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Tips for saving water in the garden

22 July 2013 by Rolawn

Parched, dehydrated and beginning to show a few cracks? If that's just you 'the gardener' imagine how much your outdoor space may be suffering in this recent spell of very hot, dry weather we are either enjoying or enduring, depending on your perspective! Careful use of topsoil, organic matter and innovations such as water-retaining granules are powerful allies at this time of year and can help alleviate some of the problems many gardeners face during periods of low rainfall.

The threat of a hosepipe ban certainly focuses the mind on saving water in the garden, but even in a normal gardening season we should all be looking to conserve H2O. Water is not as abundant as we might think and the demand is high. The average person gets through 150 litres of water a day and research carried out by The Consumer Council for Water suggests that, due to population growth and climate change, demand for water could outstrip water availability by up to 22% by 2050. There are simple steps we can all take that will not only safely (in gardening terms) reduce our water consumption but will also improve the quality of our soil and subsequent plant growth.

Mulches

Generations of gardeners swear by mulching as a means of helping your soil use the water that's available to it more effectively. It is one of the easiest things to do in your garden but has huge benefits. Bark or gravel helps to retain moisture in the soil and suppress weeds which also compete with plants for any available moisture.

Mulches not only reduce evaporation, but depending on your choice of material, can also increase the amount of moisture your soil is able to hold. A soil improver applied as a mulch will also, over time, be worked into the soil by earthworms, improving the soil structure.

Mulches also help prevent problems associated with water run-off during heavy rain. Often when water is scarce in summer, thunderstorms bring very welcome rain, but this can run-off rapidly resulting in flash flooding, causing more harm than good for plants and soil structure. A mulch helps to slow the movement of water, allowing it to percolate into the soil where it can be taken up by plants’ roots and help reduce the risk of flooding.

Water-efficient growing media

Perhaps you are redesigning part of your garden or working over a new piece of ground or bed. This is a perfect time to think ahead and create a more water efficient area that you can extend to other parts of your outdoor space later in the year. Some new generation blended topsoils are enhanced with soil conditioners (which should of course be peat free). This additional organic matter improves soil structure, which aids moisture retention, resulting in better plant health.

If you are gardening on a smaller scale or use containers, then water loss is a particular worry and digging in mulch to improve the soil is not always a viable option. This is where water-retaining granules can be useful and will certainly reduce the risk of your containers or hanging baskets drying out during hot, dry spells.

Water retaining granules don't eliminate the need for watering and you still need to check your plants frequently, especially during hot weather, but they do give a helping hand. Don't get too carried away with them as the granules swell up to many times their own size and too much will push your plants out of the soil! You also need to be careful handling them and wash your hands after use as they are potentially harmful if swallowed (also keep them away from any young gardeners who may be helping you out!).

Ditch the hosepipe

Many of the best water saving tips come from allotment holders who are often experts at saving and using the wet stuff more efficiently. This is because many allotment sites severely restrict the use of hosepipes and pipe-based watering systems even in non-drought years.

Hosepipes literally haemorrhage water (of course!) and can suck up and spit out as much as 1,000 litres in an hour. If that thought sends your mind spinning as fast as your water meter, then read on! While the thought of even partially abandoning the hosepipe might make you weak at the knees, remember that your garden plants probably don't need as much water as you imagine.

  • A good soaking once every 10 days is more effective than a light daily watering as a quick sprinkle doesn't penetrate deep enough and only serves to encourage your plants to spread roots close to the surface.
  • Use a watering can, it's a fantastic way of toning up your arms and is much less wasteful than a hose.
  • Schedule your watering for early in the morning or early evening to prevent the precious liquid evaporating in the sun and water your plants where they need it most, at the roots.
  • A great tip to make sure thirstier plants get water where they need it most is to cut the bottom off a plastic bottle and bury it neck down in the soil. That way you can add water that will find its way straight to the roots with less waste.
  • A water butt collects rainwater and when you consider that up to 24,000 litres can be harvested from the typical roof, this is no mean contribution to your supply. Adding water butts to your shed or summerhouse may also help you get water further down your garden.

Grey water

Water used around the house can also be recycled and put to good use in the garden. It's probably best not to water fruit and vegetables with water that has even mild detergents in it, but what's known as 'grey' water will not harm your plants and saves more money going down the plughole. You can even place a rainwater collector and water butt onto the waste-pipe from the bathroom to make collection of your used bathwater automatic. Avoid using water containing any strong cleaning products, which may be harmful to plants and use the water quickly before smells or bacteria develop.

Lawns

Trying to keep your lawn green during weather like this can be an unnecessary waste of water. You can help the grass by rationing your cutting and raising the cutting level, as longer grass will withstand the dry conditions much better. However, you may have to resign yourself to brown grass in the height of a heatwave. Don't worry, your lawn hasn't died, it will recover very quickly once the weather turns.
Making the best use of water helps to keep your garden 'green' in more ways than one!

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Updated November 2018