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Holiday Gardening Guide


Neville Passmore


20 December 2018

Many Western Australians take annual holidays during January to coincide with the school holidays.  This, of course, is one of the hottest months of the calendar.  When you go away your garden has a tough time.  What can you do to help it through?

Automatic reticulation systems have become synonymous with successful gardening in Perth because of our sandy soils and Mediterranean climate; no wonder we are among the world leaders in this technology. 

Check your reticulation controller. One of the hardest lessons for me, when we had a family nursery, was that electronic controllers could die, or at least loose function, when the operating temperature of the controller itself gets to 40 degrees Celsius.  We had our main controller in a steel meter box on a steel pole out in the full sun.  I call it ?Murphy?s Law of Reticulation?.  On a public holiday in January when the mercury hits 40 degrees plus, the controller will drop out, -clearly when you need it most.

Some gardeners position their controller on an outside wall.  Have a look at your installation with this warning in mind.  You may be able to construct some temporary shade.

Most electric controllers have a battery installed as a backup for the program.  If a power outage occurs while you are away the battery enables the controller to keep the preset program rather than reverting to a default plan where sprinklers typically come on for only 10 minutes.  My suggestion here is to replace the battery if you didn?t put in a new one this spring just gone. 
If your irrigation runs from a bore then you may have a large filter attached to your system.  My home system has such a filter and I find that it needs to be cleaned every 2 to 3 months.  I recommend doing a clean up just before you head out for the holidays to ensure the system is operating at full pressure.  

Filters can be found in individual sprinklers too particularly the pop up types.  The aquifer that supplies our water is quite shallow and I believe we have algae in the system, which can block individual sprinklers as well as forming a thin crust on the top of the sprinkler.  This can lead to pop ups failing to pop.  My advice is to have a good look at every sprinkler in action if possible, and clean up filters or sprinkler tops as required. 

Even setting the program can help make the system more efficient.  Aim to get your start times as early as you can ideally just at dawn.  This is usually the coolest part of the day and evaporation losses are at the minimum.  A good soaking drink has time to get into the soil and stick around.  

How long do your sprinklers need to run in order to give your plants or lawn a good soaking? 
Catch cups are the best tool to use in order to make this judgment.   Place a straight-sided container such as a jar top under the spray pattern of your sprinkler and determine how long it takes for the captured water to fill up to a depth of 1 centimetre (10 ml).  This represents a standard drink in irrigation talk. You can now set that time as your run time for the irrigation system. 

A final note on lawns, it is a good practice to avoid cutting your lawn low before departing.  The blades of grass help to shade the roots so leave the lawn as long as practical until you return from your break. 

I am just finishing off my mulch project where I am aiming to cover every square centimetre of bare soil in my large garden with a 75mm thick layer.  I am heading off on holidays at the end of January and this job is one of the best insurance policies I can write for the wellbeing of my garden while I am away.  Bare soil is not just dead soil but it suffers from extreme heat, which is absorbed and then re-radiated back making your garden a hot spot.  Mulch insulates and protects the soil and helps make your garden a cooler place.  It also helps plants to survive the rigors of extreme heat. Baileys Moisture Mulch is one of my hero products because it is composted and made to comply with the Australian Standard.  Have a read of my Mulch blog from early December.

A common problem of Perth?s sandy soils is 
water repellency (hydrophobicity is the technical term you may see), which is often seen in lawns during summer.  Waxes in the soil prevent even infiltration of water leading to dead patches of lawn in particular.  Baileys have an excellent wetting agent called Grosorb, which can be applied as both a granule or in a liquid form.  Whichever method you choose the secret to success with wetting agents is to water these until it foams, this means it is activated.  

Potted plants have a difficult time during the holiday season because they have a relatively small soil volume, which means they tend to dry out much faster than garden soil.  Mulching can be of some benefit and as suggested above the applications of a wetting agent is also of value.  If you can find a cool shady spot in the garden you can half bury potted plants to keep the potting mix moist for longer. 

Another trick that I have used is to place indoor plants in the shower recess and plug the drain then fill with water to a depth of around 5 to 10cm.  This would normally be frowned upon as it could lead to root rot.  However, for the few weeks you are away it will instead be life-saving.  

I have also seen potted plants with upended flagons pushed into the potting mix.  This is a slow infiltration system that can give your plants some extra days of moisture. Another technique is to set up a bucket of water with a wick down to the target plant. 

If you have fruit trees or vines that you anticipate might be attacked by birds or fruit fly then now is a good time to cover with netting such as shade cloth or fly mesh.  Hopefully, when you return you will have a full crop of unspoiled fruit as your reward. 

The vegetable patch tends to suffer badly during summer vacations.  Erecting a temporary shadecloth cover for the season can help.  I like to mulch vegetables with fine compost such as Baileys Soil Improver Plus, which sounds a bit strange I admit.  The idea is that the mulch will be worked into the soil over the crop season and will add valuable humus to the soil.  Subsequent crops can be planted straight into the compost.

I hope these suggestions will help to keep your garden in better shape this holiday season.  I am reminded of one very dedicated gardener who would hire a truck for the holiday season.  She would pack all of her prized pot plants into the truck and take them along for the trip so she could continue to water and tend these wherever she drove!