Down but not out with drought

By Leigh Bramwell


I never for a moment thought, living in the Far North, that I would be exhorting nature to bring rain.

But, for the second time this spring and summer, I am walking around the property every other evening, quenching my own and the garden's thirst with wine and water respectively.

Of course, two weeks without rain is not exactly a drought, and certainly nothing like the year when it refused to rain from October to April. Yet in these uncertain times, there's no knowing when it may simply stop raining for weeks on end, and we'll be in the same boat (unfortunate metaphor, sorry) as those in the south, with cracked earth and dying plants.

Lots of us don't know how to deal with the after-effects of drought. It's certainly tempting to whiz around and yank out everything that looks dead, but that's actually not the best plan, unless you want an empty garden that needs replanting from scratch every time there's a prolonged dry spell.

Instead, exercise patience. What appears to be dead may actually be alive underneath the ground. Scratch the bark of trees or shrubs to see if there is still green underneath.

If so, give the plants the benefit of the doubt and leave them until next spring.

The same applies to woody plants that are clinging to life but have dead branches. Again, use the fingernail or knife test to see if there is still some sign of life and wait until spring to prune.

If the whole plant appears to be dead, give it a grave marker - not for sentimental reasons, but to pinpoint its location in case, come September, it has a resurrection and produces new shoots. After my neighbour backed her car over my Grevillea superb and took it out at ground level, The Partner mowed right over the site for eight months, yet it still resprouted come spring. It might have done better, earlier, had he not scalped it on a weekly basis.

During dry times soil needs all the help it can get, so add as much compost as you can. Organic matter will also help lawns that have withered or died during a drought.

If the ground is baked and cracked, beg, borrow or rent a tiller to aerate the soil, topdress with compost in early autumn, and reseed. Water religiously until the lawn is established.

If there are lawn or garden areas which repeatedly suffer during dry periods, consider paving them.

Lastly, when watering this summer practice deep watering. Soaker hoses allow water to soak right into the root area and not the foliage. They don't foster leaf diseases, and they don't waste water through evaporation or watering adjacent areas, as do overhead sprinklers.

But come next spring and summer, don't expect miracles. If your shrubs and trees don't bloom as well as they have in the past; remind yourself that they had a tough year and will take time to recover.

Planting to a plan

Planting the wrong tree in the right place, or vice versa, is, I've learned, a 10-year mistake. Say you plant what you thought was a 2m shrub and it grows 6m in five years. Then you have to remove it and plant a replacement.

The replacement takes five years to grow 2m and presto - before you know it, a whole decade has passed.

I've done this a number of times because I'm a sucker for buying whatever takes my fancy at the garden centre and sticking it in wherever there's a gap. I've finally learned that it's an expensive way to garden in terms both of money and time.

The good news is that there's a cure for Random Planting Disorder. It's called a garden plan. Much like dieting, it takes motivation and self-discipline, and it's something you need to adopt as a long-term lifestyle change rather than a quick fix.

Walk around your property and pace out the different areas. It's useful to have your site plan from the council as this will give you accurate boundary measurements. Draw a "floor plan" roughly to scale on graph paper, and mark on it your existing planted areas and the spaces you want to plant or develop.

Research what sort of plants will work in each space, figure out how many you need and make a list.

From here on, there are two ways to attack it. First, you can decide to deal with one area at a time. It's a good strategy, particularly if you're in an area where rainfall is scarce.

It's feasible to water one area every day until plants are established, but if you have four of five garden beds in different areas it may not be.

Alternatively, keep your garden plan and plant list with you when you're around the garden centres, and buy plants from the list when they're on special or when you come across particularly good specimens - or when you've had a win on the Bonus Bonds and there's money to spare.

If you're totally intimidated by a pencil and drawing paper, find an artistic friend to draw up your garden for you or look at landscape design plans on the internet for ideas. If the budget allows, you can consult a landscape designer to look at your garden, draw your plan and, if you like, advise on further plantings.

Of course there's no need to be rigid about your plan. While the hard landscaping elements of the garden may be set in stone, planting has to be flexible to allow for moving specimens that are not doing well in a particular area, or incorporating more of a variety which is thriving. And, of course, there does need to be room for a little random planting when you find something new that you truly cannot live without.

- Hamilton News

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