Outside the Backdoor

Observing what can happen in your own garden even in suburbia!


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Water wise

As I write this, the thermometer is set to soar into the mid-thirties centigrade later today. Admittedly the forecast is suggesting that it may be the classic British summer week of a few hot days followed by a thunderstorm. Anyone who knows me well will know that I’m not looking forward to the thunderstorm bit! That said, I would welcome the rain. In fairness, the garden isn’t looking quite as parched as it did a week or so ago. That Thursday of heavy downpours has refreshed the grass and the veg plot remained damp for several days after. More importantly, the pond filled up as did our water butts, and that’s where I want to focus really – what we do to manage our water wisely.

Rain falling on patio and chairs
Summer downpour (c) Elizabeth Malone

Scarily, over 25 years ago, I remember cataloguing a report from the then National Rivers Authority called Water: Nature’s Precious Resource which was in high demand from our Environmental Sciences students. This report emphasised that, whilst the press might focus on droughts in less developed parts of the world, the developed world needed to become much smarter at managing its water supply as changes to the climate were already beginning to signal trouble ahead. Without a doubt, handling books on these topics influenced my own approach to managing water, especially as gardeners can get a bit of a bad reputation when it comes to water usage! So what steps can we each take to do our bit? I don’t suppose I’m going to mention anything you don’t already know about but, as each summer seems to become a little warmer, there’s no harm in reminding ourselves of the changes we can make.

Watering can being refilled
Filling up – yet again! (C) Elizabeth Malone

Let’s start with water meters. I’ve always found it interesting that we expect to pay for gas and electricity according to usage but not water. If you’ve not yet fitted a meter, do consider it. Compulsory metering is being rolled out by Thames Water but not to our area just yet but you can get a step ahead and request an installation. Evidence suggests that if you are a one or two person household, you will almost certainly save money as well as water!

Two water butts
Water butts – not things of beauty! (C) Elizabeth Malone

Without doubt, a water meter makes you think about how much you are using, particularly in the garden. I suspect that there is a correlation between the owners of water meters and the owners of water butts! We have two water butts and every summer, as they run dry, we threaten to install more. The challenges are space and aesthetics. The two butts we have are not things of beauty! Located behind the shed, they are generally out of sight but the most obvious place to install more is on the patio and, worse than that, directly beneath our carefully chosen light fittings! You can appreciate our dilemma! We keep flicking through catalogues and websites offering slim, discrete designs, designs that pretend to be something else, and designs that also cost a small fortune! At some point we will bite the bullet as we really value our rainwater stocks, not just to avoid using tap water unnecessarily, but to ensure we can water acid loving plants such as our blueberries and our Christmas tree with lime-free water. We also use it to top up the pond occasionally which is better for the wildlife. According to the Consumer Council for Water, “The average house roof in the UK collects enough rain water in a year to fill about 450 water butts.” Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that you install 450 butts – that would be a little excessive!

Blueberries ripening on plant
Blueberries ripening (c) Elizabeth Malone

Being selective about what you water in the garden is also important. New plants deserve good and frequent soakings as there’s nothing more soul-destroying than seeing your new favourite flower wilt and die within days. Try to find time to water either early morning or later evening to prevent excessive evaporation and also accidental scorching of leaves. The veg plot also needs careful attention. There’s not much point in throwing away all the hard work that goes into germinating, pricking out and planting on young veg plants, only to fry them on a sunny day.

Over view of vegetables plots
Veg plots (c) John Malone

Most advice on using water wisely in the garden makes it clear that you should ditch that sprinkler! That said, I have one exception to that rule and that has been trying to soak around the root area of a large tree. Our birch tree is really struggling and the tree surgeon’s advice was to really soak a wide area around the tree once a week. If we just leave the hose on, then the water runs off. Leaving the sprinkler spraying gently around the base of the tree enables more water to be absorbed where we need it.

Birch tree with dead and live branches with bird
Trying to save our birch tree (c) Elizabeth Malone

Mulching your borders in spring to seal in moisture is something that I always attribute to serious gardeners! For years I thought about doing it and would usually remember too late. We also had a run of very dry January and Februaries which meant that I felt I’d already missed the boat. Mulching also helps condition the soil and last year I decided I would be organised and we ordered sacks and sacks of mulch. It all seemed such a great idea until our rather hairy cats rolled in the straw-like substance and our lounge looked more mulched than the border!

Curled up cat in flower border
Mulch magnet! (C) John Malone

Finally, I’m going to mention the ‘lawn’. If you are fortunate enough to have a garden with a piece of ‘green’ in the middle, I suspect that, like me, it’s not exactly bowling green standard. Don’t water the grass when it’s hot and dry, it will turn green again remarkably quickly after one of those stormy downpours. Also, don’t cut during dry weather unless you really have to. Let some of the weeks flower and enable the bees and other insects to flourish on it.

