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From the President: A Summer Dilemma

by Cali Doxiadis
photographs by Cali Doxiadis

For the full article see The Mediterranean Garden No 50, October 2007.

Cali Doxiadis writes:
“I’ve been giving even more thought than usual to the problems of maintaining a healthy garden through a dry summer. It is at such trying times that our theoretical stance and our nurturing instinct come into direct conflict.”

“……the once-a-week [irrigation] zone is the one to have suffered most. The lavender and santolina bed (on an east-facing slope), despite several extra soaks and some fine-spraying of foliage during the worst of the heat, suffered the most losses. About one-third of the Lavandula x intermedia plants (I have long given up on L. angustifolia) died, while several more are still hanging in there with one section still alive. I removed the dead parts two weeks ago, but don’t hold out much hope for what’s left of them. I predict that by autumn, only half of the L. x intermedia plants will be alive. The only lavender species in this bed that came through looking great, with robust foliage though no flowers, is L. latifolia.  These plants are descendants of ones started easily from seed 15 years ago, since then propagated regularly and in abundance from autumn cuttings; I use them in several “dry” areas.
I have other L. x intermedia plants, in a south-facing gravel (15 cm) bed. These all came through beautifully, proving once again the importance of gravel in our climate. It’s not as if I didn’t know it, but the lesson learned from such a vivid contrast in the fates of the same species in the same area facing the same temperatures with and without gravel will never be forgotten. (If I’m going to be strictly scientific here I have to point out that the first lavender bed is on a steepish slope and a lot of the water runs off before it has time to penetrate the soil.) All of the santolinas(S. chamaecyparissus, S. lindavica, S. neapolitana, S. viridis) survive. They’re half-dry and looking very unhappy, though not more so than in ordinary summers, but they’re alive. The only ones that may not make it, despite extra care and water, are the three S. chamaecyparissus ssp. squarrosa, planted last autumn and facing their first summer.”

“Thinking about these two dry months, and about what makes the difference between a sad messy dry-looking garden and a healthy normal mediterranean garden that looks subdued but content and often in many ways starkly beautiful, I’ve decided that many of us (myself included when I first discovered dry gardening) mistake “waterwise” for “trouble-free” or “low maintenance.” We assume that once we’ve dispensed with the boring task of watering, our gardens will take care of themselves… Then we despair at the sight of the waterwise survivors lost among nests of messy twigs, dried grass and leaves, and often consider our experiment to have failed and give up.
Maintenance is the answer, I have found. In my garden we mount a gigantic clean-up operation in late June, removing dry grass, weeds, leaves, twigs, etc. to be shredded. The naked soil between the plants is left smooth. We cut back spring-flowering perennials and shrubs to a compact shape and remove the spent leaves of bulbs. The drying meadows are mown to about 5cm off the ground, leaving an even brown carpet that will start turning green with the first rain. Throughout the year the mediterranean shrubs (lentisks, myrtles, holly-oak, chaste trees etc.) are clipped to stay compact and dense. “Compact” is in my opinion a key word in dry-garden maintenance. It’s ‘shape’ that’s important during those two summer months, as opposed to colour.”

The Lavender/Santolina bed in three stages.

Early June: the santolinas in bloom. (S. chamecyparissus, S. viridis,
S. lindavica, S. neapolitana

Early July: the lavenders in bloom. (L.intermedia  'Alba', 'Dutch',
'Grappenhall', ''Grosso,' 'Seal.')

Late August: dead lavenders have been removed and surviving ones as
well as santolinas are half-dry. Looking healthy in the Back Right, is Lavandula latifolia.
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