Despite our country’s worldwide reputation for being wet and grey, last year may have been grey but certainly it wasn’t very wet and consequently, this week a hosepipe ban comes into force in many areas.
Among the uses of hoses that are banned are lawn and border watering with a hose attached to the mains, so we felt it prudent to prepare you, Mr. or Mrs. Greenfingers, for future deficits with some suggestion for countermeasures you can take to prevent your garden from suffering too much as a result.
Of course, you can still use a watering can and fill it from the tap, but for a large garden, this can prove too time-consuming, so you might consider an irrigation system. Water authorities differ in what they will, and will not allow, so it is important to check with them first, but generally they will allow a drip or trickle system, consisting of porous pipes which, when laid around the base of plants, deliver the water directly to the soil and therefore the roots, rather than spraying over foliage leading to evaporation and wastage. The system fits directly onto an outside tap and can be fitted with an automatic timer to come on in the middle of the night, again to minimise evaporation.
If you want to avoid using mains water altogether, you should consider investing in a water butt or two. Water butts are another effective method of maintaining healthy moisture levels and will not cost you nearly as much as an irrigation system. It will collect the surplus rain water from your gutters and store it indefinitely, to provide an emergency source of fluid in times of hardship. Unfortunately, although the standard types will win no beauty prizes for your garden, they can easily be concealed behind a tall shrub or a piece of trellis and, under our current circumstances, must surely be worth the minor aesthetic cost. Fortunately, there are also a host of different decorative designs available, from large ‘terracotta’ urns to traditional oak barrels, whichever suits your taste. If you still don’t fancy lugging watering cans to and from the butt, however, you can fix a hose to it, and that will be fine.
You might also consider using the ‘grey’ water from your washing up or bathing. Most plants will be fine with this as long as it doesn’t contain too many chemicals, and, of course, you let it cool down! You can simply syphon the water off from your bath with a hose, or in the case of dishwater, simply empty your bowl wherever the water is needed most.
You may need to make a choice on what parts of your garden to water too, so if it comes to that, I would make a priority of the borders and veg patch – the lawn will always recover when we get a drop of rain.
Membranes and Mulches
You may be surprised how many jobs an effective membrane and mulch can perform for you, as not only will they conserve moisture, but they can also help suppress weeds and keep the garden looking neat and tidy too.
It is recommended that if planning to use a plastic layer, you avoid transparent materials because, unlike their black or green counterparts, their transparency allows sunlight to penetrate and therefore encourages weed growth – effectively shooting itself in the foot! It is essential that this material be punctured at intervals to allow moisture through to the soil. It may not allow much water to escape through evaporation, however the flip side of that coin is that it will hinder the drainage of waterlogged soil. Also, if exposed to sunlight this material will break down quickly and thus it is advisable to use a hybrid mulch, with a base layer of black plastic protected by a secondary layer of bark or soil thus reducing heat absorption and subsequent decay.
If you’re veering towards using a cloth based alternative, or horticultural membrane, then you should consider that while this material will provide better water dispersal and ventilation it will also be vulnerable to evaporation. Its protection against weeds extends only as far as its fastenings, without proper attachment to the ground this material will fast be outmatched by perennial weeds, so always overlap and peg down.
Membranes of whatever type are not very pretty to look at, so they should be covered with a mulch of some kind. The two basic types are organic and artificial, each with its own pros and cons.
Examples of organic materials:
Ornamental bark – by far the most natural looking mulch, easily obtainable from your garden centre.
Wood chip, while not especially porous, provide excellent weed control and is an extremely attractive base layer. However as they decompose, they will sap nitrogen from the soil, which will then need to be supplemented with outside fertiliser.
Pine needles are effective as porous material and thus will welcome initial rainfall and allow it to penetrate the ground easily, but they can make soil quite acidic – fine if you want to grow acid loving plants such as Rhododendrons and Azaleas!
Pecan shells are something of a speciality as they tend to be restricted to areas of pecan production, but if available they should definitely be considered as they provide a lovely dark brown mulch and excellent water retention over a long time period.
Examples of artificial mulches:
Rubber – made from recycled rubber tyres to look like natural bark, but it won’t degrade and it’s excellent for children’s play areas too.
Gravels, pebbles or stone – available in a wide range of colours and sizes, however tend to grow very hot during the summer months which are the most prone to drought, and therefore can exacerbate evaporation.
Slate chippings – unlike other stone mulches, they’re acidity levels are inert and thus they will not manipulate the pH level of the local soil
Tumbled crushed glass – like slate chippings, is also a recycled material and comes in many vibrant colours.
Other ways to conserve moisture and reduce the need for watering:
Avoid digging over your borders unnecessarily just to make them look pretty, as this only exposes the damp soil beneath and causes more evaporation
Plant directly into the ground rather than in pots and then your plants won’t need watering so often
Plant ‘drought tolerant’ plants – a list of some will be in tomorrow’s article
Always water late in the evening or early in the morning to avoid evaporation
A good soaking for a few plants is better than a light sprinkle over a wider area, so be selective and if necessary, water different areas on different days.
Weed your garden regularly – you don’t want water meant for your prized specimens being taken by weeds!
So if your garden seems to be getting drier by the year, and the hosepipe ban certainly won’t help, don’t fret, follow some of the advice above and England’s green and pleasant land can easily be preserved.
By Josh Ellison