Summer is coming: preparing your garden for the hot months
“All sunshine makes a desert.” A proverb with its roots in the Middle East, and for the balcony and urban gardeners of the UAE, a simple statement of fact. However, a little forethought and preparation can go a long way to shoring up gardens and terraces, and protecting carefully nurtured plants against the blasting heat of summer. And there’s no better time to start than now.
When I undertook my landscape architecture and garden design studies in England, frost was the garden’s worst enemy, and many of the stratagems for plant proliferation and survival were focused on protecting specimens from the stress of a cold climate. Misjudge the season and plant out too soon, and tender plants could be entirely wiped out in a single cold snap.
Oddly, there are similarities in approach to gardening in extremes of heat or cold; both require wit, wisdom and a little diligence. Work with Mother Nature and she will support your efforts; do battle and you will surely lose.
I ask the landscape designer Leon Zaayman for a professional perspective on what and how to garden through the UAE summer. “We have a climate that is seen as arid, but it is also humid,” he says. It’s this humidity that makes some of the heat-tolerant Mediterranean species that we favour here suffer most. Lavender, for example, stands up well to high temperatures, but it doesn’t like humidity.
The same is true for roses, although a seasoned urban gardener I know swears by the Pakistani roses she sources from a plant supplier near Spinneys on Dubai's Al Wasl Road, and has successfully cultivated these on her Mirdif garden terrace through several summer seasons.
Zaayman believes that where and how your plants were originally propagated is the key to their survival. “They need time to acclimatise before being planted out and exposed in summer. We specified several thousand Rhoeo discolor plants for a project, and many died. They couldn’t take the humidity. While the plants are easy to propagate (you just break them off and stick them in the ground), you have to harden plants off if you start them in a cool house, where it’s all temperature controlled.”
A rapid contrast in environments may otherwise be fatal.
Zaayman recommends Al Hudaiba Road (near the Iranian Hospital) in Satwa as a source for plants in Dubai. “[It's] very good and well worth visiting for anything from freshly cut flowers, seedlings and compost through to getting your secateurs sharpened. They also do landscaping on a small scale.” He also visits Warsan, near Dragon Mart, and other garden centres, which bring on their plants under a protective shade cloth.
If you're looking for summer-related planting tips, reference the municipal planting schemes. Local landscape architects won’t plant out anything that's not resilient – jasmine, hibiscus, frangipani, bougainvillaea, Vinca rosea, desert rose, Canna lily, aloe vera and other succulents are staples of the local palette.
Aim to have your planting done by this month or next to let root systems become established before the onset of summer. Now is also a good time to divide specimens, such as aloe vera, and plant them out to give them time to bed in.
Sandy Dang, a member of the Balcony and Urban Gardening Group of the UAE (find the Buggs group on Facebook for UAE gardening-advice forums) recommends that “for those plants that won’t weather the summer, such as lettuces, basil and coriander, because they bolt, now is the perfect time to harvest the seeds in preparation for the next season".
Take a flexible approach to your garden or terrace and move specimen pots in and out of shade and direct sun, depending on the time of year. Remember, larger pots will retain moisture and require less watering than smaller ones – but they can be heavy. Garden centres sell pot stands on castors (or you can make your own) to take the backache out of making your garden space more mobile and versatile. This also allows you additional flexibility over the growing season, as you ring the changes with favoured specimen plants when they're at their best.
Alternatively, erect shade netting over vulnerable plants to protect them from the full force of the Sun over the summer period. Some plants, such as cycads, may also benefit from having their leaves lightly tied to avoid them being too horizontal, which can cause burn damage to the foliage.
Zaayman is an advocate of mulching. “On projects we try to specify it, especially for schemes where there are drip irrigation systems. I personally think it works and helps to cool soil and roots, and retain moisture. Mulch of bark chippings or shredded wood pine can be bought from any good garden centre.”
Use geotextile to line pots or cover the soil, as this provides added protection and also suppresses weed growth. However, keep in mind that layers of pebbles or gravel on top of pots is not a good idea, as they retain heat and raise soil temperature – unless there's a geotextile layer – and will also add weight.
All plants need light and water, but just as a shortage of either will mean the end, so too will an excess. In summer, aim to water twice a day, during early morning and late evening, and not during high sun. Water droplets on foliage can act as a magnifying glass and burn leaves. Pay attention, too, to when irrigation systems are in operation – much of the water from sprinklers that run in the heat of the day will evaporate before it reaches thirsty plants or lawn.
“Keep in mind that lawn root systems are generally shallow," says Zaayman. "So water as needed and not more, as it simply drains past the root system of the lawn, offering no additional hydrating and washing away valuable nutrients. Lawns should be aerated in summer, and also top dressed with a mixture of compost and sweet sand, which you can just rake in.”
At the start of the summer season, Zaayman suggests cutting your lawn shorter than normal, to help with the forking through. Do be wary of irrigation pipes if you have them, and don’t work too deep, as you may cut the system. Cynodon dactylon is an ideal grass for UAE lawns and does well, although you may need to keep an eye out for it, as it is in demand and can sell out quickly.
If all this watering is too high-maintenance (and let’s face it, not eco-friendly), investigate the potential of one of the new artificial-grass systems. Some are exceptionally good, as they consist of four different blade types, and are even constructed with tiny rubber balls, so that they have the feeling of real lawn when you walk on them.
The planting scheme at Nurai Island in Abu Dhabi has subtly used artificial grass on some of its luxury-villa rooftops and blended it seamlessly with banks of real grass planting, so that it's hard to define where live ends and static begins. However, do your research. In this area, you get what you pay for, and cheaper versions will fade and can smell plasticky.
Give some thought to experimenting with indigenous plants. They've evolved to survive here, after all, and are increasingly being commercially propagated. Zaaymen recommends a couple of books for inspiration The Comprehensive Guide to the Wild Flowers of the United Arab Emirates by Marijcke Jongbloed, and Wild Flowering Plants of the United Arab Emirates, both published by the Environmental Research and Wildlife Development Agency.
The structure and form of desert planting schemes is already popular in non-desert climates. The gardeners of the UAE should be leading in the interpretation and cultivation of its own desert landscapes and gardens, and developing the genre by combining indigenous and non-indigenous planting schemes, taking the best from each, and creating something that is beautiful and sustainable through the summer months.
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Updated: April 16, 2015 04:00 AM