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Gardening Matters
Are we draining our water supplies? How can gardeners save water?





WATER, WATER, EVERYWHERE? Gardeners use about two-thirds of the domestic water supply during dry spells. Discover why this can be a problem for the environment and why hosepipe bans were introduced in southern England during 2006. WISE WATERING From sprinklers to watering cans, there are many ways to water. But which make the best use of water and how often should plants be watered anyway? HOW TO SAVE WATER Even in the smallest garden, it is possible to reduce the amount of tap water needed to keep plants thriving. These simple solutions show you how. SOME LIKE IT HOT Gardeners can choose from a wide range of plants that will tolerate dry conditions. Find out how to spot them at the garden centre. CONTACTS AND RESOURCES Where to buy and who to contact for information. JOIN THE RHS AND SAVE £5 Enjoy the benefits of membership for just £39.








Make every drop of water count

“Gardeners should apply water when it is needed and in ways that ensure every drop counts”
GUY BARTER Head of the RHS Advisory Services

Up to 70 per cent of our domestic water supply is poured and sprinkled on to our gardens during peak summer periods. This huge demand is hard to sustain in a drought. So after 16 months of less-than-average rainfall, hosepipe bans were introduced into many parts of southern England in 2006. Although irksome to gardeners, hosepipe bans help reduce water demand and help prevent the introduction of more stringent measures. Even without using a hosepipe, it is still possible to have a beautiful garden. Starting on page 2, discover why plants actually need water and why it is important to grow plants that aren’t too demanding. From page 6, find out how to create an attractive garden without draining mains water supplies in hot weather.

Water, water, everywhere?
Gardeners have been used to turning on the tap and casually watering their plants, but can this continue?
Every gardener knows that plants depend on water and that without it they will suffer and die. This is because most plants consist of 90 per cent water, and their roots have a constant battle to maintain this level during hot spells. On a single sunny day, about two litres of water are lost from every square metre of vegetation – whether grass, shrubs or even potatoes, the water loss is similar. This is often replenished by summer rainfall and just 25mm every five to ten days is generally sufficient to keep plants growing well. But in dry periods it has to come from reserves in the soil or from watering by a gardener.



Apart from preventing plants wilting, water is used to make the food needed for growth. In a sun-powered process called photosynthesis, water is combined with carbon dioxide from the air to make sugars. The carbon dioxide gas enters plants through pores called stomata. These need to remain open in the day to allow the plant to photosynthesise but, unfortunately, this also allows water to evaporate freely. So, as water becomes more scarce, the stomata close. This reduces photosynthesis and, without food, growth slows too. If the roots can’t take up enough water, plants will wilt, lose their foliage and finally die. Luckily, most soils have an amazing ability to store rainwater. Rain initially fills the spaces between the soil particles, but there is usually a surplus in winter that drains deeper into the ground and eventually into rivers. These soil water reserves are usually drawn upon by plants from May onwards, and by late summer they will have used them up. This can often lead to wilting and a reduction in growth. This is not to say that watering is necessary for all plants in late summer. Knowing which plants need it most (see page 8) and which can be left to find their own will save water. Plants are robust and have developed techniques for surviving periods of drought. For example, grass has dormant buds that remain alive even when a lawn has gone brown. These quickly start to grow again once the autumn rains arrive. As a result, most lawns can be left unwatered without causing long-term damage, unless it’s a very fine turf that is less able to recover. The RHS believes that much of the watering carried out in gardens is the result of a misunderstanding about how and when water needs to be applied. An excessive amount is often used, which then simply drains out of reach of the roots. On the other hand, insufficient water sprinkled on the soil merely wets the surface. To be sure of effective watering, see page 6.

How many water butts are needed to keep a garden green in summer? Of course it depends on what you are growing. If you have five medium containers of bedding plants for example, you might have to give each of them two litres of water every day during the 18 weeks from May to September. This amounts to six 210 litre water butts. Fortunately, a year’s worth of rain falling on a shed (2m x 3m) could supply this. Indeed, up to 181⁄2 water butts could be filled in southern England where 650mm of rain falls each year. Even in the summer months there is the potential to gather 1000 litres. This would fill five butts – just one short of the six butts needed to water the five containers over the summer.



