Tips on how to get your garden ready for the hot El Niño summer ahead

Sep 27, 2023
Now is a good time to get your garden ‘drought ready’ with these tips from gardening expert, Roger Fox. Image source: Getty

High summer is always a challenging time for gardens, but this year the predictions are for an especially hot and dry few months across Oz. So what can you do to prepare your patch? Quite a lot actually. Now is a good time to get your garden ‘drought ready’, by improving the soil, choosing tough dry-tolerant plants over thirsty ones (including varieties you mightn’t have considered before), and also providing a little shade and shelter from the worst of the sizzling afternoon sun.

Nourishment from the ground up

The secret to robust plants starts down in the soil, where the roots are. To help get your garden through dry times, the soil needs to absorb water efficiently and hang onto that moisture for as long as possible.

So, start by adding plenty of organic matter, in the form of compost and manure, to increase the soil’s water holding capacity – fork it lightly into the top 10-15cm of soil. Next, apply a wetting agent; these products break down the water-repellent layer that develops on the soil surface, ensuring that the moisture can penetrate and travel down to the roots.

Wetting agents, also called ‘soil wetters’, are available in either liquid or granular form, the latter being easier to apply over large areas of garden or lawn. It’s a good idea to treat all your potted plants at the same time, as potting mixes can also become hydrophobic over time.

The other vital tool in drought-preparing your garden is mulch. Mulch acts like an insulation layer for soil, keeping it cooler and trapping in moisture so it doesn’t evaporate straight back out into the atmosphere. Use an organic mulch product, such as pea straw, lucerne or sugarcane, as these products will also improve the soil as they gradually break down. Apply mulch about 5cm thick, wet it down well, and fork it over from time to time to ensure that the surface stays loose enough for water to penetrate easily.

Plants that like it hot

As well as prepping your existing garden, you can also make waterwise decisions when it comes to new plant purchases. Instead of using thirsty annual flowers for instance, check out some of the native alternatives, such as hardy Swan river daisies (Brachyscome spp.) and fanflowers (Scaevola spp.).

Kangaroo paws are another great flower for dry times, available in a wide range of colours and sizes. Or maybe you don’t need flowers – elegant succulents look great in containers and offer a whole range of foliage colours, from grey and silver, to mauve and deep red. Check out varieties like Kalanchoe ‘Silver Spoons’, blue chalksticks (Senecio serpens), aeoniums, sedums and echeverias with their neat little rosettes of leaves. For large sized containers and tubs, consider spiky structural plants such as agaves and yuccas – both give lots of impact but only need a minimum of watering and care.

If you’re thinking of planting shrubs this spring, there are so many heat and drought-tolerant options to consider. Grevilleas and bottlebrush provide flower colour for many months of the year, while the dwarf forms of banksia, such as the variety ‘Birthday Candles’, look great in either containers or garden beds. There are native plant options when it comes to hedges too, including Westringia ‘Aussie Box’, Leptospermum ‘Fore Shore’ and the lovely grey-leaved Correa alba.

Spray-on protection

The biggest challenge when a heat wave strikes is saving your established garden plants – those mature specimens that are essential to the garden’s structure.

As well as watering well and mulching, consider using an anti-transpirant product (such as Yates DroughtShield). These spray-on products form a clear polymer film over the leaves, reducing their water loss and so helping them to withstand heat, drying winds, sunburn and even frosts in winter. They come in ready-to-spray bottles, last for up to 90 days and can reportedly reduce water loss by up to 50 per cent.

Give me shelter

Don’t ignore the simple protective measures when things heat up. Move exposed pot plants into shady spots, sitting them in water-filled saucers; protect exposed veggie beds with shadecloth, supported by bamboo stakes; and mist foliage with water to help cool things down.

Thinking longer term, also consider planting screening plants along your western boundary to provide shade for adjoining garden beds.

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