The wombats aren't coming out of their burrows till midnight. The wallabies are washing their faces and paws in the creek then wetting down their furry chests, and the corn is finally ripening. In other words, it's hot.
Heat is enervating. Your body slows down, and so does your brain, and so you feel less inclined to do anything about the heat except head for the air-conditioning. You especially don't want to think about hard work in the garden to change your microclimate.
Canberra's gardens cool Canberra down. Suburbs with established gardens and footpath trees can be 3-5 degrees cooler than ones that are still bitumen and concrete. With concerted effort we could cool Canberra even further- and its houses, humans, dogs as well as the cats who have instinctively found the coolest spot in any dwelling. Whenever you are too hot or too cold, locate the nearest cat and take their place. (This may be difficult in mid-winter when the cat is sleeping on top of a sunny courtyard wall, unless you are very nimble.)
The most common ways to beat the heat are oldies but goodies. Plant deciduous trees and vines. They not only shade the area below but as moisture evaporates from their leaves, they cool the air around them.
Also remove some of the branches and foliage. Too much 'intermediate' foliage blocks breezes. Near here the most dramatic effect is when you walk from the Monga rainforest into the eucalypt forest beyond. The rain forest has a high canopy, and low ground covers. The sparse topped eucalypts have shrubs below them. Canberra's most accessible example of this cooling effect is in the rainforest gully at the Botanic Gardens, usually several degrees cooler in summer than the gardens around them.
Prune off the lower branches of anything around your house that may impede the breeze. Grow high trees, with broad sun shielding canopies, like oak trees, or the native Melia white cedar trees, which are deciduous too, or sun shields of grape vines, kiwi fruit, or hops.
Or turn your home into a Coolgardie safe. For over a decade I surrounded our house with a pergola hung with many hanging baskets, watered by a drip irrigation system. It took me about six weeks to realise that every mid-afternoon when I turned on the drippers the house cooled down by about six degrees as the water hit the hot paving and evaporated.
This sounds as if we should have been living in a small cloud of steam, but water uses energy to evaporate. The more breeze, and the more evaporation, the cooler it gets. (I accept this intellectually but not emotionally, just like I intellectually accept that a large heavy plane can fly while still expecting it to do the logical thing and fall out of the sky at any moment.)
And otherwise? Shade your windows, with shade sails if you feel affluent or even old sheets if you don't.
Consider 'green windows' - window boxes with climbing beans or sweet peas to give dappled shade each summer, or wooden or metal bars across each window from which you can hang leafy pot plants each summer.
Get someone to paint your roof with a reflective paint.
Insert 'moon gates' - small round and semicircular windows both low and high in courtyard walls to let in a breeze, preferably where that breeze might blow over a small pond with a solar-powered fountain. Even looking at rippling water feels cooling.
Put ice blocks in the dog's and chook's water bowl and the bird bath too.
Water at dusk while keeping yourself mozzie safe, so the hot earth can cool down as well as keep the garden green. Water yourself and the kids while you're at it. Play 'hose tag'- a game of chasing where you take turns to twist and dodge before you get squirted with wonderfully cool water. The damp clothes will help cool everyone too.
Back in my childhood in Queensland when domestic air-conditioning was something only film stars (possibly) had, hot days meant feet and ankles in buckets of cool water, and 'nifty nighties' at bed time - damp light cotton with all the windows open to the breeze, and dishes of water placed in front of the fan. We kids also had 'under the house' as a play area - the deeply shaded breezy area under any house up on stilts. Those high stilts also meant the homes cooled down at night, could resist termites with ant caps on each stilt, and flood waters could run under them. Instead, in hot Aussie climates now, we have concrete boxes painted mauve that absorb and then reflect the heat, and keep it trapped all night unless artificially cooled.
Imagine if every car park was underground, with mounded gardens on top? If every footpath bore a canopy of trees, and freeways were covered with a roof of solar panels to provide both shade and power? If every building over two storeys was required to be designed with circulating fresh air, vegetated walls and roof gardens, all with microjet irrigation - and water panels to condense the moisture in the air to be used again and again. Imagine a suburb where the roofs are earth covered, their wide window areas provided with shutters to keep the homes warm in winter, cool in summer, and storm and fire proof.
But, just as a beginning, this weekend, plan to shade a few square metres of Canberra with a canopied tree or spreading vine. Indulge in summer pruning to let in the breeze, and somehow, shade the windows.
This week I am:
- Trying to head outdoors only in that lovely period when the sun has vanished but the light remains.
- Giving up on the zucchinis. The bushes can produce all the monsters they want ... I never want to eat another zucchini until next spring.
- Plucking the flowers off the basil so the plants keep giving leaves, not seeds.
- Smelling the corn which is as high as a (small) elephant's eye. I had forgotten the fragrance of a patch of ripening corn.
- Definitely planning on planting a lot more miniature, ever blooming agapanthus for next summer;
- Eating homegrown peaches, which aren't as full of flavour as I expected due to the cool weather up till now. But they are still magic.