A blog to accompany the Grow Food Eat Well workshop at Kymin Community Gardens on 27th August 2022.
It’s been a challenge these past few weeks. With hot hot weather we have all begun to think about how we might need to change the way we manage water in our gardens, as we adapt to more severe weather and less water in the future.
Here are a few handy tips I’ve collected from a variety of sources, in response to the question:
How can we manage water wisely in our gardens and future proof them to make them resilient in the face of weather extremes and climate change?
(Resilient means we have more than one way to meet our needs, so if one way fails, we have something to fall back on).
Firstly, here’s some brilliant advice from one of my permaculture teachers, Liz Postlethwaite, who posted this recently on her Instagram @mudandculture. My words in italics.
PRESERVING WATER IN YOUR GARDEN or How to invite water in and keep it for as long as possible!
1. Save as much rain water as you can. In whatever container you have to hand. You don’t need a fancy water butt, but it is worth covering whatever receptacle you use to keep the water clean and to stop creatures falling in. (If you are a community grower, please note that open containers of water present a risk and are not advised for use in public space).
2. Explore using household grey water in the garden. This includes things like shower water, and water from washing up. It should be used immediately, not be used on edible plants, and used with careful consideration of any detergents or soaps that it may contain.
3. Mulch wherever you can with whatever you have to hand. This keeps the soil cool and helps maintain moisture. In very dry weather remember to make a hole in the mulch though so any water can get through.
4. Build soil structure today, tomorrow, everyday! The better structure soil has got the more capacity it has to retain water. You can do this by adding compost and organic material and by not digging. Read the blog about soil building here.
5. Think about natural water flow. Where does water come in? Where does it gather? Where does it run away? Consider how best to make use of existing water flows, and also how simple interventions like ditches and swales may maximise the benefit of each precious drop of rain that falls on the ground that you tend. More about using ditches and swales here.
Now, lets delve in a bit more deeply. Here are some ways we can manage water wisely:
Mulch – Here are some materials you can use for mulching pots, raised beds, borders – all your growing areas really. Keeping the soil covered is one of the easiest and best ways to conserve water, keeping it in the soil for as long as possible by stopping it from evaporating. Remember to leave a little space around the base of the plant to let water you are watering on get in to the roots. More info: Read this article from Garden Organic.
- garden compost
- grass clippings (if slugs aren’t a problem for you)
- leafmould (or just fallen leaves)
- chop and drop – when you prune, just cut up the pruning small and leave them around the base of the plant
- well rotted manure (make sure the practices of the stable you get it from are fit for an organic garden)
Use a watering can – sounds obvious, but it really does save water, although it can take more time. It means you can get water directly to the roots of each plant, watering the soil, rather than the leaves. Unless you spray directly in the mulch free circles around each plant – which is what I’ve seen Huw Richards doing in his YouTube videos, as long as threat of a hose pipe ban isn’t imminent. Of course, if your hose is attached to a rainwater harvesting tank you’re well on the way to a more resilient system!
Use up turned bottles – as drip watering devices, or with the lids cut off to water the plants roots directly. You can get spikes that screw on to the bottles.
Using solar powered, timed drip irrigation systems – sounds complicated. We will learn more about this when we visit Leckwith Drove allotments on Monday 19th September. More info here.
Hugelkultur pots – an easy way to keep conserve water in your pots and container, or raised beds. The woody materials act like a sponge, holding on to moisture. There are other benefits too, find out more here.
Some things to consider:
- I read somewhere that summer pruning of fruit trees is a way to support them through periods of heavy drought.
- Established fruiting trees should be watered infrequently and deeply (once every 4-6 weeks, depending on conditions and water restrictions).
- Pay attention to when water is most important — transplanting and fruit forming periods — once flowering and fruiting have been accomplished, the plant needs less water.
- Trees, vines, and shrubs tend to be the most drought-tolerant edible plants, especially if they are already established.
- Choose drought tolerant plants, natives vs non-natives, lavender, rosemary and thyme, or sedums, sempervivums or yucca. Perennial veg and fruit bushes are also a great choice.
- Resilient plants – how often to water? To ensure our plants are resilient, with deep root systems, it’s best not to water too much anyway.
- Plant your edible plants in a location that is protected from strong winds, which can sap the moisture out of the soil quickly.
- Too much fertiliser with too little water can stress your plants during drought conditions.
- Established edible trees and shrubs (at least 3-5 years old) are more resilient and drought tolerant than younger plants. When choosing what to water, choose your younger plants.
- Grow what you need for yourself or your family during a drought. When water restrictions are in place, it’s not the season to plant a large vegetable garden.
- Grow perennials, rather than annuals.
- Mediterranean plants – herbs like lavender, rosemary, thyme, oregano
- Growing a food forest will give you a garden that’s likely to be more tolerant of drought, as the perennial plants become more established.
- The types of plant that are drought resistant include those that usually thrive in hot arid climates. They tend to develop deep root systems, and grow quickly. Look for plant labels that say the plant loves hot temperatures and has low to moderate water needs.
- Plants need more water at the beginning of their life cycle, and then when fruiting.
