I remember quite clearly when the rain finally broke out. I was inside, the thunder rumbled, and I immediately rushed outside. The feeling of big drops splashing around, cooling down the landscape and rolling down my face was wonderful. The relief water brought was almost palpable. Indeed, I almost felt that I could hear plants drinking and perking up under the rain. I have lived in London for 7 years, and I can't recall such a dry hot summer. And if it has done wonders for our vitamin D levels, it has been rough on nature. The last serious rain we had was in early June, leaving a gap of almost 2.5 months of dry, relentlessly hot weather.
If you've spent any time in parks over the last few months, you will have noticed that the trees are a darker green than usual, with slightly drooping leaves. The grass is yellow and dry; the colour of hay. Birds and insects are desperate for some water: our resident Robin follows us as soon as we take the hose out. It all feels like the end of August, but that’s how it has felt since June. And it's been tough on us in the garden!
As you know, the Skip Garden is a typical London garden - we grow in containers of all shapes and sizes. Containers are great in smaller gardens, as you can control the soil you put in ( and avoid clay!), but the downside is that in dry weather, you have to water A LOT! And we felt it over the past few months - we have relentlessly watered our skips, our containers, and all the gardens we are caring for around Kings Cross. Our water butts have long dried, and we now have to rely exclusively on mains water.
This kind of weather - long dry hot spell - is not completely unusual (one of my volunteers pointed out she remembers a similar summer in 1998). It is very likely that climate change will make these spells more common, and that gardeners will have to adapt. Over the past few weeks we have clearly noticed which plants have suffered, survived and thrived.
Unsurprisingly, Mediterranean plants are loving this weather and can handle long dry spells in containers better. Of course we still water them, but their spindly leaves limit water loss and the current weather really mimics the weather in Greece and Italy where these plants originate from. So our lavender, rosemary, sage and oregano are thriving. On the other hand, all plants that enjoy cooler weather and lots of water have not done well: artichokes, cabbages, parsley, mint have all suffered. Some plants that we did not think would do well, have done surprisingly well like some of our sweet peas, and our violas.
We had to be quite creative with our water management as we don't have enough time to water everything enough. We developed the following strategy:
- Favour crops that are more important for the Skip Garden cafe (salads in the polytunnel, tomatoes and peppers)
- Move some more delicate crops in containers into shadier areas to limit desiccation
- Put all of our pots in trays to increase watering efficiency
- And, most importantly: mulch mulch mulch - shredded woodchip works very well and it limits water loss- we have added 15 cm (5 inches) on all our raised beds
This summer has taught us two very important lessons:
- a variety of plants and cultivar is very important. For example 2 of our sweet peas have done very well despite the conditions, and a couple of tomatoes species have been way more productive: we will be saving these seeds!
- Plants want to live! Some plants and trees that looked beyond saving sprouted back as soon as watered properly.
Give all of your plants a chance, and water everything well before deciding it's beyond saving. Keep your garden varied with a mix of annual, perennial, edible and flowers so that whatever happens, some things will thrive. Plus, variety creates a better environment for pollinators and wildlife. So go on, plant a mix of flowers, vegetables and trees - it will only do your garden good!