Sunburn in the garden

Sunburn in the garden is such a pain. I avoid it myself with a straw hat so wide of brim it could double as an umbrella, but my plants have no such defences. When the mercury hits 35, something fries. What suffers depends on the calendar. You’ll remember that we had our first 35+ day in the first week of September. In my garden, the sun snuck through a still-bald frangipani to burn some ferns. Worse, the rays lasered the new foliage on the hibiscus. New leaf buds had just emerged when we endured our next scorcher. The plant’s so knocked around it hasn’t produced a single flower so far this summer. I’ve made a note to prune much earlier this winter so the new growth has a chance to harden off before the heat arrives, and hopefully it will look like this again next year:

orange hibiscus

Now, at summer’s peak, even plants that like to grow in full sun are suffering sunburn. Anita Rayner, who heads the horticulture team responsible for Elizabeth Farm, Rouse Hill Farm, Vaucluse House and the other Sydney Living Museum properties, agrees it’s been a sunburnt summer. “You know it’s bad when the agapanthus burns,” she says. Wedding parties at Vaucluse House have been disappointed to find the lawn sepia rather than green and the top of the plumbago hedge at Rouse Hill has scorched. So what’s the plan? “My advice is to do nothing,” says Rayner. The lawn will come back when it rains again, the plumbago with grow on.”

Do nothing is good advice. The burned leaves offer protection for the unburned leaves beneath them, and cutting off dead foliage will only encourage new growth, which is vulnerable to even more intense damage. There are prevention tactics too. Leave the lawn at least 5cm long and don’t fertilise lawn or plants through summer to avoid creating soft new growth. Some gardeners also swear by Yates Droughtshield, which is a biodegradable polymer sprayed on leaves to reduce transpiration. It’s especially useful for leaves that wilt easily, like hydrangea. Delicate little treasures can be protected by creating temporary shelter, either with shade cloth, or with moveable bamboo screens. Patience is a longer-term strategy. Once the weather cools, plants that are too exposed can be moved, and more shelter, in the form of trees, palms and shrubs can be planted.

But in the short term even Rayner admits that there are some times when the recommendation to ignore the burn just can’t be followed. “It depends how unsightly it is,” she hedges. Exactly. Which is why I was out this morning trimming burned stuff from my heliconia clump. It’s just starting to produce its flowers, which once they are fully open look like hot pink canoes being paddled by persons dressed in yellow. It’s impossible to enjoy the show when the flowers are curtained with crispy brown rags, so I got to work with the secateurs, and now it looks like this:


Fingers crossed we have no more scorchers, before those little rowers start paddling their pink canoes.


2 thoughts on “Sunburn in the garden

  1. Hi Robin – I wonder if you might see fit to mention AGHS Sydney branch’s upcoming next event – 24/2/15 6 for 7pm start-8.30, Richard Aitken talks on Portuguese gardens and launches Ruth Morgan’s book ‘Running Out’ about water and Australia(n gardens)? You might like to come? I’m happy to send you a flier if I have an email address…

    • Robin Powell says:

      Hi Stuart
      I’ve just now booked my ticket to Richard’s talk. Portugal is near the top of my get-to-soon list. See you there.

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