Gardening in the dry season

Gardening in the dry season

We are in the dry season, and as a gardener it can be difficult to make sure plants get the water they need to survive, much less thrive. Should you decide to sow some seeds during this period, the best choice would be container/pot gardening.

One of the many benefits of container/pot gardening is having the flexibility to protect and move your plants during periods of hot, windy or dry weather. Opt for larger containers/pots rather than smaller ones.

This is one of the primary strategies I use to ensure we have a continual supply of food from our garden year-round – even when the weather is less than perfect!

To garden during the dry season, its key to audit your vegetables or herbs to know which ones will do well during the dry season and start small.

So, how can we keep them happy and healthy while using little additional water?

Try thinking like a plant. If you understand how a plant gets and uses water, it’s a lot easier and actually kind of fun to figure out to how create and maintain a water-efficient garden.

All about the Roots

Most plants absorb very little moisture through their leaves. Almost all the water they need has to get absorbed through their roots. So the more roots they have, the better equipped they are to find and absorb moisture. A well-developed root system with lots of little sponge-like root hairs is a plant’s best insurance for survival in drought conditions.

For a plant to develop a good root system, the roots need to be able to push out into the soil. And to do that, they need to be working in loose, friable soil—not that which is hard and compacted. Gardeners can help create good conditions for root-growth by breaking up hard-packed soil with a fork, and most of all by adding organic matter. Mixing organic matter in with native soil particles loosens up the soil and makes it much easier for roots to stretch out in all directions.

Organic matter – such as compost, peat moss, and shredded leaves -works in two other important ways to help roots access moisture. Adding these materials will make your soil more porous, so water that’s applied to the soil surface won’t run off but rather move down into the root zone.

Soil that contains a large amount of organic matter can also retain much more moisture. Imagine pouring a cup of water over a pile of small stones. Now think about pouring a cup of water on a clump of moss. When water is applied to soil with lots of organic matter in it, the water is held in place so it’s available to plant roots when they need it.

One last note about roots. Absorbing moisture is the task of the youngest, most tender part of a plant’s root system – the growing root tips and root hairs. When moisture conditions alternate radically between wet and dry, these root hairs get stressed and damaged. Covering the soil surface with a thick layer of mulch reduces water loss due to evaporation; and just as importantly, helps maintain a consistent moisture level in the soil to keep delignate root hairs healthy.

All about leaves

Plants don’t absorb very much water through their leaves, but they do lose water through their leaves. In fact, 98% of the water absorbed by a plant goes out through the microscopic pores (called stomates) on the plant’s leaves. This ‘exhaling’ of water vapor, called transpiration, is a necessary part of the plant’s metabolic process of absorbing soil nutrients. Transpiration also helps plants cool themselves in hot weather.

Sun Protection

That said, there are several ways to minimise the amount of moisture your plants lose through their leaves. Start by protecting them from excessive sun and heat. Late-day sun is especially hot, so it’s a good idea to provide your plants with a little afternoon shade.

Remember that droopy leaves on a hot afternoon are not always cause for alarm. In hot sunlight, some plants are able to close their stomata and reduce transpiration. It’s a natural defence mechanism. Once the sun goes down and the air temperature begins to cool, the plants will resume their normal functions and the leaves will perk up.

Wind Protection

Another important way to reduce moisture loss through your plants’ leaves is to protect them from wind. My garden is in a very windy location and I use a number of techniques to calm it. In the dry season, newly seeded beds get watered once and are then covered with garden fabric. This cover keeps the soil surface from drying out and also protects the newly emerging plants from being battered by the wind. Young plants are especially vulnerable to moisture loss because they haven’t established enough of a root system to keep themselves hydrated. So, in my garden I almost always cover new transplants with garden fabric for a week or so. Once their roots have taken hold, the cover can be removed.

Use Water Wisely

If you are in a dry season, water early morning; and, ideally, longer/deeper watering may help root development rather than short/quick watering.

Established plants are more resilient to hot dry weather than young ones. So, avoid planting new vulnerable seedlings or plants if you can until conditions are more favourable. New plants need more water to support root growth.

Do Not Fertilise in heat/dry season

Unless you can water your garden well, minimize plant stress by holding back on applying fertiliser in hot, dry conditions. Plants photosynthesise less as a survival mechanism. So, additional nutrient availability and resulting growth may stress the plant if you can’t consistently keep the moisture up. Sometimes, it’s better to keep a plant alive even if it’s not actively growing than risk losing it by providing nutrients at the wrong time.

Use Potting Mix

One of the ways I keep my pot plants alive and thriving is to ensure the potting mix I use has five specifically chosen moisture-holding ingredients that retain water for longer and re-wet easily. This potting mix recipe is highly-efficient, minimises the water I use and still allows me to grow healthy plants.

Consistently add Compost

You can never add too much compost. It stores a reservoir of nutrients and moisture that can slowly be released to your plants, helping them survive longer. Soil organic matter helps reduce soil compaction and drying out. Compost also helps water penetrate into the soil, supports beneficial microorganisms and insects, and can sustain plant growth without the need for fertiliser.

Recycle all organic plant ‘waste’ from your kitchen and garden; including food scraps, grass clippings and leaves. Compost these to build healthy resilient soil and plants.

With these at hand, you can enjoy your gardening and growing your vegetables and herbs during the dry season. I wish you all the best.

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