Clover growing amid grass
Clover in lawn (c) Elizabeth Malone


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Watering wisely?

It’s just over two weeks since I shared the Burnt Garden with you and we’ve actually had some rain – not a lot, but enough to refill both water butts – hoorah!

Is it me, or did it take a while for the gardening press and media to catch up with the fact that many of us gardeners are really struggling with heat and drought this summer?  And I know it’s not just been a London and South-East thing.  Friends in Scotland were bemoaning the lack of water back in the Spring, long before the high temperatures took hold here.  Finally, about a week ago, the emails starting arriving advising us to ‘water wisely’, but just what does that mean?

I mentioned that the recent rain had filled our two water butts.  We are now carefully rationing this new bounty to ensure that we can continue to use rainwater to water our blueberries, other acid-loving plants and, most importantly and unseasonably, our Christmas tree!

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Although in doing this, I am conscious that this year most of my promising blueberries have ended up feeding the local blackbirds!

We can also use the rainwater to top up the pond in due course.  We are now having a serious discussion as to where we can site further water butts because clearly, if our summers are going to continue like this, we need more than two!  However, I’m sure it doesn’t take me to tell you that water butts are large and usually ugly beasts but needs must!

We are also told not to water established plants and trees but, as I mentioned before, I am very worried about our birch tree and my fears were given credence by the tree consultant who I called in to give it an honest assessment.  When I said that I had drenched the root base weekly, he told me that it was no where near enough in order to prevent the tree being stressed further and possibly dying.  He pointed out that the roots probably run under most of the garden so, rather than just soaking the immediate area around the trunk, I should be watering every evening on a very wide scale and encouraging my neighbours to do the same.  So Operation Birch has begun, resulting in a very strange area of bright green grass nearest the tree whilst the rest of the lawn still currently looks like the Sahara!

I am convinced that everyone thinks I’m wasting my water trying to revive the lawn which, of course, is not the case!

Whilst most of the gardening advice is to focus water around the roots and to give a deep, focused soaking, this isn’t going to work for the tree, so I have developed a 15 minutes and then move on approach to using a sprinkler.  This is a real time saver.  Wherever I set my sprinkler, I know water will benefit the tree along with anything else planted nearby.  To avoid over-drenching any one area, I have been known to set the oven timer!  I can then nip out between other tasks and move it on.

Finally, I suppose it is worth reminding ourselves that some plants are really enjoying the heat.  My tomatoes, which were sown late due to the Beast from the East (oh, how that seems a lifetime ago!), are now ripening and it looks like being a good crop.

The watering can is constantly to hand to give them a dousing every evening.  Recently someone was advising reducing the leafy growth even before the end of summer and given the need to save water, this seems sensible, so I am snipping off bits of tomato when the mood takes me and when I can bear to step inside the greenhouse!  I think it would be fair to say that, with the heat we’ve had, I’m the one who comes out looking like a tomato!

 

 

 

 


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Rain stops play

A month ago, if you’d said to me that I’d be struggling to garden due to the rain, I’d have laughed out loud!  Whilst I would be the first to admit that we desperately needed the rain, I am forced to admit that the weather has not been very typical of July and, as a result, my timing when it comes to getting things done in the garden has been absolutely rubbish!

On one occasion I chose a particularly bad moment to attempt to plant a rather beautiful salvia given to me by a friend the previous weekend.  Dark purple with striking silvery leaves, this salvia is a plant that shouts ‘summer’.  

Having decided on a location, I started preparing the hole.  Admittedly the sky was very overcast but it didn’t look full of the deluge that descended just as I was positioning the plant in the hole!


On another occasion I was forced to take shelter in the greenhouse.  Fortunately I’d just grabbed the tomato food so was able to use my time wisely whilst trapped and emerged having both fed the plants and tied in any wayward shoots.

Trying to decide when to administer liquid feed to various pots and plants in the border has also been challenging.  The pots look quite sodden whereas less than a month ago we were ensuring they all had trays underneath them to capture every valuable drop of moisture.  Now I’m trying to rescue plants from drowning!  Just because a pot is wet, doesn’t mean it doesn’t need feeding, especially as heavy rain like this is liable to wash out any nutrients from the pot.  So I decided to splash around a few cans of liquid seaweed just as the rain began again!  There’s no doubt that you do feel a bit daft watering in the rain!

And then there’s been my misplaced optimism about entertaining outdoors.  Last July we spent a glorious evening entertaining friends out on the patio surrounded by plants and lanterns.  Wouldn’t it be lovely to do it all again this summer?  Sadly the weather has had other ideas.  For a start, a gale force wind blew out all my candles and lanterns and, whilst it wasn’t exactly cold, it wasn’t what you would call a warm, balmy evening either!  Best laid plans eh!