Refresh! How to water well

When most people around the world think of England, they think it rains all the time.


In my part of the world, in Kent, our average yearly rainfall is 650mm.   Compare that to Sydney, which has an average of 1,400mm per year.

Geranium ‘Dragon Heart’ spent flower.

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.

Phlox paniculata ‘Starfire’ flower buds.

And this is why today I am watering the garden.

Rosa ‘Summer Song’ foliage, touched by dew.

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, hardy geraniums, salvia, phlox, penstemons, alchemilla, hemerocallis, lychnis, crocosmia and euphorbia all fit into this category.

Euphorbia griffithii ‘Fireglow’, Geranium ‘Anne Thomson’ and Alchemilla mollis.

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.

Rosa ‘Benjamin Britten’

I prioritise newly planted roses, because they will not yet have a good, deep root system.  I won’t worry about my rugosa roses or Gallica roses because they are as tough as old boots.

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.

Hemerocallis foliage, with dew.

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.

Bright Border. Clockwise from right: Clematis ‘Princess Diana’, Geranium ‘Rozanne’, Salvia nemorosa ‘Ostfriesland’, Geranium ‘Brookside’, Rosa ‘Thomas a Becket’.

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.

Left to right: Salvia nemorosa ‘Ostfriesland’, Geranium ‘Rozanne’, Lychnis coronaria, Alchemilla mollis.  All of these plants are drought-tolerant.

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.

Hemerocallis bud.

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.

Clematis ‘Princess Diana’

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.

Euphorbia griffithii ‘Fireglow’ with morning dew.

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!


Clematis, like roses, benefit from a good soaking at ground level.

Watering Pots

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.


*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?

My aim on this site is to share the sense of wonder I get from gardening and being outdoors.

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55 Comments Add yours

  1. Emma Cownie says:

    Thanks for the tips on watering..who knew Sydney had so much rain? The localised pattern of rainfall is true for South Wales too – we can spend a dry day on the Gower and come home to Swansea to find it’s rained.

    1. Ali says:

      Do you ever see the rain falling from cloud, Emma? I love it when that happens!

      1. Emma Cownie says:

        I like to watch rain drops…usually we have a lot here in Wales but we have not had a lot for quite a while. It’s very odd.

      2. Ali says:

        In previous years when it has finally rained, it has felt very strange. Like we have forgotten what rain is!

      3. Emma Cownie says:

        The smell of summer rain is delicious, though!

  2. Christina says:

    I live in one of those ‘rain free zones’! Last week I went into town and about 3 km away it was raining so hard there was water standing everywhere, I had the windscreen wipers going a top speed and still couldn’t see, another 5 km to the other side of town and it was perfectly dry! Drought tolerant should never be confused with looking great in the burning sun. Also, for a plant (and me) there is a huge different between 30°C and 35-40°C; each rise in temperature by one degree can make a huge difference.

    1. Ali says:

      That’s a very good point, Christina – there is an aesthetic difference between drought-tolerant and drought-happy!

  3. janesmudgeegarden says:

    Rather surprisingly, your av rainfall is about the same as ours. I feel we’re in a rain shadow too, as falls can be very localised and we don’t seem to get our share….sigh. So far this year we’ve had one third of our average and also it was very hot for an extended period of time during summer and autumn. So watering happens a fair bit here, as you can imagine, but now that the weather is so much cooler we don’t have to do it so frequently. I’ve planted mostly drought tolerant and frost hardy plants similar to yours, and roses do very well here too.

    1. Ali says:

      That is really interesting! So many micro-climates!

  4. Rain is very local even here in the NW this year – our garden has had one night of rain in two months.

    1. Ali says:

      Wow! Again, something people don’t expect for the NW!

      1. The lake district only 30 mins drive away has had some decent thundery spells. Even the nursery where my wife works and is nearer to us has had at least some rain. Only a few plants are obviously suffering – japanese anemone and some of the blue corydalis are demanding water. The green roof is no longer very green though.

