Midsummer days' nightmares; GARDENING

MARY KEEN'S GARDEN SEASON BY SEASON; SUMMER; Gardeners are obsessed with three topics: mulching, Mediterranean plants and irrigation
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The Independent Culture
IN THE PAST two months, the total rainfall here might have been measured in an eggcup. Lately, my only aim has been to prevent the garden from looking as though a sack of potato crisps had been thrown at the place. Leaves and flowers get browned off in a day, so that keeping up with the dead-heading is not a possibility if normal life is underway. This summer I have felt that I might as well live-head the flowers, because by tomorrow they will be crisped and gone. The work of cutting down, watering and plenty of snipping and coaxing just keeps the crisps at bay. Tactful staking of still alive plants across the corpses of the hasbeens helps to cover some of the gaps, but miss two days and everything starts to look seedy. Very seedy.

Most gardeners have been suffering from this least English of summers and their talk is of how much to water and whether to go Mediterranean and give up growing delphin-iums. In the last week of July, when the garden here was open, there were still flowers out. It was respectable: not fresh exactly, but not so dusty either. The visitors commiserated and we all agreed it has been a difficult season.

Since then, I have been visiting other gardens to see how everyone else copes. Most amateurs and some of the pros, like me, are struggling, but there are exceptions. Some pros are better than others. Twice recently I have visited two of the most skilled gardeners in England. They garden, as I do, on thin stony soil in the rain-free zone of the Cotswolds. Their garden boasted delphiniums and phlox, taller than a man, no gaps, no crisps and it all looked as fresh as May. These paragons do not water, except specific plans very occasionally, but their soil was so well prepared before planting, and so deeply mulched subsequently, that even after weeks of drought nothing looks stressed. It is clear that the matter of mulching is another topic to add to Mediterranean plants and irrigation systems.

Here we do mulch, but obviously not enough. Huge heaps of cow manure and bark make parking the car difficult. We produce our own compost and we buy a load of mushroom compost every year. All this is barrowed about the garden in the spring. But 2ft of good soil and rising is what it seems we have to strive for. Here there might be 1ft above the stony subsoil, but not more. I am considering the autumn removal of all the plants in the flower pots so as to raise the mulch level before replanting in a deep, cool, drought-repellent mixture. Some plants, such as peonies, do not like to be buried too deeply, so putting a heavy mulch on the beds now will only discourage them. The hope is that things can be persuaded to put their roots down as deeply as possible so that they might keep cooler in the summer months. As a course of action it sounds like work and will, I suspect, involve some losses among things that are already established.

The irrigation option is hard to justify. At the time of writing, there is no official hosepipe ban, but watering seems increasingly antisocial and it is expensive. On holiday in France I saw fields of sunflowers sprayed daily by huge sprinklers, but our national reserves never seem up to the job. Since the drought began, we have watered each of the four vegetable plots once a week in turn, but I would not want this to become a routine summer feature. The best time to set up the sprinkler is after sundown, because in bright sunlight leaves get scorched. The pressure here is not up to watering more than one area at a time, so four evenings it is the turn of the vegetables and another four are needed to cover the summer flowers and the places where the standard gooseberries, alpine strawberries and herbs grow.

The Hoselock Adjustable Tripod Pulsator, which we bought this summer, is a vast improvement on smaller sprinklers. It is a beautifully made metal job with little arms to deflect the spray, which it throws high, wide and plentiful. About three times the price of smaller domestic sprinklers, it does much less damage than they do. The knee-level action of the small ones can flatten a flower bed in a couple of hours.

We also use the new leaky pipe system which can be operated by day. In the beds where the hellebores grow, and in the herbaceous bed in the kitchen garden, we have increased our holdings of leaky pipes. This is an ecologic- ally friendly system. Porous hoses made from recycled car tyres are laid along the bed at intervals of about a yard apart. From these, water seeps, rather than sprays, so the leaves are never scorched and all the water goes straight into the ground. With enough pipes you can take a turn around dahlias and phlox, which like extra rations. I prefer it to the arrangements of tubs and nozzles other gardeners use, because there is nothing to block or come apart and it can be on in the daytime. It is also much the most efficient way of watering.

The Mediterranean option is the hardest to adopt. Even if summers are going to be continental, winters are still British. Persistent cold and wet on heavy soils will be fatal to Mediterranean plants. Here, where the drainage is impeccable they are a possibility and I am already planning more dry plantings, but not a total change. In summers like this one salvias and lavenders do better than roses and delphiniums. Salvia turkestanica has never looked so good and the cerise pink S. involucrata Bethellii is also a good plant for late summer, but not as hardy as turkestanica. A salvia new to me, "Indigo Spires", has been recommended for long-flowering drought-resistant qualities, and bright blue salvias looks like becoming a summer mainstay, which they never are when the weather is wet.

I would be sorry to give up growing all the flowers associated with English gardens, but if summers are going to be dry, we are all going to have to adjust. A combination of better groundwork and mulching, and a slight change in the plants we grow is my plan for next year, when of course is will rain from June to September.

! Leaky Pipe Garden Systems, White House Farm, Grundisburgh, Woodbridge, Suffolk IP13 6RR (01473 738280): 320ft kit pounds 99; 160ft kit pounds 52.50; 60ft kit pounds 24.99