Gardening

As the heat of summer starts to bite, the focus of every keen gardener turns to irrigation. By Margaret Simons.

Summer in the garden

Watering: the essential work of the summer gardener.
Credit: Andrey Moisseyev / Alamy

Somewhere in the world there is a person – or several people – who design the components of garden micro-irrigation schemes. They work out the mechanics of the line tricklers, the four-litre-per-hour staked drippers and the exciting innovation just arrived: the gear drive nozzle tree.

Then there are the people who market the gizmos, who try to persuade you to buy Pope systems rather than Rain Bird. And there must be people who specialise in how to make the tiny devices in the most cost-efficient fashion – calculating the amounts of plastic to be used, the number of moving parts, the efficiency of the factory.

Then there are the logisticians who work out how to pack them and transport them so they can be lined up in individual display boxes in Bunnings, and I can wander spoilt for choice, trying to work out whether a half circle sprayer on a little stake is better than a dripper at the end of a tiny hose to water my burgeoning tomato plants, my heat-vulnerable lettuce.

The challenge of summer is to keep plants watered through the punishing heat. This is particularly difficult if, like me, you have most of your plants in pots. I fill old milk bottles with water and invert them, trying to maintain some moisture through the heat.

In the evening, I stand in the backyard holding the hose, churning up the soil with jets of water, watching it pool on moisture-resistant soil, and soak in where the compost has done its job and the earth welcomes water. I swat at the mosquitoes as the smell of hamburgers cooking wafts over from the McDonald’s drive-through on the other side of the laneway at my back fence.

But time is short and life is busy, and keeping the garden alive is much easier with an automatic system made of poly pipe and those little micro-irrigation gizmos that allow you to just turn on the tap and leave it all to drip and spray.

So every summer as the heat sets in, I renew and expand the irrigation system to carry water to the new plants I have squeezed in to my tiny garden over winter and spring.

I go to Bunnings and wander the irrigation aisle. There is so much choice in these tiny things, and I get lost in the intricacy of it all, and in fantasies about the business ecosystem, the lives and the structures and the movements that lie behind this ordinary aisle of intricate bits of plastic.

Are the people who make, publicise and transport these things proud of their work? Do they say things like: “I have a career in micro-irrigation”? Or “We have some really exciting innovations in drippers.” Do they get upset when a rival company comes up with something like the gear drive nozzle tree?

I read the pamphlet on the new gear drive nozzle tree. Somebody was also employed to write the copy, of course. There’s another career, another life trajectory. It reads: “Rotors apply different amounts of water depending on the pattern that they are set to water. A rotor set to water just 1/4 of a full circle applies more water than a rotor set to water a full 360 degrees, assuming the nozzles are the same.” You can sense the pride behind the words, and also their need for a new copywriter.

In the world of garden irrigation manufacture, I imagine industry conferences, boardroom dramas, office rivalries, great achievements and bitter disappointments. Do the people talk at parties about what they do, or do they mumble something about being in manufacturing?

I don’t know a single person who works in this field.

I guess they live in China. That, after all, is where most things are made. And there in the Bunnings aisle I further reflect: with trade embargoes and international insults flying there is still this humble connection – a spray nozzle made in some Chinese factory delivering water piped from the reservoirs east of the Dandenongs to my potted vegetable garden in inner-suburban Melbourne.

The other challenge of early summer is aphids – the little insects that encase new growth in the fuzzy greyness of their bodies. They suck sap, inject virus and rob your plants of vigour. Aphids particularly like cucumbers and pak choy, and I have lost whole crops because I didn’t have the best cure on hand. That best cure is white oil. You can buy it at Bunnings, but the aphids move fast, and usually the plants are dead before I make the journey.

I had always regarded white oil as something special, but this week I found out you can make it yourself.

Mix any cooking oil (even used cooking oil if you strain out the bits) with dishwashing detergent – four parts oil to one part detergent. Shake it up until it turns white, then dilute one tablespoon of the mix with a litre of water, put it in a spray bottle and squirt the buggers thoroughly – ideally not when the sun is full on the plants. Evening is best.

The spray works by blocking the insects’ breathing pores. Fuzzy fat sap suckers desiccate to powder within the hour. White oil also works on scale, mealy bug, mites, citrus leaf miner and the green, smooth-skinned caterpillars that can eat their way through your brassicas in a single day.

I have been murderous since I discovered homemade white oil. It is deeply satisfying. My rampages through the pests are accompanied by a faint odour of last week’s tempura. Recycling. Even better.

Meanwhile, I have given up on trying to grow vegetables in the back lane between my house and the McDonald’s. There is a tiny strip of soil between the bluestone cobbles and the fence, and it gets more sun than most of my backyard. It seemed such a waste to leave it to the weeds.

Last summer, I tried strawberries and tomatoes against the fence. It was not a success. The soil was too shallow, the heat blasting up from the bluestone too intense. I couldn’t get enough water to the plants. They were out of reach of the micro-irrigation system – I would have had to run hose across the lane used by my neighbours’ cars. I transplanted earthworms and compost as part of an attempt to improve the soil. The earthworms died. I found their corpses dried out and looking like fragments of elastic bands. They had dehydrated in their attempts to cross the bluestone desert and get home.

And then there are the other users of that lane. Teenagers go there to smoke and to share illicit alcohol. Probably sex too. They sit around on milk crates and talk about boys and girls and teachers. They don’t know I can hear. Sometimes, if I am in the backyard, I give a little cough and then listen to the silence before they start again in whispers.

Drinkers of all kinds go into the back lane to urinate. And sometimes I have found syringes in among the strawberries and the weeds. The lane between my backyard and the McDonald’s is my inner urban wilderness – a place untamed, unloved and unlovely and beyond regulation. Until this year, my civilising influence had failed.

I don’t mind the teenagers or even the urinators but, interfering busybody as I am, I want the lane to grow things. I don’t want that soil and sunlight to be wasted. So this year I have overcome my aversion to succulents and planted an array of different types against the laneway fence. So far they are surviving, helped by a wetter-than-usual spring. Purple leaves, wicked spikes and fleshy grey leaves are beginning to crowd out at least some of the weeds.

I have hated succulents most of my life. I think it is because they are so arrogant, so self-sufficient, so persistent, so obviously not in need of my rescuing, interfering tendencies. But in the wasteland, they triumph. This morning I found a McDonald’s chip packet impaled on a cactus spine like a victory flag.

In the gentler parts of my garden the early summer tasks are done and I wait for harvest. The tomato plants are laden with flowers and tiny green fruit. The zucchini seedlings are putting out big fleshy leaves and floppy yellow flowers like old-fashioned doilies.

Soon we will be at the top of the year, with everything bright and pushing up and out and soaking up the sun. The weeds will be out of control, there will be too much of everything and the tiny irrigation devices will mist and drip each evening.

Then it will all tip over the top, go to seed, dry out, give up and we will be travelling down the other side, into the middle of a new and, I hope, better year.

“Only connect,” as E. M. Forster might have said, if he had ever visited Bunnings.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 19, 2020 as "Trickle treats".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Margaret Simons is a Walkley Award-winning journalist and author. She reports on business for The Saturday Paper.