Here’s a list of some edible plants that tend to be more resistant to drought:
- Rhubarb (once mature)
- Lima (butter) beans
- Mustard greens
- Herbs – sage, rosemary, thyme, orgegano
- Jerusalem Artichoke
- Fennel (herb, not bulb)
- Some of the wilder varieties of cherry and currant tomatoes
- Swiss Chard
- Sweet potato
- Globe Artichoke
- Chick peas
- Chicory (Chicorum intybus)
- Some corn varieties
- Summer squashes
- Asparagus (once established)
- Black-eyed pea
- Fava bean
- Garlic chives
- Day lily
Flowers for pollinators and other plants which are drought tolerant include (More info here):
- Coneflower (Echinacea)
- Russian Sage
- Liquorice plant
- Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia)
- Hens-and-chicks (house leeks)
- Ice plant (Delosperma)
- Lambs’ ears
- Oregano, including ornamental-flowered varieties
- Ornamental grasses (non-invasive varieties)
- Pine-leaf penstemon (Penstemon pinifolius)
- Purpletop verbena (Verbena bonariensis)
- Red yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora)
- Red-hot poker
- California Poppy
- Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa)
- Candytuft (Iberis sempervirens)
- Creeping phlox
- Creeping thyme; wooly thyme
- Culinary sage (Salvia officinalis)
- Dianthus, including Cheddar Pink and others
- Gayfeather or blazing star (Liatris)
- Globe thistle (Echinops)
- Rock rose (Cistus)
- Perennial sunflower
- Agastache (anise hyssop)
- Autumn sage (Salvia greggii)
- Balloon flower
- Bearded irises
- Blue flax (Linum perenne)
- Blue spirea (Caryopteris x clandonensis)
- Broom (Cystisus and Genista)
- Sea holly (Eryngium)
- Sun rose (Helianthemum)
- Thread-leaf coreopsis (Coreopsis verticillata)
- Aloe vera
- Butterfly bush
Rainwater harvesting – as mentioned earlier, catching rainwater can be as simple as leaving buckets out in the rain, or having dipping tanks located around your garden. But there are also many snazzy systems out there for harvesting rain water. The simplest and most common are water butts attached to down pipes, greenhouses, sheds and other structures. Simple systems don’t really cost much. We have 5 water butts in our front and back gardens, from EvenGreener (not and endorsement, others available). We just use a watering can under the tap. Simple. As rain happens often in downpours and then we don’t have any for ages, the bigger the butt, the better.
In our dreams, we will dig a huge hole in the back garden to bury a large water tank, and connect that up to the roofs to collect as much water as we can, attach a hose to that to water the back garden, and also pump the water back into the house to feed the washing machine and toilet too. If you are over on Victoria Square, go and have a look at the huge water butt they have attached to a down pipe on the church.
Rain gardens – Put simply, a rain garden is a shallow area of ground or dip which receives run-off from roofs and other hard surfaces. It is planted with plants that can stand waterlogging for up to 48 hours at a time. More drought-tolerant plants are used towards the edges. Storm water fills the depression and then drains. Uses planting which suits drought conditions most of the time (for the ornamental garden theres a good list here), but which tolerates the occasional period of heavy soaking.
Here’s are some more top tips for the Eco-garden from the RSPB
- Fix leaky/dripping taps
- Water your garden in the early morning or late evening, to reduce evaporation
- Allow your lawn to grow longer between cutting so it is more resistant to drying out – don’t cut the grass too short. (Or grow some wildflowers instead of lawn, better all round.)
- Monitor how much water you’re using, on a monthly or quarterly basis and figure out how you can reduce use. (If you haven’t got a water meter yet, get one, you’ll save money, and use less water as you’ll be more aware!)
- Do a water audit of your garden to establish where water could be leaking unnoticed.
- Plant drought-resistant plants, eg hebes, lavenders, buddleias, rosemary, especially if you live in a part of the country that will become much drier in summer, such as southern England.
- If you purchase a water recycling system for your home—which recycles rainwater or grey water—use it for watering the garden.
And this article from Garden Organic about gardening during drought is useful.
Garden Organic have also got the 6 golden rules to follow and you too can reduce your water footprint.
- Build up your soil with organic matter (compost, garden waste) which will help the soil structure to retain moisture. Especially if you have light sandy soil.
- Target when and where the plants need it – avoid wasteful sprinkler systems. Sink thirsty plants like squashes and marrows, so water forms a puddle around them.
- Don’t water in the heat of the day. Do water the soil, not the foliage. A good soaking every few days is better than just wetting the surface.
- Mulch, ie cover, the soil where possible. Bare soil loses moisture quickly through evaporation. Covering it with mulch material (straw, grass cuttings, well rotted manure, or leafmould) keeps the moisture in and weakens weeds. It also improves the soil.
- Water only when the plant most needs it ie critical stages like seed germination and young transplanted plants with immature root systems. Tomatoes or beans need most water when fruit or pods are setting.
- Lawns rarely need watering. Grass is a great drought survivor. It will come back green at the first sign of rain.
Tress for the Future from Penny Daw, Coordinator, Penarth Tree Forum
RHS prescribes a list of trees for climate change suitable for gardens but I’ve compiled the following list for street trees (tweaked for suitability for UK) based on research by the National Geographic and American arborists.
We can take considerable steps to offset global warming by planting trees of the right species that tolerate hotter drier summers and warmer wetter winters, weather extremes that place them under increasing stress. We also need to focus on planting a wide variety of species (both native and non-native) to mitigate the effects of disease in any one species group.
Gleditsia triacanthus (Honey locust)
Crataegus crus-galli (Cockspur hawthorn)
Eucalyptus pauciflora niphophila
Pyrus calleryana ‘Chanticleer’ (callery pear)
Acer rubrum (red maple)
Cedrus Atlantica (Atlantic cedar)
Liriodendron tulipifera (tulip tree)
Quercus ilex (holm oak)
Pinus pinaster (maritime pine)
Pinus radiata (Monterey pine)
Medium trees suitable for sites prone to waterlogging:
Alnus glutinosa (common alder)
Betula pubescens (downy birch)
Salix alba (white willow)
Medium-sized Trees for autumn colour accent:
Sorbus torminalis (Wild Service tree)
Pyrus chanticleer (callery pear ‘Chanticleer’)
Nyssa sylvatica (Tupelo or black gum)
Liquidambar styraciflua (sweet gum)