Britain is often said to be wet, with rain falling fairly evenly throughout the year. But, in truth, there is not enough rain to supply all of our needs in dry summers, especially in the south and east of England. Two-thirds of our water is drawn from rivers and reservoirs, which can become greatly depleted by late summer. The remaining third comes from aquifers (water-holding rocks). Too much extraction (technically called abstraction) from the latter causes springs to dry up and this harms rivers and wetlands and the wildlife that depends on them. Taking more water from the environment can lead to severe damage, and permission to extract is increasingly hard to obtain. Unfortunately there are few unexploited rivers and aquifers left in many parts of Britain, and building more reservoirs is likely to be unpopular. Much has already been done to reduce water losses from leaking pipes, but there is scope to do more. The problem is compounded by the fact that peak demand for gardens is on summer evenings after about two weeks without rain. At this time, garden water usage leaps from an annual average of 3–6 per cent of the total water supplied to 50–70 per cent. Even in normal summers suppliers can struggle to meet demand, but in drought periods they may seek to curb water use with hosepipe and sprinkler bans. Hopefully, this helps to prevent the introduction of more stringent measures, such as those allowed under Drought Orders. Water supplies in south and east England are particularly stretched. The population is increasing and more homes are being built. Plus more water is being used per person due to lifestyle changes, such as the increased use of water-hungry appliances and more smaller single occupancy households. This is despite these areas having the UK’s lowest rainfall. Eventually this could lead to demand exceeding supply.

Top: Along with many water companies, Thames Water is replacing broken pipes to help prevent leaks. Below: Extracting too much water from aquifers can harm wetlands and rivers used by wildlife such as otters. Across: Thames Water Reservoir

The situation around the country is also predicted to worsen as climate change takes effect. Summers will become hotter and drier, and annual rainfall will decrease (especially in southern and eastern England). Short-term data already suggests that this is happening (discover how to learn more about climate change on page 13), so unrestricted water use in British gardens is unlikely to continue. This does not mean that gardening is doomed when no rain falls. By storing rainwater, choosing drought-tolerant plants, using the right watering equipment and making every drop count, gardeners can play their part in conserving water supplies while still enjoying their gardens.

Help the soil to store water by digging in or mulching with organic matter, such as well-rotted manure. This can provide the equivalent of 5cm of rain or 20 day’s supply. Deeply digging beds or using raised beds will increase the volume of soil from which plants can take moisture.



Wise watering
Plants can be watered with bath, shower, kitchen and washing machine water (but not dishwasher water), which is collectively referred to as ‘grey’ water. A washing machine can use 50 litres per wash – over five watering cans’ worth. Grey water varies in quality and usually contains some degree of contamination. However, soil and potting compost is effective at filtering out contaminants, including soaps and detergents. There should be no problem with the small-scale, short-term use of grey water to tide plants over during a summer drought. Long-term, extensive use (particularly of softened water) or the permanent altering of plumbing should not be attempted without expert advice.

Watering is not complicated, but there is more to it than just showering thirsty plants. Here are some tips on how to water plants effectively and when to water for the best results
Good watering aims to supply enough water to replenish soil levels without overdoing it. Apply it at a steady rate at the base of stems and beneath the canopy of foliage, as wetting the leaves is a waste. The surrounding soil should stay dry, with all the water going where it is needed – to the roots. Keeping much of the soil surface dry will also help to limit weed problems. There is little point in applying excess water, as it will quickly drain below where the roots can reach. So always check the weather forecast and only water if not enough rain falls. Watering in the evening gives it time to sink in while evaporation rates are low. Unfortunately, summer evenings are times of peak water demand. It is often better to water early in the morning, as water pressure is high and demand low.

Water restrictions
During a hosepipe ban, hoses, sprinklers and irrigation systems cannot be used to apply mains water to plants. Legally you are allowed to use a hosepipe for siphoning grey water or water from tanks and butts. Short lengths of hose can often be used to fill watering cans, containers and tanks to dip watering cans into. (These restrictions may vary, so always check with your water company.)



Ways to water
There are many ways for a gardener to apply water, and here we explain the pros and cons of different methods and the types of equipment widely used Sprinklers, including pop-up and micro sprinklers, have a limited range of uses in most gardens – these include watering lawns where essential and raising moisture levels of large areas ready for planting. Sprinklers are prohibited during a hosepipe ban. Hosepipes produce large droplets or jets of water that can damage the surface of the soil, resulting in water just running away from plants. This can be solved by attaching a lance or spray head. Also avoid leaving hoses trickling beside plants, as the excess water just drains away. Do not use during a hosepipe ban. Irrigation systems based on seep and drip hoses allow water to sink slowly into the soil, but they should only be left on long enough to wet the top 30cm of soil. On sandy and gravely soils there is little sideways movement of water and nozzles should be fitted to aid dispersion. Such systems can only be used to apply grey or collected rain water during a hosepipe ban. Watering cans without a rose attached behave like hoses, but are more work! With a rose on, there is less soil damage and little run-off. Ponding (see below) increases the effectiveness of watering cans. Buckets are like watering cans, but quicker to empty. Used clumsily, they can damage the surface of the soil. Ponding means using banks of soil to hold water around a plant while it soaks in. In a similar way you can grow vegetables in trenches that can be filled with water. And sink flowerpots into the soil next to plants to create a funnel that will direct water to the roots. Puddling is the placing of new plants into their planting holes, and then filling the hole with water several times. The soil is then firmed back around the rootball. This method locks in sufficient moisture to sustain the plants for several weeks.



