Saving water and watering well by Kate Harrison

Kate Harrison, Chair of Seedy Sunday shares her thoughts with us about the increasingly challenging topic of watering. Music to our organic ears, as we know that healthy soils are the key to better water retention.

As summer approaches, it’s good to consider ways in which we can make the most of the water that we have on our plots, whether it’s precious saved rainwater, the council-provided supply that some of us have on our allotments, or our own water if we garden at home.

The first thing to consider is to try and make sure that we keep moisture in the soil. One of the best ways of doing this is through mulching. There are a variety of mulching materials and much debate about which is the best. If you follow Charles Dowding and his no dig approaches you’ll see that he prefers compost as a topdressing which acts as a mulch and also improves soil condition – he thinks it’s the best way to avoid slugs. Other mulches include seaweed, straw, cardboard and even woodchip. I like to use Strulch, which is straw which has been ‘mineralised’, which helps to deter slugs and snails. It’s not cheap, but it’s multifunctional, which I like.

Other water management approaches on the soil include building swales which sounds complex but is really just a way of making sure that the water runs off a sloping area more slowly and therefore can soak into the soil. I’ve also experimented with building Hugel beds, another permaculture technique which keeps water in the soil for longer.

When watering there are some methods and times of day that are better than others. Those of us who don’t live close to our allotments may not get to choose the time of day we water, but in an ideal world you would water very early in the morning when the air and the soil are still cool and the plants and the soil have time to absorb the water. Another recommended time is in the evening, although some say that leaving this dampness on the soil at the beginning of the night can encourage fungal growth and nibbling by pests, though I’ve never experienced this.

Ideally avoid watering in the strong sunshine. This avoids losing lots of water through evaporation. Avoid spraying a hosepipe all over the place – this wastes water, allows lots of evaporation, plus you are watering weeds! The best way to water is to get the supply as close to the plants roots as possible. I often use plastic bottles with the bottoms cut off as makeshift tubes. I bury the neck down next to the plant, and this means that when I pour water directly into the bottle I know that the supply will reach the roots and won’t be evaporated. Some people use ‘soakhose’, other people fill wine bottles with water and then up end them into the soil but this is tricky when the soil is hard and compacted in dry spells and perhaps works better with potted plants. 

There is also a kind of watering system called an Olla, which is traditionally a terracotta globe that’s buried in the soil and has a narrow neck through which one waters. The water seeps out of the terracotta and the plant may grow its roots around the globe. I tried making an Olla from a terracotta plant pot but I’d sealed the drainage hole. It worked as a way of watering at the root level but unfortunately it caught insects, mainly woodlice but I didn’t like the idea of catching other insects.

There’s more useful advice on watering from BHOGG’s own ‘How to Water’ guide, and from Brighton & Hove Allotment Federation on Water & Allotments and Water Savings Tips.

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