Monthly Archives: July 2022

Watering – Part 2 Improving the soil

Watering (2) – Improving the soil

28 July 2022

When someone in the gardens asked me during the hot weather what we do about watering, my immediate response was that we make as much compost as we can, and add it as a mulch several times a year. Oh, and we add a thick mulch of leaf mould once a year, usually just before Remembrance Day.

I don’t think that was the response they were expecting. Didn’t mention taps or hoses or how often.

But actually, although they’re important parts of keeping plants watered, the most important thing is to keep as much moisture in the soil as possible, for as long as possible factor. So that’s what this post is about.

We’ve been adding compost and leaf mould to the beds for the last few years, and very, very gradually the soil’s improving, and crucially, it’s holding much more moisture now, for much longer, than when we started looking after the gardens. This means we don’t have to water much at all now.

We also need to improve the soil texture to cope with the heavier downpours and soakings we’re getting over winter most years now as a result of climate change. The spongier surface helps water drain into it when we need it to, rather than run straight off; and then the soil holds onto the moisture for longer in the much drier springs and summers we’re getting now.

We make our own compost, in a small empire of Dalek-type composters

in the work area behind the gardens; and we have a huge leaf bin there. The leaf bin has two sections – one of them gets filled (literally) every autumn and winter, and the leaves rot down into usable leaf mould over the year. So we can empty the leaf mould from the second half over the year as it rots down, putting unrotted bits back into the other side to go back round again.

We also plant mainly shrubs – woody plants whose structure is there all the time, even if the leaves drop in winter, and perennials – plants that last for several years, though they often die right back in winter, and we have to remember where they are. Then in spring they start into growth again and fill the beds without our having to do anything but lift the occasional weed (leaving all the self-sown California poppies, love-in-a-mist, marigolds etc. to grow, if they’ve popped up in the right place).

We don’t really use bedding plants as until recently they’ve been grown in peat, they’re often pumped full of pesticides to keep them looking good for sale, and they die off at the first frost and have to be thrown away. And they’re bred to keep flowering, rather than to produce nectar and pollen, so they’re not much use to pollinators – which is probably a good thing, given the pesticides! None of that really fits in with our attempts to garden sustainably.

Though we do sow French marigolds with the preschool children, and plant them around the gardens. Unusually for bedding plants, they’re really attractive to pollinators; and the children love the process of planting them out, looking after them and watching them grow.

Watering – Part 1

22 July 2022

We’ve been asked a few times over the last few weeks how we keep the gardens watered, and after this week’s record temperatures and the ongoing drought, this seemed a good time for a post on the subject.

We do have access to a tap, and there’s a hose too, though I don’t think we’ve used it more than a couple of times in the last few years. There’s such a temptation to water everything when you’re holding a hose, ‘just in case’ – but water’s a precious resource, and we try to treat it like that.

For a start, we use watering cans rather then the hose (which is great if it’s been suggested you exercise more, and have a step counter – it’s about 50 steps from the tap to the beds – it soon adds up!).

The next most important point is that we only water selected plants – peas and carrots that the preschool children have planted, any annuals they’ve planted (we don’t use many annuals, and they’re usually sown direct and don’t need watering over the season); or any plants just coming into full flower, like dahlias, penstemons, and possibly roses, if they look like they need a boost. Although we don’t want to waste water, this is a public garden, and we try to keep some sort of a display going.

Most of our plants are perennials, and they’re put in as transplants, i.e. not grown from seed sown direct into the beds;  most of them are cuttings that we’vegrown on at home, so if they need watering, we can use rainwater from water butts connected to the house roof.

When we come to put them out in the gardens, we dig the hole, fill it with water, wait (there’s always something to do round there for five or ten minutes!), then fill it again. Then when the plant’s been put in and the hole backfilled with earth, we water it in to settle the earth round the roots. Then we brush a bit more earth over the top, which keeps moisture in and stops it evaporating too quickly.

We’ll then water that plant several times until it’s established – for a small French marigold (as grown from seed by the children from the local preschool), that might be two or three times in the first fortnight. For a larger plant, we might give it a good soak (@ 5 litres of water) once a week for a month, and also water it if there’s a drought or a heatwave. Once plants are established, we only water them in exceptionally weather.

This isn’t just to save water; it’s also because the soil here is sandy loam on top of clay, and we’ve mulched with compost (= spread it on top of the ground) a couple of times a year for about five years. So the soil is quite fertile, and grows good lush foliage. That looks great, until we have excessive heat or a drought, when the lush foliage will wilt much faster than it would in plants grown on poor soil, and not watered much. The drought garden on West Street is a great example – it looks great all year round, but particularly when there’s a drought, the plants cope with the heat much better than they do in gardens with richer soil.

