Leaving a droughtproofed garden for a summer holiday

We recently spent three weeks away on holiday. It’s firstsummer, moving into secondsummer, that time of year also known as “January” or just plain “bloody hot”. My garden is unirrigated but not entirely unwatered, so us being away means no supplementary water. You’d think that this would be a recipe for disaster. But surprisingly, or not so when you think about the work I’ve done, the gardens did very well in our absence.

Zone 1, the native garden, took almost no losses. The plants in this zone are expected to go through hot summers with little-to-no water, but they aren’t all established yet or in the correct microclimates so I was doing supplementary watering about once every 7-10 days last summer and so far the same this summer. So they missed maybe one watering. The large Bull Banksia tree died, but that had been about to happen when we left and I don’ t think being here to water it would have saved it. The kangaroo paws that overflowered this spring struggled a bit too and I lost most of the little plants in the “dampland” corner. But the Conostylis and kangaroo paw that I planted very late in season and wasn’t expecting to make it, did with bells on. They are tough little things. I will plant more of these.

Zone 4, the productive dryland forest, also took almost no unexpected losses and managed to keep some plants I thought I’d lose. This area I’d like to have largely unwatered, but if you want productive capacity to remain there has to be a little water occasionally. Especially as it’s still very young with little-to-no forest canopy yet to shelter the soil and a number of not-yet-worked through soil areas that trap heat – that easily doubles the water need. I was watering key plants in this zone every 6-7 days last summer. This summer I’d delayed watering start as long as I could and put in systems to reduce the water needed but by the time we left for holiday I’d got up to a weekly watering frequency as well. So it missed probably two waterings. The lime tree has some scorching on its leaves, the grape vine lost maybe half its fruit (though that may have been due to happen anyway given the rootworks I did on it in August). And I lost the Pelargonium sidoides, a plant I was really enjoying and which was coping beautifully with the conditions up til this point. A pumpkin that sprouted of its own accord under the lemonade lemon however thrived while we were away, easily tripling its size.

Zones 2 and 3 are more complicated. These areas are watered regularly. I have droughtproofed and planned for low water use as much as I can, but these areas contain plants that must have water. So I spent some time at the hardware store and set up a system that would water them automatically while I was gone. It was a bit tricky as they need different conditions, but I figured I could make something work for three weeks. When we returned, the system was dead. The timer had got water in its battery compartment and shut all the water off, for what I guess was between one and two weeks. So plants that would expect water every 2 to 3 days in summer had missed three or four waterings minimum. To my surprise, losses were quite minimal – one strawberry and some of the mints. These are my least drought-tolerant plants so they’d be the first to go and I had expected that if the comparatively untried system wasn’t getting them enough water I might lose them. So I’d been prepared for their loss, just not for this reason. Overall though the droughtproofing worked and kept the majority of the plants alive – so I am very pleased with that. I will post more about what I’ve done to have productive, green, cool spaces with minimal water across the next few days.

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