Water is one of the world’s most precious resources. It can’t be manufactured so we need to conserve it wherever possible. Here’s how to use less water in the garden.
- Mulch plants
- Never leave soil exposed
- Choose plants wisely
- Feed for better root structure
- Watering pots and planters
- Best time of day to water your plants
- Watering your lawn
Mulching plants: what does it do?
Mulch serves 4 purposes in the garden.
- Helps conserve water in the soil
- Shades the soil from hot sun keeping it cooler for roots
- Looks great
- Suppresses weeds
Using an organic mulch such as compost or woodchip mulch will also encourage and support the minibeasts and microbes that keep our soil healthy.
I use various types of mulch in my own garden.
For plants that love free-draining soil eg sedums, succulents and some herbs I use a gravel mulch to aid drainage. 2-3 cm depth of pea shingle is great. You can get beautifully coloured aggregates too. Plum slate chippings are attractive with green/grey foliage.
For vegetables and annual plants, I chose compost or composted manure. These plants benefit from the water conserving properties of mulch. Once the plants are removed, the compost gets incorporated with the soil and improves it for the next crop.
For permanent planting – herbaceous perennials, shrubs and trees I favour a 5cm layer of woodchip. Yes, it does need topping up every 3 years or so but that’s no problem. I love the way it looks and I like that it gradually helps to improve the soil. I also enjoy watching the birds (and any escapee chickens) rummaging about in it.
Avoid exposing topsoil
In hot dry weather topsoil rapidly loses moisture through a process known as evaporation. You can slow down the evaporation process by keeping the soil as cool as possible. How? Here are some suggestions
- Mulch – see previous paragraph
- Use groundcover plants to shade the soil. Enviromat sedum matting is brilliant for this. Especially since sedums are drought tolerant
- Allow plants and grasses to grow taller. Maintaining your lawn at 5-8cm long will help to conserve moisture and keep it greener for longer.
- Grow plants closer together. The cottage garden style of gardening is a great way of shading the soil.
Choose plants wisely
Vegetables do tend to be quite “thirsty”. On the other hand, they supply us with food. Scan the seed catalogues carefully to help you choose varieties that are the least dependent on irrigation.
When choosing plants for pots, planters and borders look for species that will most enjoy the conditions in your garden. That way they’ll need less help from you.
Once they have established, native wildflowers are quite good at managing with minimal resources. So you could consider a small wildflower area.
Succulent plants such as sedums have beautiful flowers, interesting foliage and don’t need much water. Some are frost hardy too so a container filled with sedums won’t necessarily need replanting every season.
Ornamental grasses work well in most conditions but some herbaceous perennials are quite fussy about soil moisture. Try to resist plants in the garden centre until you’ve learnt as much as you can about their needs.
Feed your plants for stronger roots
In general terms, the better nourished a plant is, the better it can withstand drought. A strong root system and healthy foliage allows the plant to use all of its resources to manage the water levels in its cells.
Vivid green lawn feed is not just for grass, it’s great for herbaceous plants too. Apply it to your borders and planters every 6-8 weeks and water it in.
Conserving water in pots and planters
We’ve talked about mulch, we talked about plant species but what about soil? Growing medium for pots and planters will benefit from having some water retaining gel incorporated. Ideally, before the plants are added but it can be mixed in with the top few centimetres of soil. I like to grow my tomatoes and peppers in pots and always add it to the compost. Spent compost gets used for mulch in the flower borders.
The crystals hold onto water and release it slowly as the plant needs it. So when you water, a smaller proportion of the precious wet stuff will run out of the bottom of the planter and be wasted.
Speaking of which, sitting each pot in a dish will help to catch any runoff – but be careful not to swamp your plants.
Best time of day to water your garden
As a rule of thumb, only water the plants that are vulnerable to drought. Established lawns do not need watering, neither do established wildflower areas (note: NEVER allow newly laid turf to dry out. It will die!). Sedum green roofs can tolerate 4-5 weeks with no rainfall.
To minimise evaporation, water when the sun is low in the sky. Early mornings are good, but evenings are even better. I try to aim the water jet at the base of the plant stem so it goes straight down into the soil.
If you have a lot of plants, why not install an irrigation system? My dream is to have a leaky pipe system in my polytunnel that operates via an app on my phone. That way if I’m working away from home I won’t need to ask anyone to look after the plants whilst I’m gone.
Watering your lawn
Provided your lawn is at least 6 months old, you DO NOT need to water it during the summer months. Yes, it may go a little bit brown but that’s how grasses protect themselves. All of the moisture is being kept underground in the roots. The risk of water loss through evaporation is much lower that way.
You can help your lawn by keeping your mower blades at 5-8 cm from the ground. Longer grass keeps its colour much better because it’s shading the soil. Also the longer the grass, the longer the roots so plants can draw water from deeper in the soil.
Make sure your lawn is well fed during the winter, spring and early summer months. Plants will be stronger before drought arrives.