We’re also looking at adding a few more plants that cope better with heat and drought, like salvias and sedums – with the effects of climate change very much here now, we’re going to have to learn how to adapt our gardens.

A welcome change of emphasis

20 July 2022

Every year in about mid-July we have a visit from the Britain In Bloom judges, as this garden is part of the Leighton-Linslade entry for the competition.

A year or two ago we checked the criteria against which entries were marked, as the RHS ‘Garden’ magazine has mentioned that environmental aspects were going to have more weight. We were delighted, as we’ve always tried to garden sustainable, for example making a lot of garden compost and leaf mould to improve the soil and hold moisture in it; growing appropriate plants in the right place; and watering selectively and only when necessary.

It seems a bit churlish that when the garden’s always been awarded a Gold, we’ve still felt disappointed that the judges have mainly been concerned with how many flowers there are in bloom when they come round. And we try hard to see that there are, which is tricky as the main June flush is usually over, while the plants that will flower well into autumn won’t have started yet. But we’ve always managed it, and always been a bit disappointed that the long-term, environmental things we do haven’t really been commented on.

sometimes it’s felt as if we should just go out and buy loads of bedding plants, and never mind about sustainability and pollinators!

So this year, it was a very welcome shock when the first question we were asked was about how we were watering in the drought, and the rest of the conversation showed that they really understood and wanted us to be the things that are just part of the way we garden here. But we were so surprised that we forgot to mention most of them – I remember muttering something wishy-washy about how we grew mainly perennials, and only watered selectively (that at least would have been obvious – we’d been round there at 7 that morning watering the plants that really needed it, so they’d be fresh for the judges; and the marks on the ground showed that we weren’t just watering indiscriminately.

We’ll know in a few weeks how the judges assessed us; but in the meantime, those conversations have sparked a lot of thinking about what we should be growing here, now that droughts are more frequent and particularly, now we’ve had the kind of temperatures we had this year. Sadly, we’re going to have to let some plants die – but we’ll learn from it, and replace them with even more appropriate ones.

Watch this space!

Unintended consequences

18 July 2022

Over the last couple of weeks we’ve been watering a bit more often than usual.

This is mainly because there are more new plants to water, mainly the nasturtiums and French marigolds that the preschool children weren’t able to plant out until a week or two ago. We usually water plants a few times after they’ve been put in, to help them get established quickly.

We’d also mulched most of the beds with the contents of one of the compost bins, so all in all, the ground round the new plants was pretty soft.

We’ve noticed over the last couple of week’s that something’s been digging holes in some of the beds during the night. This morning we realised that all the holes are near recently-planted flowers. It’s just dawned on us that watering frequently + mulching with compost = very soft ground – much easier to dig in!

And this morning, we found badger poo in the hole next to one of the uprooted plants – so now we know the culprit, too. Not quite the wildlife we were expecting to encourage into the gardens, but very welcome all the same!

Moving into the second half of the year

Moving into the second half of the year

10 July 2022

Horticulturally speaking, that is. We’re seeing the end of the great rush of flowers we’ve enjoyed over the last few weeks, as those plants die back or are cut back, and the ones that will take us through into autumn are just getting ready to flower. There’s quite a lull at the moment, which usually lasts till late July, and then the rudbeckias, dahlias, heleniums and geraniums really come into their own.

We’ve thought about raising and using bee-friendly bedding plants to fill the gaps as the spring flowers fall back, but generally, we find the gardens work better when we leave them. Many of those gaps will be filled as the plants we’ve cut back begin to regrow; and in most of the others, we’ll be putting in some new perennial plants once the customary July – August heatwave and drought are over. It wouldn’t be very sustainable to be planting out the penstemons and salvias we’ve been growing from cuttings, when the temperatures are in the mid-twenties upwards, and when we’d have to be watering them every couple of days. Come September, they’ll more or less look after themselves.

That’s the ‘as a rule’ version – but of course, rules are made to be broken, and in this case it’s because the preschool children have been sowing and planting French marigolds and nasturtiums, and watering them enthusiastically (along with everything else within reach). Both these plants grow and flower well, and most importantly, bees love them.

More sowing

Sowing the first batch of nasturtiums

 

The children have put quite a few in the bed they look after, alongside the carrots they’ll pick in the autumn term, and the annuals just starting to grow from the seeds the children sowed a few weeks back. They’ve also planted a few of them in gaps in the other beds – look out for the marigolds in the front bed, nearest the large conifer, and in a couple of other places in corners of beds nearer the car park. They’ll provide a little more colour as the garden revs up for its usual summer-into-autumn display.

Planting a few more flowers in the preschool bed