Heat stress

Taking a summer holiday can be a traumatic prospect for the gardener. But with a bit of preparation, there’s no cause to worry that your plants will die of thirst in your absence. What’s more, a decision to step aside momentarily from the perpetual onward march of the gardening year creates the thinking space in which to reflect on the current season, and plan for the year to come.
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It’s the watering. It’s always the watering that I stress about in the lead up to a week or so away from the garden in summer. There’s the window boxes, the containers in the courtyard, the veg patch and the greenhouse, and while the perennials and shrubs in the borders are able to look after themselves, some of the annuals appear to have a prodigious thirst. A last minute plunder of the compost heap provides sufficient mulch to remedy the last of these problems, but the rest present far too onerous a task to be imposed upon friends or neighbours in our absence. 

I once consented to water my neighbours’ garden while they were away on holiday, becoming slightly obsessed that, upon their return, all their plants should look at least as good, if not significantly better, than they had done when they left, an ambition which required a bare minimum of half an hour’s watering of their modest sized plot every evening. By comparison, my own garden received short shrift, and I resolved to decline politely any further requests for seasonal watering assistance. 

This summer’s plan was to run a low pressure irrigation system round the front of the house;  a 14mm supply hose feeding dripper lines to the window boxes and containers. I was slightly dubious about attaching the hose to the wall, the packaging suggested fixing the clips into the mortar, much quicker than my preferred method – borne of experience – which involves fixing into the bricks themsleves with rawlplugs. But this is fiddly and long-winded, so I chose to ignore my instincts, leave the job to the last minute, at which point the enterprise fell foul of our crumbly lime-based mortar, with here and there a skim of cement over the top. Installation abandoned – at least for this holiday – and a job lot of small rawlplugs ordered for when I get back. There may have been rude words. It was around this time that I discovered the black supply hose is made of the kind of material that doesn’t take well to being bent out of shape by a slightly enraged, overheated gardener, displaying a marked inclination to crease, and then to crack (the hose, not the gardener). More swearing, and another order placed for a quantity of straight connectors which will be needed when I've cut out the damaged sections of hose.

A simple timer can take care of your watering when you need to be away from your garden for a few days. 

A simple timer can take care of your watering when you need to be away from your garden for a few days. 

Back to the low-tech solution used in previous years, which involves giving all the window boxes several good soakings, adding an additional layer of water retaining granules to the surface of the compost, and then drenching them again. This is a Very Silly Idea, which works in the short term, but requires even more attentive watering for the remaining summer (now, thankfully, only a matter of weeks), as it successfully trains the poor plants to search for moisture on the surface of the compost, rather than delving deep into the shady depths. That, and the fact the pots are now full of a revolting jelly which sticks to my fingers whenever I’m pulling a faded leaf from the pelargoniums. I think I’ll be replanting these sooner rather than later.

So much for the window boxes. All the other containers were assembled into a motley company, its outer limits falling within the radius of the jerry-rigged sprinkler, set up against the courtyard fence, and timed for a good two minute drubbing several times a day. By means of a four-way hose connector, the timer also runs the aquapods and drippers in the greenhouse, and anything not fortunate enough to be on the end of one of those gets plunged into a tray of water. Capilliary matting would probably be a better idea. The veg patch got a good soaking, and was left to fend for itself. 

The Aquapod is a convenient way to store all the spaghetti for a temporary automatic watering installation

The Aquapod is a convenient way to store all the spaghetti for a temporary automatic watering installation

Chard seedlings being pampered. If only I could keep the slugs off them in the veg patch

Chard seedlings being pampered. If only I could keep the slugs off them in the veg patch

Non-gardeners (Nonnies? Muggles?) have to worry about none of this when they go on holiday. Part of me says we shouldn't worry about it either, that we should aim to be creating resilient gardens that need no mollycoddling, perfectly able to weather a week or two of neglect. I think that’s probably a valid line to take, but how much of my mollycoddling is down to having rushed things and neglected good plant husbandry? This starts at the soil – always the soil – get the soil healthy, get the compost in the containers right, encourage the plants to root well, mulch generously, and minimise the need for additional watering. For raised beds, there are low tech, low input systems like hugelkultur that demonstrate precisely how this can be achieved.

And so a good proportion of my holiday is spent wondering about ways in which I can improve the resilience (the sustainability if you like) of the garden, or just replanting and working on different areas in my mind's eye. And it’s true that, had we not come away, I’d be too busy doing the day-to-day tasks to reflect and plan on this level, but it’s odd that I spend much of the time away in a state of impatience to get back and effect the changes of which I’m thinking. 

After a week or so, we do get back, and everything’s survived, though, as with the summer, there aren’t many weeks left for the window boxes. I’m grateful for my time out, but so glad to be back too. Time now to be doing, and plenty – plenty – to be done. 

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