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’ve grown 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 dry 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.