Summer in this part of the world can, as we know all too well, be frustratingly unpredictable. However, even if this year doesn’t live up to last summer’s extended dry spell and heat, this is the time when the garden and allotment is most likely to need some help with watering.
There are tomes of information out there on this subject, but we wanted to put together a few top tips on how to water the organic way. The first rule for watering – a bit like the first rule of fight club – is: don’t water. Easy to say until you see the drooping plants and bone dry soil. But all may not be what it seems; just because you feel hot and thirsty, doesn’t mean your plants do.
Soil & Mulches
Caring for your soil is pretty much the answer to all the woes of gardening, and for organic gardeners this is doubly important as we are not going to rely on chemical support later on to make up for our errors. The more organic matter you can cram into your soil the better. And the best thing about that rule is that you don’t need to know what type of soil you have; all soil will be improved by adding organic matter. This can be in the form of compost, manure, kitchen scraps, grass clippings, bark chipping, in fact anything which was once a living thing and is therefore organic.
You can also add to the benefit of a moisture retentive soil by trapping in that moisture. Applying a mulch (or thick layer of organic matter) to the surface of the soil will help slow evaporation and keep that water where your plants need it – by their roots. Plants are well adapted to their environment; they have complex root systems that are the last word in retrieving water from soil. Even though to us a soil may seem dry, a plant is able to extract moisture through microscopic root hairs, which allow the plant to draw water from the soil by a process called osmosis. Think of sucking up a cool drink of water with a straw. Keep your plants well weeded as well – this means less competition for the water available to the plants you want.
Don’t forget, the surface of the soil or mulch may well be completely dry – but before you get out the watering can, check what the soil is like beneath the surface – a couple of inches down, a happy soil will still be moist. In this case, resist the urge to water and conserve it for when the plants truly need it. Another benefit of this approach is that you will only need to water periodically, not daily. In fact, plants will benefit from a weekly long soak far more than a scattered spray daily. The water has a chance to reach the deeper parts of the soil encouraging the plants to push their roots further down, rather than producing roots nearer the soil surface where they risk getting dried out.
Sometimes plants like to ‘play possum’. Check out a winter squash at the height of the day’s heat and it’ll be drooping and looking like its dying of thirst. Don’t be fooled. The plant’s huge leaves are losing water through evaporation quicker than it can draw it up; come the cool of the evening, it will have perked up – no water necessary. Overwatering can actually be harmful, allowing essential plant nutrients to be washed out of the soil and creating potentially oxygen-free or anaerobic soil conditions which roots can’t tolerate.
Watering cans vs hoses
Lovely hot summer days conjure up the sight and sound of hosepipes being used to water plants; however, this could be a detrimental approach, not to mention a potential waste of a valuable (and expensive) resource. Watering using a hose encourages people to waft the spray into the air, only damping down the top layer of soil. This moisture then simply evaporates away, providing little benefit to the plants.
If you must water (and you might not!) then try and use a watering can without its rose to get water to the roots of the plants. Only use a rose when watering seeds and seedlings so you don’t disturb their nascent roots. Water during the cooler parts of the day so you can make sure the maximum amount of water is absorbed by the soil. Make sure there is a ridge of soil around the plant roots so that excess water doesn’t run off all over your feet. For thirsty plants under cover, try using an old wine bottle filled with water and placed neck down in the soil by the roots. This allows water to seep out over a day or so – useful if you’re away.
Taps versus waterbutts
And while we’re on the subject of water being a precious resource, it’s worth thinking about where you’re getting your water. Are you simply turning on a tap? Mains water is a really essential service to have when gardening, but the cost of supplying that can be meteoric, especially If you’re on an allotment and taps and pipes are leaky. Read on here about the measures BHAF are taking to help their members reduce water waste and keep the allotment rents down. And if you see a leaky tap – report it to your site rep.
It’s really worth considering putting in water butts and collection systems if you haven’t already got them. Wherever you have a garden structure with a roof, siphon off the collected rain fall into butts, if you’re gardening at home, link guttering to down pipes and collect in slimline butts. You can link butts with hoses to maximise the volume of water you can collect to use in hot weather. If you do have open containers, make sure you cover them carefully and provide a stick for wildlife to escape out of if they do fall in. Build-up of organic matter in the butts can make them smelly and encourage fly larvae. If that does happen, you can use silver and copper naturally microbial discs.
If you’re currently relying on a tap, then consider switching to a water butt system to collect and store rain water. Failing that only use a tap and hose to fill up water butts which you can then take water from with a can. Failing that only water using a hose on a non-spray setting at the base of the plants that need it once a week. Failing that just don’t use a drip hose or leave the tap running unattended for hours.
- First rule of watering: don’t water – check if the soil is still moist under the surface.
- If you do need to water, then water once a week really well at the base of the plant, preferably with a watering can – but use a hose on non-spray setting as an alternative or if you’re unable to use a watering can.
- Provide organic matter and mulches for your plants to make soil more moisture retentive and to lock in what moisture there is.
- Set up a water collection system to make use of free rainfall and report any leaking taps and pipes if you see them on an allotment.
- You might also consider growing drought tolerant plants and varieties.
If you have any water-saving tips, do let us know by commenting below.
Great article Jenni, I liked the emphasis on not watering. To expand your points, if you do water try to do so when it’s cooler and water is less likely to evaporate e.g in the evening. I try not to put weight on beds to keep the soil as “airy” as possible with more gaps for water retention and worm movement. Does anyone have any evidence for this working or not?