      2. Ali says:

        Oh no! I am wondering about my front path. The soil is very shallow there. Though I have planted Alchemilla mollis and Lychnis coronaria there, which are pretty bomb-proof.

      3. They are! We were admittedly pushing our luck with the roof. Lots of silver saxifrages and other alpines which have sailed through previous droughts. I suspect only the sedum will survive this one.

      4. Ali says:

        Sedum is incredible, isn’t it?

      5. It is and I can see why it is the usual choice for a green roof😄

  5. Penny Post says:

    With predominantly new plants in my garden this hot/dry spell means I’m having to water every day. with a can. As for my newly planted tree it really doesn’t like this weather, it has either been hot of very windy since it has been planted and I feel like a new mother not knowing whether to water it or leave it alone.

  6. Found this very interesting, having recently moved to Kent and inherited a garden full of roses. Whilst watering them yesterday was just thinking how well the salvias, alchemilla and hardy geraniums were doing without water. (And I’m originally from up North, too – East Yorks!)

    1. Ali says:

      All the best people are from Yorkshire! Glad to be of assistance re: your roses. Lucky you to have inherited them!

  7. annpappas says:

    Aloes are tough, indigenous water wise plants but as far as exotics are concerned, Bougainvillea, Frangipani and Hibiscus would be at the top of my list.

    1. Ali says:

      Oh, I love those three. The Holy Trinity of tropical gardening!

  8. pommepal says:

    An excellent post about watering covering all the does and don’ts. Watering sounds easy but as you point out is actually quite complex. I just love bromeliads they can survive for ever as long as a very small amount of water is in their cups.

    1. Ali says:

      Ah, I used to grow them. There is such a variety, too, isn’t there?

  9. And here I thought you all had the perfect climate. Maybe you just have the perfect soil. Everything seems to grow so much better there than here in the states. Sounds like you are having as hot a spring/summer as we are, but we have had an unusually high amount of rain this year, so I’ve only had to water my snaps once, and nothing else at all. They’re getting a little extra TLC since I’ve nursed them from itsy bitsy seeds.

    1. Ali says:

      Yes, it’s taken a while to get dry this year, as we had a good wet spring, but I will have to take care now and watch the vulnerable ones!

  10. This more or less follows what I do. We don’t have much of a water shortage in Edinburgh but this year early summer has been hot and dry so having to water more than usual. I try to use saved rain water and to prioritise vegetables and pots. Roses do suffer sometimes so I’ll try and remember to include them in my rounds. I prefer to use a watering can. It is much trickier at the allotment where we try and hose it down when we visit a couple of times a week just now.

    1. Ali says:

      Yes, I forgot to mention a rain butt! I love the rhythm and repetition of using a watering can; so much more gentle than a hose. And less damage to plants!

  11. Lana Cole says:

    I love to water my patio area each evening with a glass of wine!🍷 ☀️

    1. Ali says:

      It’s a lovely ritual, isn’t it?

      1. Lana Cole says:

        It sure is… a relaxing way to end a busy day.

  12. I love this post. It is so light hearted but informational at the same time. You photos are gorgeous, as always! I told myself yesterday that I need to do a better job of reading your posts, as you do a great job responding to mine. (Thank you!) I will be going off to school this morning to weed and possibly water (it would be the first time for me this year as well – other than during planting). You’ve inspired me to do a possible post on watering. Do you have rain barrels? We have two at the school where I tend the gardens.

    1. Ali says:

      Yes, I should have said we have one water butt, but it tends to run out by midsummer. Ours is currently being repaired, as the feeder pipe had split. I think some plants prefer rainwater – well probably all, actually, but some manage on our chlorinated, treated water and some clearly prefer proper rain.

      1. Ah, I see. Not a criticism at all of your piece – I genuinely wondered as there are two rain barrels at this school and I just think it is a great idea. You are probably right about preferring rain water. Thanks, again. I really enjoy your blog.

      2. Ali says:

        Thank you. x

  13. bcparkison says:

    My Grangran always taught me to not water until I had to. Once started it had to be kept up.

