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Summer is a’comin’

hoeingSummer is a’comin’ – blue skies, sunny days at the beach, and for many of us, not enough water for the garden. Yes, it’s time to summer-proof your edible beds and bone up on those little details that will make the difference between success and failure in the vegetable garden. While mulching is the most common method of locking in water, and the one we all know best, there are other methods of encouraging moisture retention. They may involve just small changes to your gardening routine but, collectively, they can save a potential crop during a drought.

While compost is billed as life-giving to plants, most people usually think of it in terms of the helpful micro-organisms and nutrients it delivers to the soil. But compost has another purpose, and it swings into action during dry spells. Compost is made up of organic matter: fine particles of plant material such as dry stems, straw, and rotted wood. These particles are highly water absorbent, so when it rains or when you water your garden, they suck in the water and hold onto it, slowly releasing it as the soil around them dries out. In essence, they are a series of miniature water reservoirs – but only if you add them to your soil. Aim to add 2-3 centimetres of compost to your garden twice a year – in autumn and again in spring, and watch the difference this organic material brings to your garden.

One summer gardening practice (which baffled me for years) is the technique of cultivating the surface of the soil during dry spells. I would watch my stepfather (one of the best vegetable gardeners I’ve ever encountered) religiously hoe up the soil between his rows of carrots at a time when we had not had rain for weeks. I always thought it was counter intuitive. After all, why would anyone want to expose more soil surface area to the heat of the sun when the ground was already parched? In reality, however, this dry-weather cultivation serves two important functions.

Firstly, it breaks up the soil crust so that any moisture (even light morning dew) has access to the ground beneath rather than trickling off what would otherwise be a hard pan. Secondly, the cultivated soil helps prevent evaporation. As upper soil dries out, water is wicked up from the cooler lower levels and, undisturbed, through the soil crust. Disturbing the crust actually turns the top soil layer into a dusty mulch rather than a conduit for water evaporation. I’m sure my stepfather didn’t know the science behind all this, but he obviously knew through experience (perhaps through watching his own father’s gardening practices) that it was the best thing to do to keep his vegetables healthy in a drought.

Summer certainly offers the gardener a few challenges but with but with some clever moves (and I’ll be bringing you more as the heat intensifies) you can still keep your garden healthy and productive.