When to water?
When do plants need water? The best guide comes from digging 30cm into the soil. If it feels damp at this depth, watering is not needed, but if it feels dry, then some plants will need a drink. Gardeners should be aware that clay feels slightly damp when all the available water has been used, and sandy soil is dry to the touch even when some water is available! It just takes a little experience to get used to this. Fruit and vegetables will usually crop adequately without watering. The quality and quantity, however, is improved by watering at times when drought would affect the part of the plant that is harvested. When leaves are the crop, such as lettuce, the plants should never go short of water. In practical terms, watering about two weeks before harvesting is usually sufficient. Containers need frequent watering because they only hold a limited amount of water. Apply water when the surface of the compost appears dry. You can tell if you have given a pot enough water when the excess flows out of the bottom. A saucer will retain this run-off.

Perfect lawns Leafy salads; peas and beans in flower New plantings Containers and hanging baskets Borders next to high walls

Plants in drought-prone sandy soils or sticky clays Most vegetables and fruit* (except those mentioned right) Bedding plants

Drought-tolerant plants (see page 12) Most lawns, wildflower meadows and established trees and shrubs Large fruit trees, currant bushes, carrots, parsnips and herbs** Established perennials on deep, sandy loam or clay-loam soils

* More water needed on sandy soils **On drought-prone sandy soils or sticky clays, water every 10–14 days in dry spells



How to save water
Reducing the amount of water needed to keep a garden green and growing is surprisingly easy. Here are some simple ideas for family gardens and container displays.
CHECKLIST  Prepare soil in autumn and winter to minimise moisture loss 


Install water butts to collect rain Mulch in late winter Recycle kitchen water Grow drought-tolerant plants Put saucers under containers Limit the number of hanging baskets Avoid watering lawns Remove weeds – they use water too If possible, plant in spring or autumn

Most of us think about making our gardens look beautiful, but how many of us ensure it does not need much watering? With just a bit of thought, it’s possible to reduce the amount of water needed to keep plants growing and to minimise the labour involved in applying water. To begin with, it is important to understand your garden. Is it in a dry part of the country (including southern and eastern England) and does it have free-draining soil that rapidly dries out in summer? If the answer is yes, then it is worth planting drought-tolerant plants to begin with (see page 12). Of course, you may still want to grow a few thirsty plants, such as lettuces and delphiniums, so it is best to use water-saving features and techniques too. To explain how all this works in practice, read the following two examples. The individual ideas can be used in any garden, but they really help to save water when they are combined.



Container displays
If you would prefer to use a professional designer to help plan a water-efficient or drought-tolerant garden, contact the Society of Garden Designers for a list of their members (see page 13 for details).

To reduce the water needed by containers, try grouping them together. This allows the plants to shade each other and, as a result, less moisture will be lost from their leaves. Also place a saucer under each pot to collect water that would otherwise run away. This reservoir will be absorbed by the plants. If you have a choice, position your containers in a sheltered spot near the kitchen so it is easy to use grey water (see page 6 for details of what can be used). As well as watering by hand, containers can be connected to an automatic irrigation system. Set to deliver the minimum amount of water, it is economical and can water while you are on holiday. However, this is not permitted during a hosepipe ban except if it uses grey water or stored rainwater.



Family-size gardens
To keep the task of watering to a minimum, mulch the surface of the soil in late winter. This will help to keep as much water in the ground as possible during dry weather. Thankfully, mature trees and shrubs do not need watering. Likewise a lawn can be left to brown, although small areas are worth watering to help the surface resist the heavy wear of children playing. Water butts are invaluable. They can store run-off from the roofs of houses, greenhouses and sheds, fit neatly against walls and can be placed near vegetable beds to make watering easy. When the butts are running low, save the water for edibles such as vegetables and herbs. Other thirsty plants such as bedding can be watered with grey water. After prolonged spells without rain, it is prudent to discard the first bucketful of water, as this may contain dust and other pollutants from the roof.



