World Water Day is on 22 March
I’m afraid I'm too late to celebrate National Retro Day with you, falling on 27nd Feb. That one’s in the past. The same goes for National Awkward Moments Day on 18th March; I was busy doing something I can't bear to tell you about. But let's have a right knees-up through National Stationery Week a month from now, all of 20 to 26th of April, and burn through some fountain pens like old days.
World Water Day has been claimed by the UN lords and UN ladies for the 22nd o'March. Whatever one may think about the philanthropists at the UN, rumour has it that water makes up more than 60% of both philanthropists and people, and over 70% of the Earth’s glorious surface, with many a human guzzler thirsting after the 2% of accessible freshwater, making it a precious limited resource that needs to be put into small bottles and sold under illustrious names in glitzy establishments.
According to a roomful of experts, the average adult in the UK "passes on" 150 litres of H2O every day, whether that's down the sink, down the hatch, or onto the lawn. The amount is the same for everyone, because it is well known that we all spend equal amounts of time in the shower.
Gardeners have a mixed relationship with water use. It depends on what we're up to. At one extreme, a gardener can consume a load of extra water, which belongs to the frogs by birthright, purely for their flower display, and use chemicals with abandon, which means even more watering and then toxic run-off into the sewers and streams. At the other end of my impromptu scale here (I have more), gardeners' activities over a modestly large area can improve local rainfall in dry times, shading and mulching the soil to improve its quality and water retention, while preventing erosion from heavy rains. We are prone to collecting water in all manner of manners, either to deploy in dry weather or to exist as a beloved pond with ribbits in it. Allotment style food production that uses pesticides and fertilisers sparingly is not a threat to anything (except slugs). Most gardeners do think about their soil long term, and know that appropriately chosen plants, given a few years of mulch, patience, and some old fish guts (use only the best, aged in a fine plastic bag) under the tomatoes, will do better than making the soil salty and the local water systems groggy with too much fertiliser in order to grow things that aren't happy in your location.
Our island home is blessed with both heavy rainfall and the potential for dry summers with acute drought. This is often a tragedy for people in and around the new paved urban sprawl dwelling zones, where the impermeable road and roof surfaces everywhere can promote seasonal flooding, combined with the initially dry, compacted soil that won't "drink" in a sudden downpour, behaving for a while like a solid, swimming pool floor, and not the nice porous forest kind.
Water Collection and Plant Selection
Floods will continue until morale improves, but we can waltz around the edges of water fluctuation in two steps. The first bit is to harvest, save and re-use water like it is an old friend who owes you serious money: you want them to stick around. Here are four easy ideas:
- Water butts and rain barrels: look for the biggest one you can fit on sale or second hand, making sure you know what was in it before, and get as many as you can: the big square ballast water tanks common on building sites are naturally stackable. Grow something exotic over them, using their microclimate to keep, and because their tap is by necessity at ground level, if possible raise them as much as is required to deliver pressure to hose range anywhere on your property. Divert rainwater from any gutter you can: half of our roof run-off goes down the front of the house, so we have a compact 130-litre butt at the front, tucked behind the bins. We almost never have to trek back and forth through the house with watering cans, or run a hose through the sitting room window. Almost. Mini water butts are great beside a shed, anywhere space is limited. Rainwater has a lower pH than tap and is better for your plants, especially acid lovers like blueberries, azaleas and rhododendrons, which should as close as possible only be watered with it.
- Create a green roof: Sheds, bike shelters, bin and firewood covers, and extensions are top places. You can get ready-made kits with mats and modules planted up with sedums, or make your own from some pond liner, assorted old gubbins to keep the soil in place, and sedums that you absolutely got permission to take from someone's garden.
- Use grey water from the kitchen and bath: This might need some minor installation work for the bath or shower, or a siphon, or you can scoop the water out of the window for exercise. Mine goes straight on the Cosmos and bedding in patio pots outside the back door, in strict rotation with rainwater. Household detergents won’t do your plants any harm as long as they’re not used continuously over long periods of drought, and you can use a natural soap if the water is going on your crops. In winter, I usually cover my compost to keep most of the rain off and thus the core temperature up, but I do lift the lid to dump pretty hot kitchen waste water on it on the coldest days: for bonus compost care points, sprinkle a bit of yeast and sugar in as well.
- Water less, mulch more, still have to dig a little bit: A recent RHS study showed that with hanging baskets of petunias, flowering remained pretty much the same whether they were given 300ml or 1 litre of water a day over summer.
