Watering. It’s probably the most important gardening task… but do you know the best way to do it? We delve into the topic in this two part tutorial. Part one deals with how to water, including managing in a drought. Part two looks at how we can all reduce the demands of our gardens for mains watering from the outset.
Good practice watering
Know your soil type and how water retentive it is. Sandy soils will always require more water and more frequent watering than a clay soil. However, clay soils can crack open and are hard to re-wet when baked dry. Mulching both in the spring will help them retain more water and keep their structure open.
Silty soils can ‘cap’ where an impermeable crust forms on the surface which causes water to drain sideways and not down. If this is happening, think about scraping a shallow ‘moat‘ around your plants, water into that and patiently let the contents seep in before refilling.
Container gardens can be labour intensive and in high summer are likely to require watering daily, even when it has rained. The smaller surface area of compost simply cannot capture an adequate amount of falling rain. Minimise waste by standing pots in saucers to catch any excess, which can be absorbed by the plant later (or used by passing wildlife).
While watering frequency will be dictated by soil type and specific weather conditions, it is always better to give a larger dose of water less frequently, as opposed to little and often. Whether in the ground or in pots, give your plants a soak not a sprinkle, which forces them to develop strong, deep root systems more resilient to dry weather.
Timing is key
Watering in the morning gives the most benefit to your plants and minimises waste. The ground is coolest at that time, so less evaporation will occur before water reaches the roots. Failing that, the second best time is the evening, when air temperatures are also lower. But do be mindful that by wetting the ground overnight, you could be making conditions favourable for those hungry Gastropods (slugs and snails). In the evening there also a higher chance of spreading plant fungal diseases like Rose Blackspot and Rusts, which love damp leaves overnight.
Avoid watering in the sunny part of the day if you can, because more water will simply be lost to evaporation. However, if you only have the day available to water, water thoroughly and don’t worry about accidental drops of water ‘scorching the leaves of plants in the sun’, this is a gardening myth!
When drought arrives
Whether you’ve been asked nicely to put hosepipes away in hot weather, or there is a fully fledged hosepipe ban, our number one rule for most gardening situations is don’t panic! Instead, use a watering can and focus your attention on:
- Newer plantings, as these will have had less time to develop a deep root system. If you are using a watering can, continue to follow the best practice advice. Give each plant a thorough soaking less frequently, and water in the mornings.
- Pots. As they’re relatively mobile, can you move them into a shadier location until a heatwave/drought is over? Or gather pots together densely into one large shallow tray. The tray catches excess water from watering without wasting it, and by cramming them in you shade the pool of water underneath and reduce evaporation by the sun’s rays.
For everything else:
Herbaceous perennials – Leafy growth may well wilt off, particularly if you’re not able to hand water the whole garden. Carry on watering when you can to keep the roots alive and simply cut away the old growth when the drought period is over. Depending on the time of the year, you may even see signs of new growth in the same summer, though you’re unlikely to see flowers in the same season.
Established woody plants – Unless we have no rain for months (in which case we have bigger problems than just our gardens), your trees and shrubs should survive longer periods of dry weather due to their extensive root systems and permanent woody framework. Look for signs of excessive wilting before spending too much time watering them.
Grass – by its very nature, can cope with drought. The root system is dense and the growing tip is at the base of the leaf, so when it dies off, it simply regrows. Magic! Leave it longer than you normally might between cuts, to give it the best chance of surviving.
We all have a responsibility to not be selfish with water, especially in our gardens. If we all followed this basic advice, the taps should keep running for longer, and our gardens will be more resilient!