We all have summer garden problems.
People who write, film or photograph gardening are often accused of making everything look unrealistically beautiful.
And sometimes we do. I’ve found myself lying or standing in some very difficult positions just to get that perfect beautiful shot of a plant because everything around it is looking distinctly shabby.
But this summer has had a record breaking heat wave, with temperatures topping 40C/104F for the first time in the UK. And we’ve had an almost equally record-breaking drought.
It has demoralised gardeners and garden lovers like no other. One person I know says he is so depressed about his garden, he can’t even talk about it.
So here are the problems I think we’re all facing – and what to do about them.
The most obvious of the summer garden problems…the lawn
There has been a record breaking drought this summer. Nobody in South East England has a beautiful green lawn, unless they’ve had the sprinkler watering it night and day.
However, we are now under a hosepipe ban. And there is general agreement that watering a lawn is a waste of water (and of your time and effort). Let it go brown and it will bounce back when the rains come.
The good news is that lawns don’t grow fast in drought. You’ll get a few whiskery weeds poking their heads up.
But too much mowing can place the grass under stress. Mow less often and mow with the blades on a higher setting.
You shouldn’t fertilise a lawn in a drought either, as it is already under stress. So put your feet up and pour yourself a cold drink instead!
There’s more about how you can have a less than perfect lawn here.
Resist the temptation to tidy up dying plants
A friend came back from holiday to find that three of her hydrangeas have died. She said she’d cut away the dead twigs and foliage, then wait to see if it will recover.
However, when I asked Harry Baldwin, head of Horticulture at Borde Hill Garden, whether we should cut back dead or dying plants, he advised us to hold back. ‘When in doubt, do nothing,’ he said.
I’ve heard this before about winter damage. When I interviewed Lucy Adams, head gardener at Doddington Place Gardens, on what to do about winter damage to shrubs, she also advised minimum intervention. ‘Wait until the normal time for pruning that plant,’ she said. We were looking at a very frost-damaged shrub in the garden, which has now fully recovered.
The theory is that plants will try to grow when you cut them back. That’s why pruning can re-juvenate them. But if they’re just struggling to survive, then stimulating growth will stress them even more.
However, he did advise watering them. It’s surprising how quickly some plants come back. Find more of Harry’s tips for rescuing dying plants in a heat wave here.
Harry also says that some deciduous plants, who lose their leaves in winter, can also go into ‘summer dormancy’ to protect themselves. Their leaves drop off and they look dead, but they often revive.
However, a dead evergreen is likely to stay a dead evergreen.
Don’t plant to fill gaps
One of the most irritating summer garden problems is when a plant dies, leaving a gap in the border.
But this is not the time to fill it by re-planting with more plants. Autumn and spring are always the best times for planting.
And in a hot, dry summer, plants will struggle to get established.
If you do buy new plants or want to fill a gap, keep the plants in the pots you bought them in, or replant them in a slightly larger pot. You can often wedge the pots into borders to fill the gap, as the pot will be hidden by the foliage around it.
Then plant in the soil when the milder autumn weather comes.
Leave water out for wildlife
We may think we have summer garden problems. For wildlife, it is life-threatening.
Water is particularly important. And water bowls and bird baths dry out quickly on hot, dry days, so keep them topped up.
Clear away dead leaves – depending on where and what they are
There’s a general trend away from automatically clearing away dead leaves. Decomposing leaf matter feeds the soil, returning the nutrients to it. And if dead leaves fall onto a border, they create a natural leaf mulch.
In a heat wave, trees often shed their leaves, so one of your summer garden problems may well be an early leaf fall.
And some leaves, like the Magnolia grandiflora leaves below, are thick and leathery. They break down very slowly and can therefore deprive grass and small plants of light. I do sweep these up and keep them in a pile for composting down.
Many people prefer to make a separate leaf mould compost, which is very nutritious. But if you just want to clear everything away as quickly as possible, you can put leaves on the main compost heap, or even pile them up at the back of a border. There’s a really easy guide to making compost here.
Small or distorted flowers are temporary summer garden problems…
One of the most common summer garden problems is that you get fewer flowers or the flowers aren’t as good as usual.
At the height of the drought, many of my plants had small or distorted flowers, or no flowers at all. Even some of the plants I watered had smaller flowers than usual.
But this seems to be a temporary problem. We’ve recently had two or three bouts of rain, and the new flowers emerging are nearly back to their usual size.
Just carry on dead heading as normal. This post has more detail on which plants to deadhead ( and which not to deadhead).
Keep watering pots…water saving tips trialled
Many plants have deep enough roots to survive a prolonged heat wave or drought, but pots always need you to water them. We have quite a few pots, including the switch grass below.
So we’ve been trialling water saving tips. If you put a bowl, bucket or large plastic trug in the shower to catch the water you waste while the shower heats up, you can pour this onto plants in pots.
I measured how much water this saves. The bowl saves 6-9 litres of water and the bucket or trug saves twice that.
And you can double that again if you stand in the bucket or trug while you take your shower. We could definitely water all our pots from this wasted water.
However, the clean water (before you step in and start showering yourself) is fine to use, but some countries have rules about ‘grey water’, which is the soapy water you’ve washed in. The soap and other elements will be very dilute, so unlikely to harm plants, but you may not be permitted to use it. Here in the UK, we are encouraged to use grey water.
I have to admit, however, that this is a fiddly thing to do. Carrying buckets and watering cans up and down the stairs isn’t easy. We have decided to focus our efforts on having shorter showers to use less water, then to fill our watering cans from the garden tap instead.
You may or may not find it useful, depending on how easy it is to get from your bathroom to your garden.
Note: If you have a water softener, then there will be salts in your water (except from your drinking tap). These salts aren’t good for plants, so you can’t save water in this way.
What to do about weeding?
One advantage of very hot, dry weather is that nothing grows very fast. However, if anything is going to grow well, it will probably be the weeds.
I’ve generally noticed far fewer weeds over the last few weeks, so that is something to be thankful for. But as soon as the rain comes, I’m sure they’ll be back. Check out our no-nonsense guide to weeding to keep them down.
And it’s not all summer garden problems…
It is still just possible to photograph a bit of the garden and have it looking good. For example, I wrote about what to do in our ‘difficult shady corner’ where a pergola collapsed. I came up with 10 shady garden corner ideas, and we eventually decided on a simple and fairly wild seating area.
And, of course, shady is not ‘difficult’ in a heatwave. Shady is what you (and the plants) really want.
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