Drought: a gardening survival guide for a dry season
Much of the country is in a drought, but there’s no need to panic. Lia Leendertz has plenty of tips for making a little water go a long way .
By Lia Leendertz
5:21PM GMT 15 Mar 2012
It’s been a dry winter. I’d say an alarmingly dry winter, except that I’ve loved it: the soggy end of my garden hasn’t turned into a bog, I’ve only once been rained off at the allotment, and I’ve very seldom walked across the plot and had my wellies instantly transformed into mud-soled platform boots.
Delightful as this has been, there is always a price to pay for climate extremity. It bodes worryingly for the growing season, and water restrictions across southern and eastern England are a black cloud on the horizon – although not of the right kind. Southern Water, South East Water, Thames Water, Anglian Water, Sutton and East Surrey, Veolia Central and Veolia South East have all announced restrictions, including a hosepipe ban, to come into effect on April 5.
Happily, there are loads of very easy tricks that can help cut down on water use in the garden. Your first priority should be to set up as many water butts as your home can take: every downpipe and shed roof can be helping you to store up rainwater for the dry times.
Water saving is mostly common sense and simple techniques that require just a few adjustments to your thinking. A hosepipe ban may stop you spraying your garden with a hose, but that’s all it does. Here are some practical tips to keep the garden green and beat the ban.
- Pots are one of the most troubling garden features during a drought. Plants in the ground can sink their roots deeper in search of water at times of drought, but those in pots are entirely dependent on you. You stop watering, they die.
- Make life easier by starting off with generous-sized pots: small pots heat up quickly and dry out quickly, so go as big as you can afford.
- Water-retaining granules are a marvel for pots. When soaked, they swell up and then slowly release water. Mix them into the compost before planting.
- Group pots together. They can create a little humid microclimate between them which means that their leaves lose less moisture and they need less water.
- Mulch the surface of pots with something decorative, such as slate paddlestones. It looks good, keeps the compost cool and cuts down evaporation from the surface.
Vegetable gardens and allotments
Most vegetables are annuals that start off very small and need to be nurtured through the early months, so vegetable gardening can be water-intensive.
- Water seedlings for a week or two after they go into the ground, after that they should be able to fend for themselves, except in severely hot and dry spells.
- Plant thirsty plants, such as courgettes, into a dip so that water runs down towards the roots and collects. It means they get the most benefit out of showers.
- Water in the evening or the morning. In the middle of the day, water evaporates before it has had a chance to seep into the ground.
- Water deeply and infrequently, rather than little and often. A lack of water sends young roots searching deep down into the soil, where they will find reserves of moisture and be more self-sufficient. Those watered often but not deeply will only ever send out shallow, surface roots that suffer in drought times.
- Mulch the soil. Water it deeply and then cover with bark chippings or compost, to help seal it in and prevent evaporation.
Lawns are vast consumers of water but only if you insist on having the perfect green sward all year round. Take a more laid-back approach to your lawn and it will look after itself.
- Relax and let established lawns go brown. Lawn grasses stop growing during drought, but they don’t die. Come the next rains, growth kicks in and they green up again.
- Let the grass grow. Shaggier turf creates its own shading and retains moisture more efficiently.
- Spring and autumn are the traditional times to sow lawn grasses and to lay turf, but if you can wait until autumn, do. A lawn needs plenty of water while establishing and is one of the few places where a regular soaking with a hosepipe is really needed. If a hosepipe ban kicks in during this phase, you’ll end up with a dead lawn. Seed is less demanding of water than turf, so if you must start a new lawn, use seed.
Mature borders, shrubs and trees
Established plants should need no watering at all. These are large-rooted plants that will be able to draw on reserves of moisture deep down in the soil.
- If they should really start to look like they need watering, established plants are great candidates for watering with grey water (see information box, right).
Conservatories and greenhouses
Conservatories and greenhouses get hot, no rain falls within, and many of the plants in them are in containers. You need to be particularly careful to minimise water use here.
- Set up a large water butt inside the greenhouse, filling from gutters on the outside.
- As well as giving you a great source of captured water, a large tank of water helps to regulate the temperature of the air in the greenhouse, keeping it cooler in summer and warmer in winter.
- Greenhouses overheat on hot days so it helps to use shading in summer. Paint greenhouse shading paint on to the roof and walls or drape shade netting over the roof.
- For the first time, some water companies are allowing the use of drip irrigation, even during a hosepipe ban (see information box, right). Others are still considering their policy on this, so do check with your own water company. It’s a very simple and efficient way of keeping plants watered.
Water will evaporate from the surface of ponds over summer, and they will need topping up.
- Use water from a butt if you can. Rain water is gentler on wildlife and fishes than tap water.
- Invest in some aquatic plants. It is generally advised that between 50 and 75 per cent of the surface of a pond should be covered in plant growth, such as water lily leaves. This is because it helps to prevent a build-up of algae in the pond, but it also prevents rapid evaporation.
- For more water-wise gardening tips, see rhs.org.uk
- For water-saving ideas in the home, see environment-agency.co.uk
How to recycle grey water
- Grey water is water that has been used around the house, in the washing machine, bath, shower or for washing up.
- Grey water doesn’t store well and can start to smell. It is best used within 24 hours to prevent the spread of bacteria.
- The simplest way is just to scoop it out of the bath or sink with a bucket – but see below for useful collection devices.
- Never reuse water from toilets and dishwashers.
- Don’t use water on plants that is contaminated with bleach and other harsh chemicals.
- Experts usually advise that grey water should not be used on fruit or vegetable crops.
- Make sure you keep grey water containers out of the reach of children and pets.
Grey water recycling kit
- The job of siphoning your bath or shower water is made easy with a water siphon pump, £19.99. Essentially a hose pipe with a small hand pump to create a siphon, this allows water to be taken directly from the bath and sent through the hose to the garden (or water butt) via an open window. From Nigel’s Ecostore (0800 288 8970; nigelsecostore.com).
- It is also possible to reuse grey water direct from a sealed main drainage system. For example, the Water Two valve, from £19.95 (shown above) can be used to direct grey water to a water butt where, once cooled if necessary, it can be used on the garden. It can be fitted to existing piping and switched to divert grey water either to a drain or to storage (01539 623429; watertwo.co.uk or 020 8133 9002; mygreenerhome.co.uk).
- Long term, consider installing a rainwater harvesting system. The UK Rainwater Harvesting Association is an excellent source of information (ukrha.org).
Four water boards, Anglian, Thames, Southern and South East Water, are now allowing drip irrigation even during a hosepipe ban. This is perfectly logical as drip irrigation is far more efficient than spraying plants with a hose.
It is very useful for watering greenhouse plants, but can also be used for pots or even new plantings in the ground. A tube carries water around the plants, and above each plant is a small “dripper”. When the tap is on, water gently drips on to the soil.
It seeps in slowly, and very little is lost from the surface. All you need to do is turn on your outside tap for 10-20 minutes in the morning and evening. Even simpler, you can put a timer at the tap end that will allow water through the system for set periods each day.
This is also the best way of keeping your container and greenhouse plants watered when you go on holiday, unless you have very amenable neighbours.
- Dobbies Garden Centres (0844 840 8404; dobbies.com) stock the Deluxe Auto Kit drip system by Hozelock, £75. This all-in-one automatic irrigation kit includes a battery-powered timer and all the fittings. Visit hozelock.com for a downloadable pdf with tips on setting up a basic system.
- Look out for self-watering planters, which are another good way of beating the ban, in your local garden centre