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Tips on how to be a water-smart gardener during heatwaves

Tips on how to be a water-smart gardener during heatwaves

22 February, 2022

If you love your garden and hate seeing it suffer in summer (but don't like the idea of keeping your taps on to keep it green), there are some tricks to help you use less water.

Sustainable Gardening Australia's Richard Rowe said being a water-smart gardener was about ensuring your garden lost as little water as possible.

"It's about being smart with your water, not just using no water, because you want to help biodiversity in your garden which then helps biodiversity in the global context," Mr Rowe said.

"All of these gardens, even though there's fences in between them, they actually are connected by biodiversity and through our flora and fauna life.

"Everything that we can do in our little patch is actually improving the outcomes for the bigger environment."

Quick fixes for immediate results

Water your garden less often but more thoroughly.

Mr Rowe said watering in the morning was best because doing it at night could create humidity and lead to fungus and disease.

"Less often but more thoroughly is about trying to encourage storage of water so there's water deep in the soil for the plants to get when it is hot and when it is dry," he said.

"It’s also about encouraging plants to grow deep roots. The deeper the root system of the plant, the more water resources it can tap into deep into the soil — you get more resilient plants that way."

Do the opposite if your plants are in pots: water more often and less thoroughly, because water in pots will trickle out the holes in the bottom.

Create voids for water to enter

Ideally you would create natural voids in the soil by encouraging worms into the garden, but if you want a quick fix, Mr Rowe recommends replicating that with a garden fork.

"If you've got a garden bed and it's looking quite dry, get your fork out and put some holes into the soil while trying to avoid damaging roots," he said.

"You're not actually turning the soil, you're just creating some voids in the soil that then the water can at least have a go at penetrating deeper."

He said having worms in the soil created a 10 per cent increase in its water-holding capacity.

Choose wetting agents wisely

Mr Rowe said products known as wetting agents could help water penetrate the soil.

"They're good to a degree, but they're quite quick and simple solutions that don't necessarily provide a long-term solution."

If you do go down this path, he warned against using chemicals that were harmful to animals or waterways.

Mulch to keep water in

"The other thing you can do immediately, once you've watered, is put some mulch down," Mr Rowe said.

"There's not much point putting mulch on top of a dry bed because it's not going to do anything."

Usually gardeners recommend putting mulch down after the spring rain and before the summer heat, but if you've got vulnerable plants (such as a vegetable garden) that you're watering every day, it could still be worth mulching in summer.

"I would definitely be looking at getting mulch into your veggie gardens at this stage, even though it is late," Mr Rowe said.

"That will still help trap some of that water in there so it will help the roots develop and help them become a bit more resilient to the heat."

Temporary shade offers protection

When temperatures get up towards 40C, a temporary shade cloth can help protect your vegetables.

"A lot of the plants that we grow in our vegetable gardens are introduced — they're not designed to cope with the heat," Mr Rowe said.

"They've often got very dark leaves which attract the heat rather than the blue-grey leaves which reflect heat."

When the sun hits the leaves, the plants will photosynthesise — but too much photosynthesis leads to dehydration.

"If it's going to be one of those really hot days, 38C or 40C and your plants are suffering, get some old white sheets and put them over the top of the plants for the day," Mr Rowe said.

"They'll just sit on top and reflect some of the heat and protect the plants from those really, really harsh rays from the sun. Then take them off at night.

"Things like that, short-term solutions for the big heat events, are really clever."

Longer-term solutions

  • Improve your soil
  • Redirect grey water from washing machines to the garden
  • Choose plants native to your area or from similar climates in Africa or South America
  • Choose plants with small, thin, lightcoloured or furry leaves
  • Harvest water when it rains
  • Install lowwater-use irrigation

Mr Rowe is hosting a series of workshops in Melbourne about water-smart gardening and other topics. For more information visit the Sustainable Gardening Australia website.