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Come rain, come shine, the garden waits

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Begonias add great colour to gardens at this time of year.

Durban - While some might be wishing away the seemingly incessant recent rain and dreaming of a hot summer and a green Christmas, what wonders it has been working in our gardens in recent weeks.

“Some would say, ‘enough already’, but in the end we need every drop of water we can get to keep the dams topped up,” says Durban gardening expert Eric Burgess.

He does, however, concede that a downside is that the excessive rain has washed away a lot of nutrients from soil, be it via soil erosion (wash-aways) or leaching (nutrients being washed through the soil and beyond the reach of the roots).

“Leaching is a big problem in pots, tubs, baskets and window boxes, so be sure to apply some kind of food as soon as possible. With all the rain and the warmer weather, plants are now growing very quickly, and need all the nutrients they can get,” he says.

Burgess’s advice is to check your plants, especially those growing on slopes, to see if any soil has been washed from their roots. If so, he advises you replenish with a soil and compost mix, and add a layer of mulch, or coarse material, to prevent erosion in future.

Many coarse materials can work as a mulch – examples are compost, old leaves, bark chips, pine needles, pebbles or hessian. Even plastic strips can be used.

“Mulches are important for other reasons too. They not only prevent erosion, but also restrict weeds, help conserve moisture by preventing rapid drying out, keep soils cool in summer and warm in winter, and act as a filter for fertilisers.

“They also keep your garden looking neat and tidy. For example, a layer of bark chips or pebbles can accentuate all your plantings.”

Burgess points out that lawns are also growing quickly now that soil is wet and the sun is out.

“Mow at least every two weeks – and in shady areas, remember to mow ‘long’, meaning leave a lot of leaf on the grass. I’ve said before, and cannot emphasise enough, that leaves are the food factory – the more leaf, the bigger the roots and the stronger the grass will grow.

“In shady areas, grass needs all the help it can get. If you can get your grass in the shade looking good now, it will get stronger as summer progresses and will look good right through winter, if you do it well.”

Unfortunately, adds Burgess, weeds also love this kind of weather, so it is important to control them. If you do not eradicate weeds now, they will soon flower and set seed and be hundreds of times worse next season.

Weeding need not be a chore. There are lots of weedkillers on the market for all kinds of applications .

Some weedkillers are selective, meaning they will only kill broadleaf weeds, and so are suitable for lawns.

Some are non-selective, and will kill all kinds of plants and so are used on driveways and paving, or to clear overgrown areas. Some will even kill trees and stumps.

“All weedkillers are quick and easy to apply if you read the instructions carefully. You just have to do a bit of maths. Your nurseryman can help you.

“If used correctly and responsibly, weedkillers are not damaging to the environment, and are regularly used by municipalities and game parks.”

Talking of flowers, Burgess says roses should have flowered profusely by now. “The hot, wet weather means you should have a regular weekly spraying and feeding programme up and running. Roses love water, sunshine and feeding… and a little TLC.

“Feed regularly – at least once a month – with a recommended rose food. Slow-release fertilisers are a good idea as they release their goodness evenly over a longer period, and are also less likely to leach out of the soil.

“With the wet weather, the main rose pest problems now are aphids, mildew and black spot. Mildew and black spot are fungal diseases and the best treatment is prevention rather than cure, which is why a regular weekly spray programme is so vital.

“There are rose ‘cocktails’ available from your nursery that will treat aphids, black spot and mildew in one application.

“The rose beetles that eat the leaves or blooms will need their own, separate insecticide, which only needs to be applied when necessary.”

Burgess says roses need about 45 days to bloom after being pruned, and he suggests a light cutting back of old blooms that have just finished flowering.

Seedlings or bedding plants also need about six weeks to be in full bloom, so now is the time to plant for a good show over the festive season.

“Remember to prepare the soil well as modern seedling hybrids flower best if they are really happy: well fed, well watered and well cared for. Get this right and what a brilliant show they will provide,” says Burgess.

“Seedlings grow rapidly, so it is best to use a water-soluble, quick-acting fertiliser that is immediately available to the plants.”

All popular seedlings are now available at local nurseries. There are new varieties of alyssum, petunia, zinnia, portulaca and others that you should try, suggests Burgess.

“Why not plant up a hanging basket or three for Christmas? They supply a splash of dramatic colour and take up hardly any space at all, and are so suitable for patios and smaller gardens.

“With near-perfect drainage, they tend to leach nutrients quickly and so need regular feeding. A good idea is to dunk your baskets and hanging bowls in the laundry sink after adding a water-soluble fertiliser to the water in the sink.

“This injects the nutrients into the middle of the basket so that all roots are fed, not just the ones on the outside of the basket. Try it – it really works!”

Burgess says shade is sometimes a problem area in summer gardens.

“As gardens grow and become more established, we find that the areas of shade increase and intensify, so our plantings need to be increasingly shade-tolerant.

“There is no problem finding plants for sunny areas, but not everything grows and flowers in the shade, so we have to keep replacing ‘sun’ plants with ‘shade’ plants.

“The usual, well-accepted shade plants, such as azaleas and hydrangeas, are all worthy plants to have, and no garden should be without at least some of them as they are so easy to grow and flower so well.

“Indeed, the hydrangea is known as the Christmas Flower as it flowers in mid-summer. Plant some now and they will soon be in bloom.”

There are many other shade-loving plants to consider.

The secret of gardening success is to turn your problem areas into features. Shady areas are obviously darker areas and so need brightening up so they can be seen and appreciated.

Flowers and/or coloured foliage, or a garden feature such as a pot or statue, will do this.

“White flowers or variegated foliage show up best in really shady spots,and white is the last colour seen at night. Luckily, there are many shade plants with white flowers or variegated foliage, such as begonias, azaleas, gardenias, arums, spathyphyllums, murraya and Mackaya bella.” - Independent on Saturday


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