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Tokely's Tales - Andrew Tokely's gardening blog

Tokely's Tales - Andrew Tokely's Monthly Gardening Blog

April 2012 - Using water wisely

Be water-wise - install water butts in your garden

I am sure many gardeners were as shocked and surprised as I was when a hosepipe ban was announced for my area starting in April. This is very early in the season and something we would normally associate with mid summer rather than late spring. Following this announcement my thoughts then went to how I was going to keep my garden looking good this year, especially as I will be reliant on only being able to use a watering can. Luckily, all my water butts are full from winter rainfall, so this will limit the amount of mains water I will be using and hopefully a little rain throughout the growing season will help keep these topped up.

At this time of year the greenhouses are full of young seedlings and freshly potted plug plants. These are given a good watering when required either early in the morning before the sun is strong or in the evenings. This allows them to take up the moisture without having to also cope with the high temperatures of the day. I find that giving the plants a really good watering is far better than a dribble each day and allowing the plants compost to dry a little inbetween waterings also encourages a stronger root structure.

Watering seedlings

Young seedlings will be watered using mains water as this is clean, whereas water from a butt may contain some algae which causes larger plants no harm, but may encourage fungal disease like damping off on younger seedlings. I find that using the mains water is best once it has been warmed up in the greenhouse for a day, taking the chill off of it before being used on such small tender plants.

Usually towards the end of May my bedding plants are large enough to be planted out in the garden. Before planting them I will give each plant a drenching so the root ball is fully charged with water. Planting a wet root ball will give these plants the best chance to get away and the moisture will be trapped below the soil, whereas watering the plants after planting the moisture quickly evaporates away.

After a few days, once these bedding plants start to wilt, I will give each a good watering so the soil is really wet around each plant. One or two good waterings per week is far better than giving them a splash each day, as a splash will only encourage quicker drying surface roots instead of a strong deep root structure. I always water in the evenings when the day is cooler - the plants have the best chance of absorbing as much of the water as possible throughout the night, in readiness for the next warm day.

Add water-retaining gel to hanging basket & container compost

Hanging baskets and containers will have water-retaining gel added to the compost, which will swell up and retain moisture for a lot longer. Like my other plants these are given a good watering two to three times a week, stopping just as baskets start to drip, but before the water runs out the base of the containers, so as not to waste too much.

Through the summer the glasshouses have tomatoes and cucumbers growing in pots and growbags. These can take quite a lot of water through the summer as the plants become established and start to develop fruit. I would normally water these each evening using the hosepipe, but this will have to change this year. I have decided to fit a drip irrigation system on a timer, so they can be watered through the evening. I have been told that drip irrigation systems, although connected to the mains tap, do not come under hosepipe ban regulations, as they are a more efficient way of watering, but it is worth checking with your own water provider before installing one yourself.

The new shrubs, fruit trees and fruit bushes that have recently been delivered all had their bare roots plunged into a bucket of water for two to three hours before being planted. The planting hole for the trees had a bucket of water added to it and once the roots were in position they were covered over with soil. This was then watered in with another bucket of water. Fruit trees, fruit bushes and shrubs, if planted correctly, quickly get established even during dry weather. These will survive very well on a good watering once or twice a week using about 10 litres (2 gallons) of water per tree. Adding a mulch of compost to cover the wet soil will also help retain the water around the roots.

Rather than use water butt water for these plants, I will be making use of the bowls of washing up water from the kitchen, along with water used for washing vegetables in. Washing up water contains some detergent, but will not cause established plants any harm. However, I never use it on young plants or vegetable crops that are almost ready to eat, as the detergent may cause damage.

Caring for the vegetables on the allotment will not be very different to previous years as all water used is carried by hand from water butts or standpipes. Like all other plants vegetables require water, but a good soaking twice a week is better than a splash each night.

To help seedlings germinate during dry weather, I find it is best to water the seed drills before sowing the seed, as this traps the moisture below soil level where the seeds require it. Some gardeners prefer to add water to the dry soil surface over the top of sown drills, but this often caps the soil and makes germinating seeds struggle to break through the capped soil and I find watering the seed drills before sowing prevents this problem.

Runner beans - mulch to stop roots drying out

Once vegetables have germinated and are growing well, some require very little watering like carrots, onions, parsnips, lettuce & peas. Time is better spent watering crops that do require lots of water like brassicas, beans, potatoes, sweet corn, squashes and courgettes. Adding a mulch of compost or well rotten manure around the base of courgettes and squashes helps retain moisture near the roots. Mulches or old compost or grass clippings around runner bean roots will help prevent water evaporation and should reduce the amount you need to water these thirsty vegetables.

The only part of the garden I won’t worry about watering is the lawn, because even if it dries up and goes a little brown, it will soon recover once we do get some rain. I will be raising the mower blades so the lawn is not cut as short through dry weather, as this too will help it recover quicker and wear better until wetter days arrive.

Following my plan of action above, may take me a little longer than using a hosepipe, but at least I will be keeping my plants alive and my garden looking as good as in previous years, but with the benefit of reduced water usage. Plus all that extra carrying of water will be good exercise and keep me fit.

Happy Gardening!

Andrew Tokely, Head of Horticulture, Thompson & Morgan