    1. Ali says:

      Very sound advice! It is worth choosing what you have time to keep up with…

  14. Great advice Ali – I do follow some of it but in this current heatwave I have decided that it is better to water willy nilly, which is often all I have the energy for at the end of the day, than not at all.

    1. Ali says:

      I am a very willy-nilly sort of gardener myself!

  15. Nat says:

    Ah water. A luxury for my plants 😊. Our area gets between 450 and 500mm rain annually. So yes watering here is done carefully. Your post is spot on.
    I tend towards trees here. They get watered during summer and the tail end of spring once a week for their first two years. After that it is only the fruit trees. At mid spring we go mulch with cardboard scraps around the root zone then pea straw in a thin layer. Then a sprinkle of soil to cover. It sounds odd but the trees we do this to have survived.
    In the outer garden we have a lot of native Australian plants and succulents. I don’t water these often if at all.
    Another thing we do is overcrowd plants. I plant wattles as a protective cover for the plant I want close by. Shade and less water evaportation is our goal here.
    An excellent post Ali.

    1. Ali says:

      Gah! Mulch! I forgot to mention mulch! I like that idea of a living mulch by overcrowding! I’ve never heard that before! I only heard about cardboard recently, but that too is genius. I put a little bit in my new raised bed, but didn’t really have enough. Should have started collecting earlier!

      1. Nat says:

        Maybe it’s not good to overcrowd but it seems to work in the heat. The wattles we chose will naturally die after a few years and by then the others will be established I hope. Haha you’re human Ali besides you could do a whole post on mulching the different ways are endless. Newspaper works well too of you run out of cardboard. I’ve even seen people use old carpet. Now that struck me as unusual ☺

  16. Heyjude says:

    A very informative post Ali and well timed. Even in the wetter than usual west, we are a little dry! I am hosing my garden every couple of days because I planted a lot of plug plants this year and have already discovered that some of them have curled up and died 😦
    I use a hose mainly because I have arthritic shoulders and a watering can is too heavy for multiple use. I totally agree with you that a good soak is necessary and I will leave my geraniums and penstemons alone now. Love the bright border and that wonderful Clematis ‘Princess Diana’

    1. Ali says:

      Thank you Jude. I inherited the Clematis, and it is a really lovely one.

  17. Chloris says:

    With the heatwave set to last this is a timely post. Oh dear, but it is a treadmill.

    1. Ali says:

      It can seem like a real grind once you’ve started, can’t it? I cut down on the number of pots I have last year, because I just felt I couldn’t keep up, and there is a very clear consequence if you fall behind! I like a bit of wiggle room!

  18. FlowerAlley says:

    We are enjoying a drenching rain right now, so I am thankful to have my watering done for me this evening.

  19. Thank you for the useful information. Some is common sense but I didn’t realise roses needed a lot of water, I thought they were fairly tolerant. I will water the garden now before it gets too hot?

    1. Ali says:

      I think if they are established then they can go for a long period without rain. I just give mine a good soak if we haven’t had any rain for a couple of months.

  20. rusty duck says:

    I do have drip irrigation. On a south facing slope made of clay I couldn’t cope without it TBH, even in Devon! Our annual average is 1300mm. The irrigation keeps the plants alive but it isn’t enough for them to really thrive, they need rain for that. Of course it doesn’t help my cause that all the water has to be pumped uphill!

    1. Ali says:

      Uh, I can totally understand your need for irrigation!

  21. Katie says:

    My favorite watering method isn’t mentioned here: I have a bunch of plastic gallon milk jugs with a few holes punched in the bottom of each. When I need to water specific plants, I’ll fill the jugs a few at a time and set one or more next to each plant I need to water. Saves time and energy compared with holding a watering can or a hose up to each plant, and I know exactly how much water is soaking in where.

    1. Ali says:

      Ingenious recycling!

  22. Absolutely agree about the sprinklers! They can not water the plants decently (to do so, they’d need to be on almost 24/7), and they can cause so much damage. Besides, I find the manual watering process to be a very soothing activity.

    1. Ali says:

      Yes, that is the right word. Very soothing.

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