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. 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.