Seasonal bedding may well need less water than you think, but all newly planted trees and shrubs need watering well once or twice a week in dry weather for their first year, and preferably during very dry weather in their second, although not as much. With that said, what makes a huge difference everywhere is organic mulch, applied yearly, and left to decay, like in the jungle. Mulch gives so much, and all we do is dump it and leave it.
Woodchips are superb organic mulch when they are blended with all the other green parts of a shredded plant or felled tree with twigs, leaves, and roots. For a new batch, add a bit of rotted compost, and maybe some soil from under the decayed leaves around mature trees, to help to bring in the fungal "teeth". It is best, but not essential, to use aged batches of these wood chips. If you must use fresh, it will be fine, and is better than nothing. Either way, don't dig the woodchips down into the soil at all: as above, sprinkle handfuls of fertile soil and compost through it if you are heaping shovels of it straight from the wood chipper or car boot. If you have tough perennial weeds, lay down plain cardboard or sheets of the cheapest brown recycled paper (note that newspaper is great removeable surface mulch to kill tough weeds, but I wouldn't put it under my crop bed). So called no-dig strategies (accurately: much-less-dig) are best for preserving and supporting the soil's critters, microbes, and structure, which all increases soil moisture and delights the worms, and we know what happens when happy worms meet your vegetables' bed.
Mulch fabric, a woven agrotextile for smothering weeds and shading the soil, gives practically instant results, and while it is not appropriate for long term use in some places, its convenience in a number of situations makes it as good as essential for those cases, especially planting trees and hedges on a large scale and in places with lots of tough, established weeds, where the fabric will be cleaned off after however many years it takes to start coming apart, by which time it's under a tree or hedge and has served well. It is a great option for growing rows of crops like strawberries, or many flower species for the florist market. It can also be used for starting a no dig project to kill the weeds under it in the first year or two, with shallow rooted plants like salad and tomato growing in compost, or gro-bags, on top of it (plain cardboard is also good enough for this): if you have it, spreading a layer of well rotten organic matter, wrom, over the soil and trapping it under the fabric will feed the worms, provide a cushion, and could even out uneven soil levels like gentle slopes, with a few planks of wood to hold the wrom in place while the set-up does its job. Remove the fabric after a year or two, rinse and reuse. If you have soft, rich soil in your garden, some of that may sound like overkill, but those growing on dry, stony hillsides love a makeshift terrace, and no-dig beds are ideal for improving heavy clay, using it as a fertile foundation to draw from, not a bottomless trench to trudge through and try to fit carloads of grit into; I tried that on London potter's clay with my best spade, most rented rotovator, and buckets of gypsum: it was a lot of effort over several weekends and the "mounded beds" I produced were fine. Well worth the days of pain at work from my coincidental bad back. With that said, if you have hard, compacted clay, then tilling it well with sand and gypsum once, before starting your no-dig future, will save you years of waiting for worms and roots to break through it.
Plants with a Purpose Recommended by the RHS
Plants that deal with waterlogging in winter and dry soil in summer are winners. Among those :
Amelanchier ‘Robin Hill’
Possibly my favourite small trees, the amelanchier species Juneberry and serviceberry are elegant and colourful, with gorgeous starry white blossom in March, and copper-coloured leaves that go out in an orange bang in autumn.
Rosa rugosa ‘Roseraie de l’Hay’
The perfect shrub or loose hedge for a cottage garden, with scented rich pink flowers all summer and well into autumn, as well as lovely red hips. It’s pretty shade tolerant, too.
You really can’t go wrong with this pretty groundcover perennial. Its glaucous, downy, scallop-shaped leaves collect raindrops like perfect pearls, while the sprays of lime-green summer flowers create a wonderful hazy effect.
Our further recommendations:
Most things that grow on the coast are drought hardy, and osier willow will grow in swampy places with water that is either brackish now, or will be; the winter season for bareroot planting of all of those plants is ending soon.
Our Lavender 'delivery window', which starts around the first warm nights of Spring in late March, is here. The Lavenders are seriously useful plants for eating, skin care, smell care, and for edging your garden's driest areas next to paths or sunny walls. The crispier the weather gets around here, the happier lavender will be.
Climate change may be another fad, or the end of the world again, but I hope you’ve found a morsel of inspiration and encouragement to take you into spring with more chores to do in the garden. Enjoy the new season: worrying about the weather profits nothing, but buying a one thousand litre water tank and starting a new compost pile today will make you rich in the liquid diamond tomorrow.