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Practical guide to watering the garden

Val Bourne / 22 May 2017 ( 18 July 2022 )

Gardening expert Val Bourne’s guide to common sense watering for dry gardens and help your plants survive a heatwave.

Watering garden

We tend to think of Britain as a wet, cold country, but in fact the UK is short of water because we’re a small country with a large population who use a lot of water.

The problem’s greatest in the south east and, although it’s hard to believe, London is drier than Istanbul. So gardeners have to use water wisely and effectively. It’s particularly important in summers following a dry winter and spring.

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Do I need to water all my plants?

No, not necessarily. Established plants with a good root system will cope with a dry spell for a few weeks and soon recover when rain arrives.

Newly planted plants are vulnerable though and they should be watered in dry weather during their first growing season.

A garden lawn will go brown in dry weather, but will recover within 10 days of rainfall, so only water areas of lawn if the turf is newly laid.

Avoid hanging baskets on sunny walls - they need lots of water. Use large containers instead, fill them with a heavier loam-based John Innes compost and position them in bright positions that avoid midday sun.

When and how to water your garden

Water your garden in the morning and evening when cooler temperatures lessen evaporation.

Don’t dribble water on to mature plants using a hose or can, a little every day, because the water won’t reach the roots. Instead water thoroughly by tipping whole cans of water on to the ground round the plant so that the roots benefit. Do this a couple times a week until rain arrives.

Keep water away from the foliage because wet foliage is more susceptible to disease so you may do more harm than good.

Collecting rain water

Most gardens contain a shed and perhaps a greenhouse too, so it’s sensible to harvest that water using water butts. These are bulky to move, so do use an internet supplier (such who will deliver.

Buy a butt with a lid, to exclude insects such as mosquitos, and choose one that sits on a stand so that you can get a watering can underneath the tap.

Prices and materials vary, although most gardeners opt for black plastic because it’s durable and easier on the eye than dark-green. Ideally the capacity should be between 130 and 150L. - although you can go far larger.

It’s easier to wrestle with water during the spring or autumn rather than in the winter when fixing guttering and taps – cold fingers don’t help.

Find out how to fit a water butt

What can I use water butt water for?

Water from a butt is no good for seedlings because it may contain fungal spores that will cause damping off, but you can use it on everything else.

Most plants prefer rainwater to tap water because it’s chlorine-free and is often warmer than tap water straight from the mains supply. Water butt water is ideal for filling watering cans and it’s a good idea to fill them up when you’ve emptied them so that the water warms up. They’ll be ready to go when you need them.

Saving grey water

Wash and prepare all vegetables in a bowl, never under a running tap, and then it’s possible to gently tip that water on to your garden – especially any ornamental tubs close to the door. You can also use washing up water for containers.

Using watering cans

Only water when necessary, because surplus water cannot be used or stored by most plants. If a plant’s too wet it does great harm, so do the finger test with all pot-grown plants. Push your forefinger into the pot to a depth of a half inch. If it feels damp don’t water!

A rose (one of those metal attachments that sprinkles the water out very finely) is only really useful when watering seedlings or very young plants. Take it off when watering fully grown plants and direct the water on to the compost or soil, not the foliage.

Using a hose

Always switch your hose off at the wall when you’ve finished with it.

Check the connectors every year and discard any leaking connections etc.

Use an outdoor tap protector in winter, to prevent damage to the washer inside the tap. Coil the hose up when it’s not in use. It’s a trip hazard and the hose is far more likely to get damaged if it’s constantly walked on.

Find out how to keep your garden healthy during a hosepipe ban

Using leaky hoses or porous pipes

If these are used only when needed, they can work well because a porous pipe or soaker hose (as supplied by Hozelock) uses up to 70% less water. If you’ve planted a new hedge or border you can irrigate during the cooler parts of the day so there’s less transpiration.

Mulches to keep moisture in the soil

Mulching does keep in moisture as long as the ground underneath is damp before you mulch, so it’s usually best done in spring after rain.

Anything that’s decomposing above the soil will extract nitrogen from the ground underneath, so a sprinkle nitrogen-rich fertiliser (such as chicken manure) before you mulch.

Home-made garden compost can be applied as a mulch, although you do have to take care not to add any seedpods - such as foxgloves or aquilegias - or pernicious weeds - to your heap.

Home-made leaf litter is excellent, but most leaves take a year or two to rot down before producing a crumbly, friable material. Most gardeners can’t make enough to cover large areas, so apply it round choice plants such as trilliums.

Green waste, bought from local authorities, is also an option.

Lawn clippings, which have been allowed to rot down for a day until they have become brown, can be used round soft fruit. Allowing the clippings to partially rot down makes them extract less nitrogen from the soil.

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Hoeing to create a mulch

If you hoe regularly you will create a fine tilth on the soil’s surface that will preserve moisture underneath. This is very useful in vegetable beds and crops will need less water.

Puddling in plants in dry conditions

The puddling-in technique helps plants to get established quickly and is useful on dry soil, or in dry conditions, whether it’s perennials, soft fruit or vegetables.

The success of puddling in relies on speed - do not watch as the water drains out of the hole.

Dig your hole and take the plant out of the pot and have it to hand.

Lay a cane across the hole so that it’s lying flat on the surface of the soil either side. Use this as a guide to where your plant should sit when it’s planted. The top of the rootball should be flush with the cane.

Using a watering can, minus the rose, fill the hole brimful with water and quickly place the plant in the hole. Back fill with soil immediately and as the water drains from the hole it will pull the soil downwards, eliminating any air pockets.

Remember, the success of this technique relies on being speedy. Don’t be tempted to watch the water drain away before you backfill!

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.