Gardeners are often blamed for wasting water, but this I feel is completely wrong. Most gardeners revere this precious resource and respond to plants by watering only when completely necessary. Real gardeners understand that plants need to grow strong roots towards the water table and be less dependent on supplementary watering. It is perhaps our recent obsession with growing things in pots and containers that is the problem and yet there are many ways and means to get the very best from containerised plants and indeed our precious water, without plugging them into a constant drip feed of the clear stuff.
Water is vital for life, as is sunlight and warmth and shelter. While we may yet be in for another wettest drought on record and we may point our fingers at wasteful water companies and poorly repaired pipes and leaks, the truth is we’ve been given a warning. A timely warning that we can chose whether to ignore or to heed. As gardeners and greenhouse growers we can choose to grow more drought tolerant plants this season, to delay planting new trees and shrubs and other things that will be demanding in terms of water and to look at the way we plan to grow and to water this season.
It’s bonkers that any gardener uses drinking water to water gardens and plants and yet in the greenhouse, when it comes to new seedlings and plug plants this is often the best choice. Outside we can choose to use rainwater harvested from the roofs of our homes, sheds, garages and greenhouses.
The great news for gardeners this season is that the regulatory bodies have finally seen sense and most water companies in the areas affected are allowing the use of drip irrigation. Hoorah. But you do need to check with your supplier as there are still a few that are dragging their heals. Fortunately the HTA (Horticultural Trades Association) are putting pressure on the rest to follow suit, so keep your greenfingers crossed.
The first thing a gardener growing in containers needs to consider is the quality of the compost they are using. With the peat debate roaring away, many are turning to peat free, an added bonus, as peat based composts are a nightmare to rewet once they’ve dried out and peat-free composts have a generous level of water absorbing ingredients that hold water better in the compost.
You can improve the water retention of any compost by mixing in water retaining gel or crystals, now widely available and very easy to use. Look at the size and type of container you are potting into. For the final growing phase of all your greenhouse and patio plants, think big, the bigger the pot the more room for healthy root growth and the slower the compost will dry out. Look for glazed planters or plastic planters that will reduce evaporation at the surface and choose deeper growing bags that offer more root space. Cut small planting crosses rather than large gaping holes into growing bags when planting to reduce the amount of compost open to the drying air.
Where possible grow your long-term plants in the greenhouse border or in the garden where the plants can reach down for damper environs deeper in the soil. Plant them out while young and vigorous so that they establish quickly (but take heed of the weather and don’t plant out too soon). Limit watering to the early days after planting and water every two to three days thoroughly so that the water soaks deep and so that deeper root systems are stimulated rather than surface roots which will be affected quickly by the fierce sun.
Where you can’t grow in situ, then use large planters and cluster together for easier watering. Choose crops that are less demanding in terms of water. Container grown potatoes need plenty of water, so choose varieties that are more drought resistant. Mr Fothergills recommends ‘Arran Pilot’ and ‘Stemster’. Think about the origins of your plants, those that hail from hot climates such as tomatoes, aubergines and chillies thrive in the heat and will grow well in the greenhouse and on a sunny patio. They still need water to fatten their fruit, but they will crop well in a hot summer. Choose fast leafy crops such as salads and herbs that can be harvested quickly after a short growing season.
In a true drought harvests will be down and food prices will continue their ascent skywards so every morsel of food you can forage or grow will save money and ensure a fresh supply of healthy nutrient rich ingredients.