look at what someone else has done. Open Gardens Australia starts up again on January 5 with coastal gardens in Portsea and Sorrento, including that of landscape designer Fiona Brockhoff and her partner, David Swann. Their much-emulated seaside garden in Sorrento is all about its wider context, combining Australian plants with tough exotics and locally sourced and recycled materials. The Australian Garden at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Cranbourne has also been designed with the home gardener in mind, with lots of try-this-at-home displays. There are guided tours and other events throughout summer. www.rbg.vic.gov.au

The story Digging in for drying times first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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