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So there it is from April 5th we, in the South that is, will be in an official hosepipe ban. Drought has officially hit (21st Feb 2012) due in the main to the drier winters and increasingly warm summers.
DEFRA is asking all of us to help by taking shorter showers, 4 mins which to me sounds like a ship shower (dowse, lather, dowse!) and not running the tap whilst cleaning your teeth – who does that, didn’t your Mother ever tell you about wasting the worlds resources? and pushing up the family water bill!
I have mixed feelings about a hosepipe ban as unlike many gardeners I abhor sprinklers and the mostly inefficient auto-watering systems one sees about the place. Of course I speak as someone with a small enough patch to not worry about watering by hand but then I don’t water anything unless it’s in a pot, in it’s first season of growth or a crop of some sort. Plants shouldn’t need it and doing it just creates bad habits in the plant/tree!
So how can we help ourselves with this imminent water shortage?
Yes that’s right improving your soil can help with water retention. The more organic matter it contains the better it stores moisture. Organic matter can be added as compost, well rotted farm yard manure or green waste from your council. Typically this is done in late Autumn (November) or Early Spring (Feb/March) when the ground is moist. Spread a thick layer (50-75mm) on top of your soil leaving a 7-10cm gap around the stem/trunk of plants and then let the garden worms do the rest.
Right Plant Right Place
I know I know broken record stuff but it holds true for a reason. Planting moisture loving plants on dry slopes of sandy soil is going to cause a headache even if we didn’t have a drought. Beth Chatto‘s wonderful Dry Garden has shown that even in areas with low rainfall, and they have one of the lowest in the country, it is possible to plant a fabulous garden that won’t guzzle water but will still make a breathtaking display right through from Spring to Autumn.
Good plants to aim for are those you might find in mediterranean countries, silver leaved Lavenders, Salvia’s all sorts of furry and silver leaved plants and of course succulent Sedum, Euphorbia and Sempervivums. The hairy leaves capture any moisture that falls and traps it for the plant, small leaves transpire less, grey reflects more light, fleshy leaves hold water well and so on. These plants have adapted well to their native environment and we can make use of them in our bid for low water, drier gardening. The RHS do a good drought tolerant plant list but then also investigating your own local varieties is half the fun.
My favorite topic and a favorite pass time – I definitely need to get out more – A bit like improving your spoil mulch helps in the retention of water, stopping it evaporating as quickly so the plant has more chance to sup it up. There are lots of types of mulch from black plastic and bark chips to aggregates including gravels.
I get my bark chip from a local Arboriculturalist for paths but for anything going on the border it has to be well seasoned or there is a risk of nitrogen leaching from the bark and causing imbalance in your soil, most shop bought bark chip will be well seasoned.
As with soil improvers make sure this is laid between Autumn and Spring so that the soil is good and moist before the mulch goes down. Mulch acts as a barrier both ways, so if your soil is dry it will take much longer to get wet.
More solid barriers, like Terram (a permeable black membrane), can be very useful in weed suppression and water retention but I find them a bit annoying if I want to have a fluid planting style – i.e. planting all those things that have tempted me in the local nursery! – it can get tatty if cut too many times and basically should be reserved for industrial style mulching and weed suppression
So we’re back to those sprinklers! Water garden plants in the evening, after the heat has gone out of the day. Water at the base of the plant don’t waste if on the leaves, really dowse each plant, soaking it once a week rather than watering every day. The soaking of the soil makes the plant send roots down in search of water rather than noodling about in the top 10cm, which is more prone to drying out and consequently not a great place for a plant to have all its roots!
For pot watering I challenge you to a test, take a couple of pots and water them as normal, after 15 mins take the plant out of the pot, soil and all, and see how far down you watering has gone. I suspect, unless you already know this one, that you water will have gone down a mere cm or two and nothing like the depth of the pot. A good rule of thumb is to soak your pot from below for half an hour, so a deep drip tray or bucket is good. This encourages the plant to send it’s roots down and also it takes up the water it needs.
One more thing on pots, large pots do better as the fluctuations in temperature and water are reduced, aim for 60cm or bigger. Terracotta are the best for root protection and limiting temperature fluctuations but plastic pots will obviously retain water better. Clustering pots together creates a cooler micro climate. Metal pots are the devils work and basically fry the roots!
Water retaining gels
When making pots or hanging baskets for the summer, mix in water retaining gel to your compost. The crystals soak up water and create tiny reservoirs of wetness to be released later. Do not use them in winter pots or baskets as the same dampness is likely to cause root damage and possibly freeze.
It has to be said they are not the most elegant of things but they are fabulously useful in drought a couple of well placed containers connected to drainpipes will really boost your plants. Rainwater is also far better for plants than chemically treated tap water not to mention keeping the water bills down. Some funky new designs are on the market. You might consider grey water recycling as well but this is a slightly more complex occupation, you can find more information about the how’s here.
One final note to all you lawn lovers, a brown summer lawn is the new green, it will re-grow once it rains, don’t waste your water on the sward!
A bit more info about this drought:
and something to annoy the English
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