Gardening in July

And then the rain came. In injury time but it did. Some years we get less than others, but one thing we can bet on is that it is going to rain in winter. The surety of winter rains makes the Western Cape on of the most predictable in terms of climate in the country (some say the world). But as optimistic as I like to be, we will need a lot more rain this winter to avert a disaster. Our natural resources simply cannot keep up with the rate of development in the Western Cape. Some say we’ve had the worst drought ever; maybe we just use too much water.

Now that winter is here it is easy to fall into hibernation mode and let nature take its course in the garden. Unfortunately July is actually quite an important gardening month, mostly because it is pruning time. Pruning can be a daunting task. Most gardeners are afraid that they will do something wrong or kill a plant. I will try and give a few pointers here, but remember that plants want to grow and are usually very forgiving of even your worst mistakes. When pruning there are two concepts that need to be on your mind – renewal and stimulation. We want to stimulate the plant to flower, fruit or grow into what we want it to become by selecting the strongest branches and allowing for air flow and light to reach all parts of the plant. At the same time we want to renew it by cutting away old and diseased wood. I hardly “prune” my roses nowadays – it is more of a cutting back. The bush gets cut down to about knee height after which I remove all dead, damaged and funny looking stems down to the base. Then I will look at the overall shape – cut away a few crossing branches and leave it to form a cup shape, no matter how many branches that will take. That is it. Mulch with a thick layer of mulch and only start feeding when actively pushing new shoots in spring.

Pruning fruit trees can be somewhat more complicated because they bear their fruit differently. Again common sense should prevail, but here are some pointers. Apples and pears are spur bearers – fruiting on old wood. New shoots should therefore be cut back to about 5 shoots. Established trees require little pruning – mostly thinning the spurs and cutting out old wood. Plums need little pruning except for the removal of suckers and diseased or damaged branches. Peaches and apricots bear on 1 or 2 year old wood, so require more vigorous pruning with most of the branches that have fruited removed down to some new growth.

Now that we’ve finally had some rain it is also planting time! Looking around the neighbourhood I have found some old favourites that seem to not only survive, but thrive in water restricted gardens. One of these are common old plumbago – I’ve often struggled to grow these well, but now realise that I might have been overwatering them. The same goes for the Cape Honeysuckle and Mexican Sage. Local Fynbos favourites are an obvious winner, with restios, Ericas, salvias and Mimetes species flourishing in dry gardens. Aloes, crassulas, the mesembs and other succulents love dry summers and wet winters. My proteas and pincushions disappointed me however. It seems as if the drought exacerbated the ever-present root diseases. They’ll be alive the one day and dead the next. All summer bulbs must be planted now and you can colour up your life with some nursery seedlings.

Not much in the vegetable garden to harvest now, but we will soon have the first broccoli and cauliflower. Broad beans are slowly coming to the table; as does peas. Citrus fruit is in abundance and now is the time for marmalade! My ferments have seriously slowed down – I think it is not only the cold but also a period of winter hibernation for all the microbes.

Happy gardening. Stay warm.