Keeping your garden green
Friday, 20 April 2012

Keeping your garden green

How to survive the hosepipe ban.

Written by Sarah Langton-Lockton

On the day the hosepipe ban came into force for 20 million people in the southeast and east of England, there was wind and rain over much of the country, and the ‘wrong’ kind of snow in Scotland. The weather is all over the place, but there is one consistent theme: the last two years have been the driest since records began. Add to this the fact that we are all rather profligate with water, and that the performance of the water industry is questionable – in the Thames Water area alone, more than 50 billion gallons a year are lost in leaks – and you can see why there’s a problem.

The idea of the ban, say Government ministers, is to get us to value water as a precious natural resource and to use it more efficiently. We should learn to love the watering can and apply water only where needed, rather than blasting everything in sight with a hose. And if we do all rise to the occasion, more draconian measures can be averted later on. The ban will challenge gardeners, and there will be plant loss and a little heartbreak, but chances also to adopt a style of gardening that struggles less against nature.

Our role model is Beth Chatto, one of our country’s greatest plantswomen and gardeners. ‘Right plant, right place’ is her maxim, carried out to glorious effect in the famous gravel garden that forms part of her beautiful gardens near Colchester. Created in the winter of 1991/92, the gravel garden, watered once to settle plants in, has never since been watered at all. A very low rainfall and poor soil have been factors in creating a garden of phenomenal beauty that can inspire us all.


The gravel garden has a structure of drought-tolerant evergreens and evergreys, such as lavender, ballota and cistus. Bergenias provide interest in winter, and there are bulbs in their season – alliums and tulips are favourites – and drought-tolerant grasses that feature throughout the year, standing among sedums and phlomis during winter months. Many of the plants she uses will be familiar to most gardeners – achilleas, helianthemums, Convolvulus cneorum, Erigeron karvinskianus, the daisyflowered fleabane that creeps everywhere, and eryngiums (sea holly), for which Beth Chatto is an enthusiast, describing them as an essential part of ‘high summer’s gauzy veil’. The Beth Chatto Gardens offer a huge range of drought-loving plants by mail order. The website is informative, and has lists of plants suitable for a variety of conditions:

Using water wisely is going to be the secret of garden survival this summer. A first priority should be water butts: as many as your garden can accommodate. They come in all shapes and sizes, from handsome oak barrels to plastic, and there are modestly priced kits for linking them together. Every bit of water used in the kitchen to wash vegetables or salads should be immediately transported to the garden to revive a stressed plant, and ‘grey’ water from the shower, bath or washing-up can also be used, although not on fruit or vegetables. Grey water doesn’t store well and quickly starts to smell, so use within 24 hours. A siphon pump will help you take water from bath to garden via an open window. There’s a good one available from Nigel’s Ecostore – www.nigelsecostore. com – price £19.99. Drip irrigation, by leaky-pipe systems, is allowed by all water authorities. Kits are widely available – try Harrod Horticultural:

As ever, there are some pluses in this mostly dismal saga. The first is that plants concentrate more energy on reproduction during a drought and produce more scent and more nectar to attract pollinators. So look forward to enhanced fragrance in your garden. Secondly, the gardener’s great enemy, the slug, will be less in evidence as slugs do not like traversing dry soil.

Clemmie Hambro is back next week

12 top tips for using water wisely

 Don’t waste water on the lawn. As it gets drier, it will look dreadful pretty quickly but will bounce back the minute there’s serious rain.

Water in the evening rather than in the heat of the day so water doesn’t evaporate.

A good soaking of individual plants once or twice a week is more effective than a light sprinkle every day.

Establish an order of priority – newly planted shrubs, for example, need regular watering in their first year so they can establish a robust root system.

Plant densely in flower beds and the vegetable garden, so that evaporation is minimal; crops will be smaller but more intense in flavour.

If you have plants in pots, group them together – they dry out less quickly. u Mix water-retaining granules into the compost before planting in pots. The granules swell when watered and slowly release the moisture.

In the vegetable garden, concentrate on crops that can resist dry weather, such as brassicas, including cabbages and broccoli, and spinach.

Anything the Romans introduced to this country, and that originates in warmer, drier climates, is likely to do well – parsnips, for example.

‘Puddling in’, ie, planting into a water-filled hole, will get leeks off to a good start.

Onions, garlic and shallots need regular watering – say, twice a week.

Keep a record of how your garden fares, so that you can rethink the plant material you use and gradually introduce more drought-tolerant plants.

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