Whatever the size of your garden, choose plants that need little water and maintenance, says Vrinda Kumble
What does it take to keep the garden in full bloom even in the scorching summer heat? Overwatering kills more plants than underwatering, said botanist and landscape architect B.S. Nirody, author of Flower Gardening in South India. Thus, despite the terrible drought this year, it takes surprisingly little water to maintain gardens, if you choose your plants right and water them judiciously. So, whether you have a large garden or a tiny apartment balcony, find ways to help your plants survive this hot season. To avoid wasting water, test soil moisture before watering. Even if the surface is dry, poke a stick into the soil to check if it is moist underneath. If it is, wait to water.
For plants in the ground, there’s no need to flood the whole basin. Plants absorb water from their root tips, so water only the root-tip line. For example, if the plant canopy, that is, the leafy top of the plant, is 3 feet in diameter, the spread of the roots underground will be approximately the same, so the root tips will be at the edge of the canopy.
Studies have shown that up to 90 per cent of the water meant for the plant may evaporate from bare soil exposed to sun and hot winds. To reduce this evaporation, mulch the soil around each plant. Mulch is any material placed over the soil to cover it, keeping it cool and moist. Mulching benefits both plants in the ground and those in pots. It also keeps down weeds. You can choose from a wide range of materials to use as mulch: dry leaves, compost, hay, sawdust, nutshells, brick pieces. (avoid pebbles or rock pieces as they hold heat.) For plants in the ground, spread a four- to six-inch-thick layer of the mulch, starting six inches away from the main stem.
For potted plants, an inch of mulch should do; again, leave a gap around the main stem when spreading the mulch.
A layer of coloured glass marbles makes a pretty, decorative mulch for potted house plants. Some mulch tend to pack down when watered and form a hard mat, so water by inserting the hose below the layer of mulch. Loosen or turn the mulch periodically to prevent fungus or insects from sheltering in it.
Whether you are adding to your plant collection or starting fresh, you can stay ahead of the game by choosing plants with low water requirement and avoiding water-guzzling ones.
Yes, velvety green lawns are beautiful. Alas, they need lots and lots of water! Try other ground covers that can do with less water, such as Wandering Jew (Tradescantia), Verbena, or Cuphea. Or you can let vines like the Perennial Morning Glory trail on the ground and spread out rather than climb up (you will have to peg them down to keep them from climbing!) Bougainvilleas are the stars of a drought year such as this one; the drier it is, the more profusely and brilliantly they bloom, and in colours ranging from white through pink, yellow, orange, and mauve to magenta. Water sparingly for a spectacular show of flowers. Bromeliads (plants of Bromeliaceae, the pineapple family) are ideal for water-saving gardens. They are among the easiest plants to grow, either in the ground or in pots; they also make good house plants.
Most bromeliads have spectacular flowers: a pale pink spike with electric blue flowers, growing from grey-green leaves; bright red, sword-like spike growing out of a rosette of dark green and white-striped leaves; orange-red spike from cream and green speckled leaves, and so on — a range as wide and varied as there are species. Start a collection of bromeliads now. They will constantly surprise and delight you.
Grow bromeliads in shade or semi-shade in any ordinary garden soil, either in pots or in the ground. The soil should be loose and well drained. Being shallow-rooted, these plants cannot be overwatered and do not stand water-logging.
The leaves of most bromeliads grow in a rosette, around a central cup-like hollow. Water lightly at the roots only once or twice a week. Save and dry banana skins and place some in this cup to induce flowering. The plant will slowly fade away after flowering, but a new plant will start growing from its side. Cut away the faded plant and let the new plantlet grow.
Oleanders are beautiful, free-flowering shrubs with single or double flowers ranging from white to deep, bright pink and many shades between. They require very little water, ordinary soil, and no special care. In the ground, they can grow quite large but there are also dwarf varieties that can be grown in large tubs on a sunny terrace or veranda.