Who knows what next summer may bring: drought or downpours? Global warming, we are discovering, is not about being able to grow bougainvillea up our house walls but about coping with weather extremes.
© GAP Photos/Elke Borkowski
After another soggy summer in which tomatoes caught blight, lawns squelched underfoot and many plants simply sunk without trace, we need to weatherproof our plants and our gardens.
If the lawn is your showcase, make it a good one. Improve the drainage by first raking off the thatch and then aerating it all over with a garden fork; the bad news is that not only is it hard work but the lawn will look absolutely terrible.
The good news is that next spring and summer, it will have improved beyond measure.
'Global warming, we are discovering, is about coping with weather extremes'
Any plot is only as good as its soil. If yours is typically London clay and you haven’t given it any TLC, the ground is likely to become waterlogged through wet periods; drought-loving plants such as rosemary don’t stand a chance because their roots will not tolerate sitting in wet, claggy soil.
Through dry periods, clay cracks, turning dry as dust, which is intolerable to all plants, with the possible exception of cacti. The solution: serious spadework this autumn or winter.
If you can squish handfuls of your soil together to make a set of pottery mugs, you need to work on opening it up or it will suffocate all that sit in it.
© GAP Photos/Jerry Harpur
Forget commercial clay-breaker compounds - instead, bring in sackfuls of gritty, sharp sand from the builder’s merchant or, smaller scale, bags of horticultural grit from the garden centre.
Work it a spade’s depth into the soil - or, if you’re smart, get someone else to do it for you. For this kind of work you do not need a badge of horticultural excellence.
Where there’s muck
Every great-looking border has a ton of muck behind it - or rather, forked into the ground or slathered on the surface, so that the worms pull it down.
Do this annually; organic matter is a garden’s greatest ally. It kick-starts the soil’s vital ecosystem, adds nutrients and improves drainage. How to get it? From well-rotted manure at your local stables, spent mushroom compost (use moderately, though, because it has a high lime content) and, of course, from your compost bin.
If you don’t have one, get one, or better yet, two. No space is no excuse; make it a good-looking one, then it can be a focal point. Windrush Willow (www.windrushwillow.com) makes beautiful circular woven willow bins and Wiggly Wigglers (www.wigglywigglers.co.uk) sells wooden beehive bins in a choice of six luscious colours.
Throw in kitchen waste (not cooked food), garden waste, used container compost and torn-up newspapers. You can make another free soil-improver, too. When the leaves fall, scoop them up, plop them into bin bags, perforate the surface and leave for a year or two; the resulting leaf mould makes a great mulch.
© GAP Photos/Tim Gainey
There are techniques you can use to ensure that plants thrive, whatever the weather. Sit bulbs on a base of grit when you plant them this autumn and they are less likely to rot in winter.
If you like thymes, pinks and other drought plants that need sharp drainage, raise the ground where you plant them so that water drains away; it’s worth the trouble when you see the difference in their performance.
Right plant, right place
Get to know your garden, every last inch of it, so you know what you can and can’t grow in your own environment. If your garden faces north, cistus and santolina are never going to thrive but you could have the most sumptuous, verdant fernery backed up with blackcurrant-coloured Geranium phaeum.
Make your garden mantra “Right plant, right place”, so that woodland hellebores are given their favourite spot - dappled shade under a tree - and osteospermum can enjoy their rightful place in the sun. If you long to grow lavender but your soil is relentlessly heavy, consider raised beds, which you can fill with free-draining topsoil.
Grow coveted plants such as bougainvillea in containers, where you can pamper them with the precise soil, situation and light levels they favour. The healthier plants are, the less likely they are to suffer through adverse weather conditions. Autumn is the time to divide congested plants in the border, discarding the weaker ones.
© GAP Photos/S&O
Don’t drag this year’s summer bedding through to next year; you won’t win prizes and they are likely to carry disease that will weaken next year’s growth. Either take cuttings from new shoots or buy fresh next season.
Grow native plants such as Viburnum opulus, foxglove and honeysuckle or established immigrants such as skimmia and buddleia that are proven toughies: they have adapted themselves to inhospitable conditions.
Take buddleia, for instance - you really should. No matter if it grows by railway tracks, leggy and forlorn - that’s because nobody takes care of it. Grow one in your garden, cut it back hard in early spring, feed it generously and just watch it bloom like blazes in late summer, a magnet for butterflies.