Climate change comes in many forms. Often it brings unexpected extremes. One of those unwelcome extremes can be prolonged periods of dry weather. Nature sometimes provides warning signs of a dry period ahead. If it rains incessantly "forever" throughout the Winter, the law of averages suggests that soon it won't rain "forever". Alternatively, an unusually dry and very pleasant Spring following a Winter with less than normal rainfall often preceeds Summer drought.
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This often results in warmer soil temperatures and drier soil from the start. So when planting beneath the canopy of large trees, in exposed sites, or on the drier side of the house, the soil is already as dry in late Spring as it would normally be in Summer or the early days of a dry Autumn! In fact in more sheltered spots, if Winter rains fail to sufficiently wet the ground down below about 30cm to 40cm. Summer drought is imminent without the miracle of regular Summer downpours.
When the wise Gardener sees that the season is rapidly progressing Into the traditional drier months with potential drought looming, they know that now is the time to start mulching most garden beds in order to beat the dry weather that could turn an otherwise lovely Spring garden into a Summer drought-ravaged disaster. Mulching greatly conserves valuable soil moisture. Many mulches break down into valuable compost that enriches the soil at the same time. If they were to wait until the drought has "officially' arrived, the ground would be deeply dry. Dry ground takes a lot of watering to revive a parched garden. Plus applying mulch over dry soil only makes it worse. Because now any rainfall or watering must first penetrate the entire layer of mulch before it can even begin to touch the ground beneath it.
Especially vulnerable to dry weather are all shallow-rooting plants. Those pretty annuals, groundcovers, creeping shrubbery, small perennials and tiny treasures that demand full sunshine are usually the first to suffer. Not far behind are many ornamental shrubs and trees that are native to damper climates. Some of these plants, especially the shrubs and trees, have anchoring roots that can move deeply into the soil so they may survive. But most of them feed off a network of fine root hairs just below the soil surface. These can shrivel within days in droughty heat. With annuals and the decidely flimsy, sometimes it is best to simply remember their beautiful memory and just walk away with the intention of getting the wheelbarrow to send them to the compost pile.
Intially, when these vulnerable plantings first dry out the plant often doesn’t immediately die although it may wilt and recover at nightfall. But if this drying out persists the plant cannot feed properly. This can stop the formation of flower and growth buds for the immediate future, or worse, for the following season or weaken the plant so much that it becomes the victim of disease.
Among the most important plants to mulch now are Azaleas, Camellias, Citrus, Daphne, Ferns, Fuchsias, Gardenia, Hibiscus, Hydrangea, Rhododendron, all shade or forest-loving natives, many moisture - loving perennials like Astilbe, Japanese Iris, Mallow Hibiscus and spiking Lobelias, and softer annuals like Aster, Pansy and tender Zinnias. Almost all vegetable crops demand ample and regular watering so plan to mulch them, too.
Many materials make excellent mulches. These include nitrogen-enriched barks, compost, leaves and straw, aged manures, gravels and scoria, stones, the finely chopped prunings and clippings from hedges and trees, dried grass clippings; weed mats and black plastic, cardboard, carpet and underlay, newspaper, untreated wooden planks and probably more.
Compost is by far the best of all mulches and is a worthy investment. It retains valuable soil moisture while enriching the soil and improving its texture. A good quality compost readily receives any rainfall or watering without almost any running off. It does the same with any fertilizer applied in either dry granular or liquid form. The fertilizer absorbs first into the mulch much like water into a dry sponge. There it is retained until ample watering allows its release. Over time compost generously delivers both the water and food to the receptive roots below in a balanced and natural way. If there were one additive to essentially add to your garden it is compost.
But even then, before applying compost as a mulch think: soil pH. Some plants like Azalea, Blueberry, Bramble Fruits, Camellia, Daphne, Gardenia, Hibiscus, Pieris and Rhododendron demand a low soil pH. So avoid applying mushroom compost around these 'acid-loving' plants as it almost always contains lime so elevates soil pH. Home made garden compost might work provided that no lime has been added.
Also avoid heaping fresh manures or wet grass clippings around plants and shrubs. These are liable to heat up through decomposition and can burn the plant's roots or even the stem or trunk itself if the 'hot' mulch comes into contact. Sometimes these heaps will release toxins into the soil and poison the ground and plant. Fresh compost can do the same thing if applied when still 'green' and/or too deeply. Usually it is best to apply no more than 2inches/5cm at a time. Then apply more as needed. Little and often usually works better than heaps all at once.
Before applying mulch check to be sure that the soil is deeply moist. If it isn’t, artificially water as deeply as possible before spreading the mulch otherwise it will seal in the dry rather than hold in the wet. Spread the mulch in a generous layer right out to the dripline (outer edges of the foliage) and in toward (but not touching) the trunk. Whenever the prospect of rain is forecast, attempt to be prepared prior to the blessed event. Have mulch ready to spread as soon as the rain finishes to capture every drop. Act fast as often during a drought year, a short rain event is followed by even worst drying conditions.
When spreading mulch, keep it off the stem or trunk itself to help prevent rots and insect problems like borer. If using an organic mulch usually 2inches/5cm is sufficient as a start and can be very effective around garden flowers and vegetables. It is permissible to apply no more than a 4 inch/10cm at a time around groundcovers, perennials, shrubs and ornamental trees and vines. But a mulch of 20cm is not excessive for larger trees and shrubs in drier or exposed situations.
While saving on the Summer water bill, a well-laid mulch virtually eliminates weeding. If it is an organic mulch, eventually it will break down into a fine compost, feeding the soil just like a fertiliser enrich it’s quality, saving you time, money, and the garden!
Watering is often essential to save a garden during times of drought. Volumes could be written about the art of watering. But basically, watering during the morning into early afternoon will encourage flowering, fruiting and new growth in the garden. Late afternoon and evening watering will usually be drawn downward into the ground where it will refresh a dry garden by the following dawn. Caution here! Watering during the heat of a sunny day can boil and cook plants. Sunlight magnifying off beads of water can actually burn holes in the foliage of tender plants. Much of it simply evaporates in the heat. Watering during cloudy weather when there is little wind almost always uses less water to greater benefit than when applied under hot sunshine or windy conditions.
A good soak almost always is much more effective than simply waving the hose around and getting things wet. The best way to do this with a garden hose is to water each plant seperately for only a few seconds or until water begins to run off. Stop and move on to the next plant and keep going. Then later come back and water the first plants again until water runs off and continue onward accordingly. This style of watering applied in several short bursts is much more like natural rainfall. It allows the water to slowly penetrate the dry ground more deeply. It also gives the plant more time to draw up the water. If the same amount of water were applied all at once, this would simulate a cloud burst where almost everything would run off and the ground would remain dry. If water is applied slowly over time, most of it will be absorbed where it is intended to go rather than running off. Thus time-conscious Gardeners often turn to the soaker hose or oscillating sprinkler as the best alternative to natural rainfall. These can be turned on to any area for up to half an hour before saturation point is potentially reached. Any longer than that almost always is a waste of precious water.
The final alternative is to become philasophical about all this and just let Nature take its course. Almost always the strong will survive. Ultimately, those that do will be the essential plantings that become the backbone of your garden. The rest is at best fluff and sparkles that we all enjoy seeing and truly bring a magic element to almost any garden setting. But "the times they are a'changin' " and the wise Gardener soon learns when to fight back and when it is best to walk away and save themselves for a brighter, and wetter, tomorrow.