How to deal with drought in the garden

Top tips on dealing with drought in the garden in hot weather, including watering advice for lawns, containers, shrubs and trees.

lavender, fruits and vegetables planted together

Our recent topsy turvy weather has confused and challenged even the most experienced gardeners. The torrential downpours we have had don’t always mean we don’t need to water our garden. And remember that some areas of the UK have had very little rain. But the current heatwave is causing concern, not just for our health but also for our garden plants. Some plants will be just fine, while others really do need constant care and attention.

Watering the whole garden in a dry spell is not only a waste of water, but a very time consuming and often challenging thing to so. A spell of hot weather has started to take its toll on our gardens, remember that you don’t need to water everything and most established plants will be perfectly ok. But, this looks like a long heatwave. So you need to keep a check on your plants and your garden.

Watering can be time consuming and hard work in hot weather. But there are a few things you can do to focus your watering on the most important areas and plenty of tricks to make the most of every drop of water.

Watch your plants, the most susceptible plants will be those that are newly planted trees and shrubs that means within the last 18 months or so. If they start to wilt then it is time to water. But do it at night. Don’t water in the heat of the day. Wait until dusk and then water any plants that are newly planted or that are showing signs of stress.

Avoid the heat of the day and water any plants that are newly planted or showing signs of stress at dusk.

Established trees and shrub and most perennials should have put down strong roots deep into the soil and unless the hot spell lasts for weeks, these plants should survive without additional watering. Concentrate your efforts on plants in containers and fruiting plants that need the water to swell and mature their fruits, such as beans, courgettes and strawberries. It is better to water once or twice a week really thoroughly than superficially daily. It’s important to really soak the area around your plant roots. When you’ve watered have look to see what difference it has made, that will help you to understand the importance of watering thoroughly, simply dig down gently into the soil to see how far the water has soaked in. You might be surprised how shallow the wet layer is. Continually wetting just the surface of the soil encourages surface roots which are much more prone to damage from scorching sun and winter frost. Unless your lawn has been newly seeded or freshly turfed in the last year or so, there is really no need to water it in dry weather. Even if it goes brown and looks dead, most lawns will still recover when the first rain falls. If you need to water it, then remember to soak it really thoroughly twice a week making sure that the water reaches the down to the roots to avoid surface rooting. And do heed any hosepipe bans or watering restrictions in your area.

Prepare your plants for drought

It’s best to plant new plants in spring or autumn when the soil is still moist, but there are things you can do when planting to actually prepare your plants for hot weather. When planting new plants you can use the excavated soil to build a wall around the hole to keep water trapped inside when it rains. It also makes it easier to water them and retains the water around the root ball of your plants. If you are planting on a slope then build the higher wall around the part of the hole that is facing downhill so that any running water will gather around the precious tree or plant. You can also create a depression in the soil around your plant, so that if you add water via a watering can, it puddles within the depression, over the plant roots and then filters down through the soil without running off. This is also useful after heavy rainfall. Fruiting vegetables such as peas, broad beans and runner beans, need lots of water. French beans, chard and carrots are more drought resistant. Cabbages need less water than sprouts and cauliflowers. Sweetcorn and pumpkins should not need watering unless newly planted, if any of the above start to wilt then water them thoroughly in the evening.

Summer containers

Some of the most demanding things in the garden in terms of watering are containers and hanging baskets. If yours are already planted then there are a few things you can do to make your life easier. These are also useful tips for when you are away on holiday.

Group pots together to make it easier to water. Image: Martin Mulchinock
  • Move them into the shade while the hot weather is at it’s peak, this slows the water evaporation from the compost and porous planters and keeps your plants cooler.
  • Group them together to make it easier to water them.
  • Place containers into a saucer or tray to catch any excess water that runs through when you water them.
  • Mulch over the exposed compost surface with gravel or composted bark to protect the roots at the surface from sun scorch.
  • Keep a couple of large planters of vegetables or herbs by the kitchen door so that when you have water used for washing vegetables you can pour it straight into the planters. Plus they are handy when you want to harvest some fresh herbs or salad quickly.

Container planting tips for drought

If you are still going to plant containers then here are a few tricks you can use to ensure your pots and planters are more drought tolerant.

  • Think BIG. The larger the container the less quickly it will dry out in the sun and wind.
  • Soak clay pots in water before planting so that the porous surface does not draw water from the compost.
  • Choose glazed pots, plastic pots or metal pots that have surfaces that are not porous and so are less susceptible to drying out in windy, hot conditions.
  • Line the pots with polythene, making sure there are drainage holes.
  • Add water retaining gel or crystals like Richard’s Container Magic to your compost to absorb and hold water near the plant roots.
  • Place a layer of gravel at the bottom and on top of this use a plant pot saucer as a mini water reservoir within the planter to trap excess water when you water.
  • Use a dedicated container compost. Choose one that has added wood fibre and a good wetting agent as it will hold the moisture for longer and be easier to rewet such as Richard Jackson Premium Multi Purpose Compost.
  • Add Richard’s Wetting Agent once a month when watering pots and baskets. It helps to make water wetter and ensures the water soaks into dried out compost instead of draining from the side of the pot. See Richard’s video below for more information on how Wetting Agent works.

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