El Niño and the Garden: How to Get Your Garden Ready for a Hot & Dry Summer

by Corinne Mossati

Now that El Niño has been declared, it’s time to revisit the spring and summer growing plans for the edible garden. In this practical guide, I share the plans I have put in place for the summer growing season.

El Niño and the Garden

El Niño and the Garden – Photo © The Gourmantic Garden

For the last three summers, we’ve had to adapt to La Niña conditions which resulted in cooler temperatures and wet weather. This season, it’s back to hot and dry conditions with very little chance of rain.

What is El Niño

According to the BOM, “El Niño refers to the extensive warming of the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean which leads to a major shift in weather patterns across the Pacific” causing a drier than normal spring and summer season. “El Niño conditions generally result in below average rainfall over much of eastern Australia.”

In a nutshell, we can expect very little rainfall with higher than normal temperatures in our gardens. As a result, I’m taking the following steps towards adapting yet again to the changing climate.

El Niño and the Garden: Get Your Garden Ready for a Hot & Dry Summer

A. Planning and Prevention

El Niño and the Garden

El Niño and the Garden – Photo © The Gourmantic Garden

Planning ahead for hot and dry summer conditions begins at soil level.

  1. Soil prep by feeding the soil with a lot of organic matter such as manures, compost and worm castings as they help with water retention.
  2. Apply a thick layer of mulch to keep the soil a little cooler and to minimise evaporation.
  3. Avoid planting in unglazed terracotta pots as they leech moisture.
  4. Some edibles such as leafy greens and coriander have an early chance of bolting in the heat. Where possible, move them to a shaded spot. Succession plant to ensure continuous crops.
  5. Larger pots use less water and dry out slower. Where possible, consider using self watering pots and wicking beds as they require less frequent watering.
  6. On very hot days, place a shade cloth over sun sensitive plants such as beans and leafy greens. You may also need to keep an eye on them on very hot days as the leaves can burn from the sun. If you don’t have a shade cloth, use umbrellas or parasols.
  7. Look out for garden pests that favour hot and dry conditions such as spider mites and manage them early.
  8. On the rare days when it rains, have buckets and containers ready to collect rain water.
  9. For soft stemmed plants and flowering shrubs growing in containers, place them in a location protected from hot winds which can dry out the potting mix and play havoc with their foliage.
  10. If your worm farm is usually in a location that gets the hot sun, move it to a shaded spot such as south facing, under a tree, a canopy, in the garage or laundry. Cover it with a wet hessian sac and in extreme heat, place a frozen water bottle or ice cubes in a plastic bag inside the warm farm.

B. El Niño and the Garden: What to Grow

Cherry Tomatoes

El Niño and the Garden: Tiny Tim Tomatoes – Photo © The Gourmantic Garden

Summer crops and water-loving plants such as beefy tomatoes go hand in hand but there are other alternatives.

  1. Grow drought resistant edibles such as rosemary, sage, olive herb, thyme, Okinawa spinach, chilli peppers, purslane, bay laurel, rock samphire, lemongrass and garlic chives.
  2. Plant different types of crops in the same bed. Variety means more chance of survival in the heat and when pests attack.
  3. Grow cover crops in areas of bare soil such as Warrigal greens which are drought resistant and low maintenance.
  4. Grow Australian native plants such as Midyim berries, old man saltbush, , native thyme, pigface and karkalla. These can be grown in containers 30cm diameter in size and larger.
  5. Cherry tomatoes are more drought tolerant than larger tomatoes. Choose indeterminate varieties such as black cherry or determinate/dwarf tomatoes such as Tiny Tim.
  6. Get ginger and turmeric rhizomes in as they fare better in the heat and don’t require frequent watering.
  7. Some heat-sensitive crops will most likely die in the dry heat. Have a mitigation plan for their demise by succession planting throughout the season.

C. Watering Tips for a Hot & Dry Summer

El Niño and the Garden

Watering Tips for a Hot & Dry Summer – Photo © The Gourmantic Garden

When it comes to watering the summer garden, it pays to be water wise.

  1. Water plants in the early morning before temperatures rise. It’s best to have a regular, deep and less frequent watering routine than lightly spray the surface of the soil throughout the day.
  2. Place saucers underneath pot plants on balconies, paved courtyards and patios to collect any run off when watering.
  3. Collect and reuse water from the shower and washing vegetables. Follow the tips in this article on How to Reuse Water for Your Edible Garden.
  4. Water fruiting plants such as tomatoes consistently and deeply to minimise blossom end rot.
  5. If you’re going away from the garden, fill a plastic water bottle, make holes in lid and secure it then insert it the in soil neck down. Water will drip slowly and provide moisture.
  6. You can also make your own ollas using an unglazed terracotta pot. Seal the hole at the bottom with a cork, bury the pot in the soil leaving a couple of centimetres, fill with water and place a plastic lid on top. More to come in a future article.
  7. On very hot days, you may need to water some crops twice. Keep an eye on them and if they look like they’re wilting in the heat, give them a little drink.
  8. And finally, this is a personal tip that I’m sharing with you. On very hot days when I need to cool down, I’m partial to a standing under the hose in the garden next to thirsty plants. This way we both cool down and the water doesn’t go to waste. I just make sure it’s out of sight of the neighbours!

Every growing season is a challenge regardless of the impact of El Niño in the garden. It’s about working with nature, readjusting my growing plans and learning from the experience.

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