Water Saving in the Garden

We’re experiencing long periods of dry weather so how do we keep our gardens growing?

What we plant, the way we plant and how we look after our soil really affects how much we need to water the garden.

Here are some tips:

  • Add a thick layer of organic matter such as compost or rotted manure on top of your soil in late autumn. This improves the soil and holds on to nutrients and moisture for longer.
  • Don’t dig! Digging soil disturbs the structure of the soil and the microorganisms living there. If left alone, the worms and microorganisms will look after the soil, pulling down the goodness from the layer of compost added to the top.
  • Before adding your layer of compost, cover areas of bare soil with a layer of unprinted cardboard. This will help keep moisture in the soil below. It will also prevent weed seeds from germinating (growing). When planting, make a hole in the cardboard just large enough for the plant.

Layer of compost before planting

  • When annual plants have died, cut them at the base leaving the roots to rot in the soil feeding the worms and microorganisms and improving your soil. Leave the cut plants on top to rot into the soil if you don’t mind what this looks like.
  • Some perennials will fade in colour but will hold their shape, leave these to add structure to your garden during winter and as a place for insects and birds to live and feed.

Winter structure

  • Any perennials that die back, cut them down to the ground and leave the spent plants on top of the soil to feed insects and the soil.
  • Mulch around the base of perennial plants, shrubs and trees to prevent moisture from evaporating during dry spells.
  • Composted wood chip works well as a mulch as it will break down further into a compost and feed your soil. Ensure the mulch doesn’t touch the base of the plant to prevent rotting or disease.
  • Add a layer of mulch to the surface of hanging baskets and plant pots to prevent the moisture evaporating quickly.

Wood chip mulch

  • Moisture evaporates quicker from a terracotta pot than a plastic pot.
  • Trees and shrubs need watering more in the first two summers. Once trees are established, they shouldn’t need watering except during a long dry spell of weather.
  • Avoid bare patches of soil. Fill your soil with plants and shrubs to minimise bare patches of soil that will dry out quickly or add a thick layer of mulch (keep the mulch away from the base of your shrubs as this could cause them to rot).
  • Consider planting a shallow rooting spreading plant around shrubs such as alpine strawberries or clovers. The roots will hold on to moisture and nutrients in the soil.

Living clover mulch around base of a tree to hold onto moisture.

  • Leave grass to grow long during long, dry periods.
  • In pots and hanging baskets, use plants that don’t need a lot of watering such as sedums and herbs.

Framed sedum

  • Choose plants that don’t need watering so often. There are many websites that give advice about the best plants to choose.
  • Choose the right location for your plant. A stressed plant needs extra care.
  • Some plants don’t need much soil or moisture, they will thrive in cracks in a patio or a wall. I find some survive better when they plant themselves in a spot!
  • Good plants for this are: erigeron, campanula, penny royal, thyme, camomile and mind your own business.
  • Some drought tolerant plants probably won’t like our increasingly wet winters so it is worth taking cuttings of these plants at the end of the season and store in a greenhouse, in a cold frame or inside the house on a windowsill, ready to plant out next spring.

Erigeron growing in a crack in a wall

Tips For Using Less Water

  • When planning your garden, think about where to place water butts.

  • Check the weather before watering.
  • Water plants in the evening when it’s cooler, to reduce evaporation.
  • Buy drought tolerant plants. Research on the internet to find plants you like.
  • Use a watering can to reduce the amount of water used as you’ll only use it where you need it. Aim at the base of each plant.
  • Use grey water (water from baths, showers, and washing up) to water non-edible plants. You can buy grey water diverters that divert the water from your bath to an irrigation system or a water butt.

  • Household soaps and detergents are harmless to plants, but don’t use water containing bleach, disinfectant, dishwasher salt or stronger cleaners, which can harm plants, damage soil structure and could be a health risk.
  • Get some exercise and use soap and a scrubbing brush instead of a jet wash!