Downton green group


How to get the most from your garden – even in the driest summer!

We all know and accept now that climate change is upon is, and one of the impacts is much greater unpredictability and irregularity of the day to day weather.  In Britain we have got used to being rather wasteful of water but with a bit of care and planning we can still enjoy colourful gardens in dry conditions. Here are five simple tips to keep your gardens green even in the driest summers.

1. Look after your soil

  • Adding organic matter to the soil improves its structure, which helps it to retain moisture.
  • Keep exposed areas covered in winter to help lock in moisture
  • Up to 70% of water can evaporate from the soil on a hot day if you don’t have mulch as a protective layer on top. Therefore mulching is one of the best moisture holding strategies you can employ. It prevents evaporation from the soil surface, helps suppress water-thieving weeds from growing and many mulches add vital nutrients to the soil at the same time.  Ideally use a coarse mulch which allows water/rain to move down through to the soil. A depth of 3-5cm in a pot (depending on the size) and even deeper (8-10cm) in a garden bed is ideal.   Apply mulch onto moist soil and water in well. Mulching flowerbeds, and around the base of shrubs and trees in spring, prevents moisture from evaporating during dry spells. 
  • Mulching the surface of hanging baskets traps moisture; and using water retentive crystals or gel means that tubs and containers need watering less frequently.


2. Water at the right time

Many of us over-water our gardens. The soil may look dry at the surface BUT if it's moist at depth it will be fine for established plants. To check if you need to water or not, look at the soil about a 
spade-deep down. If it’s damp, it’s fine; if it’s dry, it’s time to water. If you have clay soil, it might 
feel damp whether it’s irrigated or not and sandy soil can feel dry, even if it has water in it. If this is the case, watch your plants and when they start to show signs of water stress – when leaves change position or get darker – note how the soil looks and feels. This way you can get more of an idea of what your soil is like when it has too little water.  Watering the garden before a drought sets in keeps the soil’s moisture levels up and helps prevent a water deficit.

Never water during the heat of the day: apart from being ineffective – much of the water is simply 
evaporates in the sun - this can burn the plant leaves as well. Ideally the garden should be watered 
early in the morning to reduce evaporation. Less well known is that evening watering, especially on the foliage can cause problems, as night-time temperatures are often inadequate to dry the moisture on the leaves. This can encourage some fungal pathogens to grow.

3. Use the best watering techniques for your plants

Getting the hose out may be tempting but the bad news is that not only is it frequently very wasteful of water, it's nowhere near as effective as it might look. Hoses can produce jets of water that can damage the surface of the soil, resulting in water running away from plants. Solve this by attaching a lance or spray gun.  More effective methods include:

  • Sprinklers: these are best used to soak unplanted areas.  Sprinklers have great coverage but you can’t target specific sections of your garden with them.
  • Hoses and watering cans: labour intensive but precise, use these to water around plant bases beneath the leaves, and leave the surrounding soil dry. This limits weed growth and means all the water goes where it is needed.
  • Seep hoses: these allow water to seep out of holes in the hose. They can be buried under soil or mulch, which avoids evaporation. They allow you to water established plants in rows, but are best used on heavy soil as water spreads further sideways, covering more than it would on lighter soils. 
  • Automated irrigation systems: these allow water to drip or trickle into growing areas whenever you programme them to do so. They save time and effort, but they are the most expensive option.  Make sure you take hot and dry weather into account when you programme your system.  
  • Finally, in general, avoid watering lawns. This is one of the most wasteful practices of all. Grass is very tough and always greens up again after rain.


4. Do not over-water!

This bad habit:

  • increases your water bill
  • leaches valuable nutrients from the soil (costing you money to replace them)
  • causes loss of soil oxygen which in turn increases the chance of root rot and other diseases of oxygen suffocation.


Remember:

  • Drought-tolerant plants, most lawns and established trees and shrubs, and large fruit trees rarely need watering
  • Fruit and vegetables usually crop adequately without watering. The quality and quantity however, is improved by watering close to harvest
  • When the leaves are the crop, such as lettuce, the plants should never go short of water. Watering about two weeks before harvesting is usually sufficient
  • Containers need frequent watering because they only hold a limited amount of water. Apply water when the surface of the compost appears dry


5. Collect rainwater and reuse old water

Collecting rain water from our house, shed and greenhouse roofs is something many of us already do; if you have the space, did you know that with simple connectors you can have an array of water butts which can hold a remarkable amount of water?

  • It’s simple to collect rainwater: just divert the water from your drainpipe into a water butt or a wheelie bin, using a cheap diverter kit available from any garden centre or diy store.
  • Reusing grey water (water from baths, showers, washing machines and washing up) is a good way to use water a second time. You can buy grey-water diverters that divert the water from your bath to an irrigation system or a water butt.
  • Household soaps and detergents are harmless to plants, but don’t use water containing bleach, disinfectant, dishwasher salt or stronger cleaners, which can harm plants, damage soil structure and could be a health risk.


6: Introduce more drought-resistant species into your planting scheme

Just as new insects and birds are appearing in a warming country it should come as no surprise that gardeners are looking to more drought resistant varieties for the garden. If you watch the TV 
gardening programmes or go to the Chelsea Flower show chances are you know this already.  According to the RHS the most popular shrubs to consider are:
• Abelia grandiflora
• Ceanothus
• Buxus sempervirens (Box hedge)
• Euphorbia characias 'wulfenii'
• Sedum spectabile
There is a good deal more on the RHS website. Just search for 'drought resistant plants'