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Gardening: Dealing with dry spells



PHUKET: While we are used to the onset of the dry season in Phuket every November, this year has been a bit different, as the monsoon was more prolonged and the drought, once it did arrive, has been more extreme.

Not a drop of rain since New Year’s Day in my bit of the island means that we are having to reach for our hoses more often. If we don’t have a well or a reliable mains supply, it’s necessary to call more often on the services of the water tanker.

When workers dug my well seven years ago, they encountered a layer of granite so thick that not even dynamite could crack the natural barrier. So at this time of year when the main water supply is under pressure from the rash of condominiums, I too am dependent on the water man.

So what about priorities in the xeric garden? It’s a common sense answer, actually. Your container plants will need more attention since they will dry out more rapidly, so prioritize them. The same goes for any plants that are used to moist conditions and whose roots are used to lots of water. I am thinking of the usual culprits: canna lilies, heliconias, most varieties of ginger, leea rubra (commonly known as the red tree), sambucus or sweet elder and even jasminium rex.

Of course, small plants are always more at risk, since they have less developed root systems. Most perennials or sizable shrubs will fare better than annuals. Newly transplanted ones are the most vulnerable of all.

In fact, at this time of the year, I would counsel gardeners to put potted plants in open beds only when absolutely necessary. A daily inspection will reveal the struggles: telltale drooping foliage, leaf loss and in some cases, yellowing or browning of the leaves.

All these authorial strictures will be out of date once we have a couple of heavy downpours, but at the moment this outcome looks unlikely.

Most plants that thrive in tropical conditions are built to endure dry spells. They often possess leathery leaves, which allow little evaporation through their stomata (think figs, limes and plumerias) and many varieties are not averse to dropping any foliage that is surplus to requirements.

The magnolia tree (michaelia champaca) in my garden is a case in point: it is now shedding masses of large leaves and will continue to do so until it gets a real drenching or two.

Other shrubs and trees behave differently: they will stop producing sappy-green growth, which takes its toll on underground water supplies, and instead produce gorgeous displays of bloom. By producing flowers, the plant is saying that foliar growth needs to be superceded by reproduction, since blooms rapidly give way to seeds.

Thus we have magnificent displays of ixoras, allamandas and bougainvilleas at present, and down the road a coral vine (antigogon leptus) is in full flower, impervious to the fact that the soil at its roots is bone dry.

Other shrubs that are revelling in the conditions include varieties of verbena, lantana, acalyphas and, in my garden, an Indian rubber vine. Desert shrubs such as adeniums, crowns of thorns and cactus-like perekias are also dressed in their Sunday best.

This reminds me: My local temple boasts a fine display of Saraca indica or asoka. The trees – which are revered in Buddhist mythology – are currently bearing dense, upturned clusters of flowers, tiny orange florets, which massed together produce lilac-sized blooms. These flowers appear, as is the case with so many other shrubs and trees, after pronounced dry weather. Hence this year’s fine display.

The asoka is definitely a small tree to consider for your garden, especially if you have a shady spot, since these trees grow beneath taller trees in their native habitat. It has a neat shape and attractive pinnate leaves, and it will please your Thai visitors.

However, don’t try and plant one now. It needs lots of moisture while it is getting established. In the words of the song, “save it for a rainy day”.

Catch Patrick online at Sunday morning next week, when he reveals more of his gardening expertise.

— Patrick Campbell


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