Water is the lifeline of a garden; without it we would be seriously limited in what we could grow successfully. Globally, there is a shortage of drinkable water, yet in our country we often take for granted the fresh water we get from the tap. When it comes to the garden – especially at this time of year when water restrictions can come into force – understanding how plants use and need water can make whatever water you have available go a lot further.
Essentially, in summer we need to turn our gardens onto ‘water-saving mode’ just like you would turn your phone onto ‘flight mode’ when boarding a plane. Although ideally we should be doing it all year round, at least if we start now it may trigger better life-long patterns going forward.
A no-stress operation
When plants become water-stressed – by lack of or, in some cases, too much of it – things start to go wrong, and fast. Pests and diseases attack weak plants. Strong healthy plants are far less prone to problems, so avoiding water stress is a good thing. Did you know that watering a wilting plant in the middle of a hot day is more likely to damage the plant? Wait until the temperatures cool, then water to revive it, because watering in the intense heat of the sun can burn any sensitive, withered parts of the plant.
DON’T be a drip
If you have a leaky tap that you just can’t turn off, ideally you should get it fixed. Until the plumber arrives, put a bucket under it to capture the drips, and you may well find by the end of the day you have enough water to do the rounds on a few of your essentials.
Watering can: Cheaper than a gym membership
If you sometimes can’t find the time to go for that walk or to get to the gym, then using a watering can to do the essential watering is a great way to get some exercise into your day. Some of you may have areas in the garden where the hose doesn’t reach, perhaps you have no irrigation, or you may be collecting rain water into a drum: so using a watering can is the best plan of attack. One of the best things about using a watering can is that you know exactly how much water each plant is getting. Once an area is wet by a hose, it is hard to get a measure as to how much water has actually gone onto the garden.
Shallow watering is a big NO-NO!
Watering little and often won’t do your plants any long-term favours; regular, deep watering is what you are aiming for. This encourages a plant’s root system to bury itself further into the soil looking for water where the temperature is cooler, making it easier for plants to take up water. At the same time, the plants then anchor themselves more securely into the ground. Plants are clever – if they don’t have to wriggle down into the soil looking for water, they won’t. Shallow surface roots often get burnt by the sun; this is a common cause of crop failure in vegetables. Water every second or third day deeply, rather than a splash every day.
Avoid the hot, hot sun: Water in the morning or well before dark
No one likes to go to bed wet – especially plants, as it can trigger all sorts of mildew and mould problems to occur. Therefore watering in the dark isn’t ideal. Early morning is fine and so is after work, you just need to allow the plants to dry out a little before night falls.
Only water the area around plants
Nothing like stating the obvious, but many of us (and that’s me included) water until we see that all the soil is dark and moist. This isn’t necessary – only water the area around the actual plants. By watering open bare soil, you are actually encouraging weeds to germinate as well.
Make the soil a sponge: Organic matter rocks
To help soil hold onto more moisture throughout the hottest months, blend in plenty of organic matter. The best and most economical way to do this is by using compost or well-rotted animal manure. You can also look to use peat, coir fibre or sphagnum moss. The more organic matter you can add to the soil, the more moisture the soil will be able to hold. The organic matter acts like a sponge and holds the water in the soil.
Mulch, mulch and more mulch
It you think about it, mulch is like a carpet or a blanket – it adds a protective layer to the soil to shield it from the elements. Mulch is a marvellous way to help keep moisture in the soil, to keep weeds away and also to add organic matter to the ground. Worms love organic mulches – especially compost, and better still, they do the mixing work for you.
The key rules with mulch are to add a thick layer of it. Do not be stingy! You need at least 5cm, ideally 10cm. Before adding the mulch, water the area thoroughly; give it a huge soaking, as it’s rather hard to get water through thick fresh layers of mulch once it’s in place.
Avoid mounding up mulch around the base of plants. You need to leave an area where the water can easily get into the root zone.
Types of mulch vary – every landscape yard will have a few options, and the best option for a vegetable patch is compost, as it adds loads of nutrients as well as protecting the soil. However, it does break down faster than bark-based mulch does, so if you are using mulch to save you time, then look to a bark-based blend instead of compost.
Straw is brilliant to use around edibles as it reflects a lot of sunlight rather than absorbing it, like dark bark mulches do.
In hot, dry periods, insert a plastic bottle into the soil beside tomatoes and fill with water. The soil will take what it needs ensuring the root zone is always moist.
Irrigation takes the guesswork out of watering, so where possible, installing an irrigation system will save you and your plants a lot of time and energy. Check it on a regular basis to ensure it’s working effectively and has no leaks.
Water for free
Collecting rainwater from the roof is an easy and cost-effective way to save water.
Grey water from the shower, washing machine and dishwasher can also be used, as long as no bleach or hard chemicals have been used during the wash.
Planting ground-covering plants or crops with big leaves shields the soil from the sun, preventing it from drying out.
Your garden doesn’t need to suffer while you are away on your summer holidays. If you are only away for a few days, give your garden a good soaking before you leave.
If you are looking at more of a longer-term escapade, phone a friend or ask around to see who can help. People love to help look after things – if you are new to an area it’s a good way to get to know your neighbours, too. Asking for help isn’t a bad thing; it is just something many people have forgotten how to do. Often you will be able to return the favour at some point.
Hanging baskets can be a challenge. An easy way to deal with them is to put them in the bath in shallow water; they will last just fine for a few days. Otherwise add them to the watering list.