How to Protect Your Garden During a Harsh Summer

Sometimes, particularly when your area experiences an uncharacteristically fierce summer, extreme weather events can become more common than we'd like. In more temperate climates, such a change may not last long and many plants recover quickly or suffer minimal heat shock loss. In hotter climates however, an extremely dry summer can last many months. Can you be your garden's staunch protector?


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    Consider what can be done before the heat comes. Quite often forecasters will warn when a few hot days are likely to be coming, or if the season as a whole is expected to be severe. You can also check online by searching for weather forecasts in your local area.
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    Evaluate your water use scenario. If there is, or is going to be minimal water restrictions, then the job is much easier, but if you have severe water restrictions then protecting your garden may need additional work and foresight.
    • Water saving methods include using mulch - at least a 10cm or 4 inch thick layer, using drip system reticulation (which is best hidden under the mulch), using water retention products such as water retaining crystals, bentonite or attapulgite clays - the cheapest source of these is often clay based granulated kitty litter (if it dissolves in water, it will offer even better water retention capabilities), and as much organic materials such as compost and other soil improvers that you can budget for.
    • Water in the evening or early morning to best avoid evaporation and the water getting hot in the sun's rays. It is recommended to water deeply and often but when the water supply is low, it is better to water deeply and occasionally, as that encourages deeper root growth into cooler (and hopefully more moist) layers of soil. Frequent light watering encourages lush growth but also promotes shallower roots so that the plant is less prepared to cope when there is a reduction or no water coming on a hot day.
    • Use a watering spike - this is simply a sprinkler nozzle on a large plastic reticulation sprinkler extension with a connector to the hose. These parts are cheaply sourced from hardware and reticulation stores. As mulch can sometimes mesh to form a tight layer that prevents water access, using a water spike can poke through the mulch and get the water right to the root zone. This does disturb the soil layers that should be replaced as much as possible after watering to maintain the soil ecology.
    • In times of heat shock, a seaweed extract based liquid fertiliser treatment often reduces heat stress and it may help protect the plant in future.
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    Work to increase shade. This maybe using shade sails, tree cover (selecting more drought hardy trees or palms) or a short term solution using an old sheet or dust cloth during extreme weather.
    • The catch is these will make the plants less sun hardened, so a short term solution should only be a short term solution or a more permanent fixture. Short term protection should be removed as soon as possible because if the plant gets accustomed to the shade it will experience more stress when the shade is removed.
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    Work according to the type of plant you grow.
    • For vegetables, a short term spurt of hot weather will not usually harm them, although over a longer period you may see signs of the heat shock and reduced growth. You may experience some wilting which may recover when it cools off in the evening. However, long term planning may recommend shifting where you plan to plant your produce to a less exposed area. Vegetables may also change priorities and change from growing leaf or fruit into "bolting to seed". This means herbs and leafy or green vegetables will start to flower for seed production, rather than making more edible yield which takes up more water the plant could use elsewhere. Some fruiting plants like tomatoes may grow a short burst of small fruit then the plant will die back or completely die off. This is the plant saying that it does not consider the current environment right so it is producing for the next generation of plants when the weather is more desirable.
    • If you grow plants in pots or in small movable boxes, it is easier to move these to a more protected area. Purchase a generous size pot-saucer to go under the pot (available from hardware stores) to fill up with water before you leave the house for the day. These can be a haven for mosquitoes, so take adequate precautions.
    • Lawns are difficult to maintain in high heat. Many go dormant or die off, but recover or grow back when the weather is better. Longer but slower watering (which would apply the same amount of water as a typical higher pressure sprinkler on a short period) and application of soil wetting agents is the best that can be done for over-exposed lawns with water restrictions. It is best to mow much higher to give the lawn a better chance of shading itself. Avoid the use of chemical pellet type fertilizers, as the heat will make them release a mass hit of fertiliser that may cause chemical burning to the grass. Any fertiliser should be a weak liquid based solution, or a soil-improving top dressing (such as compost or good garden soil).
    • Small shrubs and particularly flowering shrubs with delicate, or soft green leaves can be the most hard hit, as their native environment prefers milder conditions. Apart from shading, soil improvement options and watering needs, these plants can benefit with a very gentle trim to encourage more leaf growth for shading - only providing the water is kept up to their needs. Occasional misting of these plants can protect them as they absorb a lot of water through their leaves. Otherwise consider transplanting to a better area, or turning into indoor plants if they are able to survive such a change.
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    Try to group your plants according to water needs, so plants needing low water are together and plants needing high water sit together. This makes watering easier and allows the plants to form small ecosystems which protect each other.
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    Increase the amount of wind-breaks. Wind is amazingly effective at drying out soil, plants, and mulch, so a living screen such as a hedge, or a some form of fencing is recommended. Ideally it should allow some air flow through, so the fencing does not get hit with high winds and eventually blow over. A fence that allows some air movement as well is recommended, as sheet metal fencing gets very hot in the sun and can radiate heat onto the nearest plants. If no air can circulate, the garden is likely to turn into a heat trap. If possible, shade the fence with a tree, or install a screen in between the fence and the plants to block heat.
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    If the future for your area looks to have increased heat and less rainfall, start replacing many of your plants that just will not survive no matter what protection you can offer them. This can be done by donating the plants that won't thrive to nurseries, friends in cooler areas, or to botanical gardens and zoos if they have the environment and facilities for them. Lawn can be replaced slowly by gradually increasing the area of garden beds, or by replacing them with artificial grass. The quality of artificial grasses has improved greatly over recent years, so is a worthwhile substitute if properly installed.


  • Groundcovers make excellent shade protection and if they occasionally drop leaves, can also add mulch. The danger of these is also that they are a haven for snakes and other reptiles also trying hide from extreme heat and can be a fire risk if there is excessive thatching. Groundcovers are a great choice if you still have adequate potential rainfall, water access and can keep it maintained.


  • Be wary about the choice of mulch you use. Many are better for cosmetic rather than soil protection (such as gravel, recycled glass pellets, paving slabs etc) as these can actually retain a lot of heat or reflect it back onto plants. These types of mulches are best for desert plant displays. Some soil mulches also look good, but have a minimal soil improvement capacity in terms of holding water, or nutrient content. Some mulches will also remove nitrogen from the soil as it breaks down, so it may be required to plant a green manure nitrogen fixing crop first, such as beans or peas, or adding composted manure. It is best to ask your garden supplier if the mulch you buy will improve the soil, or what you can do to get the best of both worlds.

Things You'll Need

  • Hardy plants
  • Plan for the garden, into the future as well as now
  • Shade cloth, fencing
  • Mulch
  • Suitable fertilizer
  • Watering spike
  • Water saving devices

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