When most people around the world think of England, they think it rains all the time.
In my part of the world, in Kent, (Down South), our average yearly rainfall is 650mm. Admittedly, in my hometown of Holmfirth, Yorkshire, (Up North*), it is 1,000mm (figures from Met Office). But compare that to Sydney, which has an average of 1,400mm per year.
In the summer we can go for weeks, if not months, without rain. In fact I think that our particular village has a rain-exclusion zone around it. It has been known to be tipping it down in nearby Sissinghurst or Biddenden, but not a drop of it reaches us.
And this is why today I am watering the garden.
There is an art to this. You can do more harm than good. Most of the plants I grow are incredibly tolerant creatures, and I rarely, if ever, water them. Peonies, Geraniums, Salvia, Phlox, Penstemons, Alchemilla, Hemerocallis, Lychnis, Crocosmia and Euphorbia all fit into this category.
Roses, however, don’t like to dry out. They can go for a good spell. I haven’t watered at all this year up until now because we had a nice wet spring, and we had a day of rain a month ago. But the forecast is for a week of temperatures over 30°C, and the roses are at peak flowering time. I am going to take the precaution now of giving them a really good soak.
A really good soak is the key to good watering.
A sprinkle is a disaster. It just encourages roots up to the surface of the soil, where they will ultimately dry out faster. We want to encourage good deep roots, that can reach down to groundwater, and access that for most, if not all, of the year.
Time of Day
Avoid watering in the midday sun, when much of the water will evaporate. Early morning and evening are the best times to water. It is a pleasant thing to do to wander around the garden of an evening, a glass of wine in one hand, a watering can in the other. Warning: do not get them mixed up.
A Watering Can
In my last garden, I didn’t have a hose, so I watered everything from a can. This did take time, but I built up good arm muscles. A can per perennial, and two cans per rose was my rule of thumb. This did encourage a judicious use of water. I prioritised my raised vegetable beds and pots. Only newly-planted specimens in the flowerbeds were watered. If you have a water butt (an excellent way to collect rainwater from your roof) you will need to distribute it via a watering can.
A Hose Pipe**
A hose pipe is a wondrous thing. And also a menace. Its coils move in mysterious ways. If you tug a hose, you are likely to be throttling or decapitating a plant around the edge of your flowerbed. Make use of the legs of garden furniture to kettle the hose where it can not flail about and wreak havoc.
Also, don’t underestimate the ferocity of a hose’s spray. To a plant with delicate stems, it is like a water-canon. I have learnt the hard way to water low down, ideally at ground level, which will prevent flowering stems from sustaining whiplash injuries from the spray. If you can water under a plant’s canopy of foliage, you also reduce the amount of water lost from evaporation. The water that you use is more likely to get down to the plant’s roots.
Hoses are agile. Don’t leave them unsupervised for long. They can flip over and flail about, sending a jet in the opposite direction. Many a time I have watered myself thoroughly.
I will often leave a hose on a low setting to mimic the gentle soak of rain. A fast spray is likely to send the water skimming over the surface of hot-baked soil, and down your garden path. A low dose is often more effective.
A Leaky Pipe
I know, it sounds unpleasant. This is a low-maintenance way to water. The hose is slightly porous, or has holes at lengths along it. You leave the water running for a hour or two, to mimic a drizzly day. This sounds fantastic, but in reality, the leaky pipe gets in the way of digging, and you get big leaks in some places, which means that further along the pipe there is no water flow. I am not a fan.
An Irrigation System
Yes, in an ideal world, we would construct our gardens to have channels to collect rainwater, with a soak-away, and zones of plantings to suit the plants’ preferences. Until then, follow the options above!
Pots require regular watering, where flowerbeds can manage a few weeks without rain. A good soak once a week is much better than a light sprinkle every day. You should keep going until you see water coming out of the bottom of the pot.
If a pot has really dried out, the soil shrinks away from the sides of the pot, and so there is a danger that the water is just running down the inside sides of the pot, but hasn’t found the rootball of the plant. I sometimes poke my finger into the soil to check if it is wet. At the same time I am making an irrigation channel, deeper into the soil. A finger is an ideal poking device, as you are unlikely to damage roots in the process.
In high summer, pots dry out faster, and so you might need to water twice or three times a week. The smaller the pot, the faster it will dry out. Glazed pots stay moist for longer than terracotta pots, and grouping pots will create a more humid micro-climate and they won’t dry out so quickly.
The best way to protect your plants during drought is to apply a really thick layer (5-10cm) of mulch over your soil after a good rain. This is my favourite winter job. I use well-rotted farmyard manure or compost, which will also break down and feed the plant over a long period. You can also use bark or wood chippings, which do the same over an even longer period. Gravel or slate are more expensive options, and won’t feed your soil.
*There is less of a North/South divide and more of an East/West divide in terms of rainfall in the UK, with the West of the country being significantly wetter than the East.
**Provided you don’t have a hose-pipe ban. If you do, revert to the watering can and water-butt method above, and only water those plants that really need it.
How do you water wisely? What are your favourite drought-tolerant plants?