The Organic Garden
Watering System
saves water & your plants

In Britain's cloudy, green, and pleasant land, automatic garden watering systems identify the affluent gardener. But as fashion flows toward permanent sprinkler systems (like those on lawns of the arid States), hose-pipes bans in early spring 2006 have come as a shock - not for the first time.

Yes, sprinklers have had their day. An increase in demand, changes in weather patterns, global warming; whatever the cause, gardening with water shortage may become the norm.

But don't transform your garden into an arid geological wasteland just yet. Fortunately I can reveal how to save water, and distribute it to plants more effectively than a hose pipe. This organic gardening advice helps gardeners everywhere.


Garden Watering

A light sprinkling on the surface is useless - avoid sprinkler systems or sprinkler hose ends. Besides leaving the soil dry underneath, light garden waterings will cause shallow roots to grow that are more susceptible to drought. On silty soils, light watering will cause capping of the surface. A good deep soak using several gallons per square yard is more effective and economical. Contain the water into one square foot at a time.

Take care to water gently with a rose on the watering can so as not to break down the soil structure into a paste.

Normally do garden watering in the evening when the sun is low in the sky but with time enough to dry before night fall.

Confine Garden Watering To Priority Areas

Be selective when watering. Check soil moisture under the surface. Over watering washes away nutrients and impedes good root development.

Aim for individual plants not whole beds and give priority to plants that need water most. Young transplants with shallow roots will be a priority. Fruit also need water while in flower and the fruit are swelling up, this includes: soft fruit like blackcurrant, gooseberries, raspberries, as well as tomatoes and beans. Potatoes should not be allowed to dry and given more watering when tubers are growing. - Lawns can often survive without garden watering.

Fine sprinklers or misters should be avoided or restricted to small isolated areas in the greenhouse for growing humid loving plants or during seed germination. It's a tall order during a drought.

A collection of drought tolerant plants allows garden watering to focus on the remaining plants.

Select More Drought Tolerant Plants

With poor shallow soils you may consider replanting some areas with drought tolerant plants. Plants adapted to Mediterranean and coastal areas are useful and, they're becoming popular.

Now when it's time for garden watering these plants require less and many of them can be missed out.

Warning For Drought Tolerant Xerophytes

Although warm climate plants may tolerate drier conditions they may not cope with wet winter conditions. So it may be necessary to add more grit to your soil where xerophytes are grown.

If you garden on winter wet clay it may be useful to put in a subsoil with hardcore/grit and raised beds are a good option to consider.

Garden Watering Plant Containers

Avoid too many plant containers and hanging baskets. These require more garden watering. But a larger container conserves water better than 2 smaller ones. Check soil moisture under the surface before container watering.

Polythene liners can be used with containers. Again try watering into small submerged pots or pipes as described below.

Keep the container surface mulched - white gravel chippings are useful for this - better still lay this on top of a plastic sheet that has either one watering hole as above, or is perforated for watering.

Nowadays various moisture conservation products are available for containers. They work by holding more water than soil, while keeping it sequestered so it doesn't drain or evaporate away.

Garden Watering Lawns

Lawns should be left to grow longer in drought without cutting. When grass is frequently cut short it doesn't produce sufficient yield to make strong deep roots. Therefore the grass can't reach the deeper soil water and the shallow roots are more vulnerable to drought.

Longer grass blades also cast deeper shade cooling the soil surface and reducing water loss.

Compacted areas should be thoroughly spiked and aerated to ensure that any water that does fall seeps down into soil rather than running off the surface.

Grass can often be ignored when it comes to garden watering. Competition from tree roots however, will adversely affected the grass during drought.

Avoid Fertilizer Salts

Artificial inorganic fertilizers like ammonium sulphate or sulphate of potash are salts. They have to be applied with plenty of water. Fertilizer salts reduce availability of soil water to plant roots and may burn young delicate plants even in normal conditions.

Instead use organic fertilizers like bone meal or fish, blood and bone, weathered animal manure, dried manure, seaweed extract.

Plants To Avoid

Trees remove loads of soil water in summer. Avoid planting them close to your ornamental garden or vegetables garden or lawn. Existing trees might be contained to some extent by root pruning. This may also revitalise the tree. Underground water pipes will encourage deeper roots.

Many woodland plants like primula, anemone, sanicle, ferns, foxglove, pulmonaria, astilbe... will be more severely affected by drought conditions. If these plants are to survive drought they at least need a shady site and well-mulched moisture retentive organic enriched soil.

Site, Situation, Spacing, And Greenhouses

Shaded sites, and aspects facing away from the sun, are less hot and usually less vulnerable. Higher ground is usually drier than low ground. Shelter from winds also reduces drying.