Some like it hot
Choosing plants to cope with dry conditions need not be daunting. Just look out for those with the following drought-tolerant characteristics, or ask for advice at garden centre help desks. Dry shade can be particularly tricky, so there is a list of plants below

Spikes act as ‘cooling fins’, ensuring plants like Acanthus spinosus (bear’s breeches) and Eryngium oliverianum (sea holly) lose heat but not too much water. Small leaves shed heat and have few pores from which to lose water. Good examples are Rosmarinus officinalis (rosemary) and Thymus (thyme).

Leathery foliage loses less water than soft leaves. Look out for plants such as Salvia officinalis (sage) and Cistus (rock rose). Grey leaves usually signify drought resistance. They can typically be seen on Artemisia, Lavandula (lavender), and Verbascum (mullein).

Hairy leaves shade themselves with their own hairs – Verbascum bombyciferum and Stachys byzantina (lambs’ ears) are just two easy-togrow examples. Long, narrow leaves are very good at shedding heat without losing water. Plants with these include grasses (eg Helictotrichon sempervirens) and phormiums.

Fleshy, succulent leaves store moisture for dry spells. Sedum spectabile (ice plant) is a hardy example, while Aeonium can be grown outdoors in summer. Aromatic leaves contain volatile scented compounds that are thought to cool foliage as they evaporate, reducing water loss. Try Cistus and Lavandula (lavender).

More advice can be found at From here, you can also click on to the RHS Plant Finder, which lists more than 70,000 plants and where to buy them. There’s also the RHS Plant Selector, which can help you choose drought-tolerant plants. PLANTS FOR DRY SHADE Berberis darwinii Buxus sempervirens (box) Euphorbia amygdaloides var. robbiae Hedera helix (common ivy) Hypericum calycinum (rose of Sharon) Ilex aquifolium (holly) Lamium galeobdolon (dead nettle) Mahonia aquifolium (Oregon grape) Ruscus aculeatus (butcher’s broom) Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis (Christmas box) Vinca major, V. minor (periwinkle)

THE RHS Practical gardening guidance and information on grey water. watering.asp THAMES WATER UTILITIES For more water saving tips. Tel 0845 9200 800 www.thameswater. CENTRE FOR ALTERNATIVE TECHNOLOGY Tel 01654 705950 ENVIRONMENT AGENCY For a wider view of UK water resources Tel 08708 506 506 The website also lists information that can help with recycling grey water. From the homepage, put grey water into the search engine. The results will show all available resources. Water in the Garden Advisory Service RHS Garden Wisley Woking, Surrey GU23 6QB Tel 01483 224234 ©2007

Tel 01989 566695


SIMPLY CONTROL Wide range of watering equipment. Tel 01796 482128 TWO WESTS AND ELLIOTT Wide range of watering equipment. Tel 0870 4448274

An organisation that encourages the reduction of water consumption. Tel 020 7344 1883 WATER UK An organisation representing the water industry. Tel 020 7344 1844

CARRY ON GARDENING Advice on watering equipment for elderly and disabled gardeners from the gardening charity Thrive. Tel 0118 9885688 www.carryongardening. GARDEN WAREHOUSE Large/wholesale quantities of equipment. Tel 01282 873370 www.lbsgardendirect. HARROD HORTICULTURE Rainwater tanks, butts and pumps. Tel 0845 218 5301 www.harrod N A KAY’S Large quantities of equipment. Tel 01946 692134 www.kaysdiscount Photography Cover: Sheila Terry/Science Photo Library; Contents: Flowerphotos; p1: FPLA & Garden Picture Library (GPL); p2: FPLA (top) & RHS Wisley; p3: GPL; p4: Thames Water & Duncan Shaw/Science

THE UK CLIMATE IMPACTS PROGRAMME (UKCIP) INFORMATION AND PREDICTIONS Information and predictions. Tel 01865 285717 RHS GARDENING IN THE GLOBAL GREENHOUSE research/climate_ change/index.asp

3P TECHNIK UK LTD Tel 0870 1162060 EVEN GREENER Tel 0845 658 5588 FREERAIN Tel 01636 894906 UK RAINWATER HARVESTING ASSOCIATION Editor Guy Barter Project Manager Leigh Hunt Designer Sweeta Patel Illustration Corin Page

The mention of any products, suppliers or service does not constitute an endorsement by the Royal Horticultural Society.

Photo Library; p5: Thames Water; p6: GPL; p7: GPL & Guy Barter/RHS (bottom); p8: Flowerphotos; p9: GPL & RHS Hyde Hall (bottom); p11: Flowerphotos; p12: RHS Hyde Hall (left) & GPL; Back Cover: RHS

Printed with vegetable-based inks on 130gsm Generation Skye Coated Extra Matt (chlorine free and from sutainably-managed forests)

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