To reduce garden watering over shallow soil allow more space between plants when drought is imminent. Weeds should be removed as they compete for water.

Shade the greenhouse to prevent wilting in the mid-summer sun. In summer greenhouses use white plastic sheet mulch as it remains cooler. Check soil moisture under the surface before extra greenhouse watering.

Save Water

Water butts, also known as rain barrels or water tanks in some countries, have become popular. A special attachment can tap into a square or round down spout from a building roof. The water is stored without fear of overspills, because when the water butt is full the attachment sends water back down the drain.

Water butts come on a stand so that a garden watering bucket will fit under the tap at the bottom. Note that they are only light to move when empty and should be set up on a firm level area. Do keep stored water covered to prevent animals falling in, and to exclude debris and reduce water contamination.

Your own roof water is free. So have as many water butts as you can fit in. You can collect water from house, garage, shed and greenhouse roofs. Slim line water butts help you fit them in to smaller spaces.

Reduce Surface Water Run Off

Simple de-compact the soil.

Elsewhere, avoid making concrete or paved areas where water runs straight off into drains and is wasted. This contributes to the winter flash floods that have swamped some areas.

My page on landscape mulch describes permeable paved surfaces. These let water permeate to soil where it is naturally filtered and cleaned before drainage to rivers or storage in aquifers.

Encourage your council to use these alternatives to concrete or tarmac car parking areas.

Easy Plant Care

Don't waste time hourly pouring water away with sprinklers, that's like digging drains under a pond. Save work and grow properly.

Concentrate on making the soil suite your plants or, grow plants that thrive in the conditions you already have. There may be no need to change your gardening style. Many impoverished gardens can be vastly improved by cultivating with organic matter and by mulching.

Increase Soil Water Holding Capacity

Don't say good bye to water when it's poured onto soil. Make your soil hold more.

Sandy and chalky soils are the worst in droughts. Unlike clays the large pore space doesn't hold much water. The organic gardening solution is to work in bulky organic matter: garden compost, green manure or animal manure is good for all soils. It adds humus which holds water like a sponge. See mulching below.

Cover Soil With Mulch

Mulch covers and protects the soil surface, keeps it cool and reduces evaporation. Wood chip, pine bark; even grass cuttings, and newspaper; can be used.

Mulch should be applied in spring when the soil is still moist. Later on the ground can be watered before applying mulch.

Landscape fabric and plastic sheet mulch is widely used in gardens nowadays.

However, some gardeners cover this with top-soil and root their plants above it. But the plants should always be rooted beneath the sheet; only loose mulch should be placed on top.

Otherwise the fabric will isolate the overlying soil (whether perforated or not) and prevent plant roots from tapping into deeper soil water reserves. It may also cause rain to be deflected away from the underlying soil especially on slopes.

Deep Roots Go Further, Plants Last Longer Over Clay

All the better if your soil is already deep cultivated. Deep roots can save your plants in drought conditions as they exploit more soil water. I can push two fingers straight down into my soil, easily 4 inches or more. A soft wooden stick goes much further.

Cultivate clay soils in autumn to allow in the winter wet and to incorporate organic matter. Shallow compacted layers should be broken down. Then in spring/early summer you only need cultivate the top few inches where seed beds or planting are required - and don't forget to mulch.

Build Up Shallow Sandy Soils

With shallow soils you could build raised beds on the surface and fill them with bulky organic matter. Then a no-dig approach to gardening will reduce water loss. This is especially useful for sandy soils (as excess cultivation can damage). Organic matter is vital.

Sowing And Planting

When buying plug plants look for larger plugs, and good root development. When growing your own plants from seed use deep pots like root trainers. Worm compost scattered over seed drills will help retain moisture.

Sculpture the soil surface into an low bank curving around individual plants e.g. fruit; or form parallel banks either side of rows. This should direct water to the root zone of the plants.

Fill a pot or pipe with gravel and sink it next to plants like marrow. Water poured in goes direct to the root zone. An underground perforated pipe can be emplaced before planting rows as long as they're not connected direct to the mains water during a hose-pipe ban.

Protect Garden Wildlife And Your Plants

In addition to water butts, tanks and barrels, every organic garden should have an area of open water to encourage frogs, toads and other wildlife. These are your very own garden pest controllers and pollinators.

So try to ensure that drought does not destroy your garden's natural wildlife, including the snails that some birds feed on, etc... Don't forget to keep the bird baths topped up.

THE BUTT END - more information and links on garden watering


American Gardeners    Gardener's Supply Company icon

Here you'll find what you need to keep your garden watered. icon


FERNDALE LODGE - garden equipment that's ideally suited for UK home & allotment gardeners.

CROCUS watering equipment - you'll also find a large & stylish selection of plants for wet and dry situations.



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