Coping with Water Shortages and Dry Conditions

gravel garden

Every garden has areas that are prone to being hot and dry in the summer months. Hosepipe bans and water shortages can make these areas even more difficult to maintain. However, careful soil preparation and the correct choice of plants can help to make dry areas to become more sustainable and also very attractive. Plants that require a well drained soil and hot sunny positions are often highly floriferous, and can used to fill those sunny dry areas with vibrant colour.

Choosing Drought Tolerant Plants

In drier sunny areas of the garden it is best to plant plants that require less watering. In general it is best to avoid plants with large leaf areas, as these will quickly lose moisture through the leaves. Plants that have small waxy/glossy, feathery or hairy leaves can often cope better with less moisture and higher temperatures. Silver leafed plants are good at reflecting the suns rays and keeping cooler. In particular, fleshy succulent plants have the ability to retain water in order to survive long drought conditions. Other plants develop very deep root systems that enable them to seek-out moisture in lower soil levels.

Plants that originate from hot dry climates, such as Mediterranean areas, are often very adept at withstanding long dry spells, especially plants containing aromatic oils such as lavender and rosemary. However, its worth remembering that plants that are able to survive in drought conditions will not usually tolerate wet conditions, so you will also need to consider the conditions of the site in Autumn and Winter, when rainfall is higher. If the area is subject to water logging then drainage will need to be improved to prevent the plants rotting off in wet conditions.

Remember it is not just the open and sunny areas of the garden that can suffer drought conditions. Plants in the shade and/or under the rain shadow of walls, trees and hedges can also suffer. The ground under trees and hedges can become very dry because the tree, hedge or wall soaks up all the moisture available in the soil. Therefore it is best to plant plants, shrubs and bulbs that can cope with dry shade in these areas.

For a list of plants for dry shaded areas read our section on Plants for Dry Areas.

Plants in Containers Need More Watering

Remember that containers and hanging baskets need a lot more water than plants grown in the open ground. Therefore if water is scarce or hosepipe bans are likely, it may be better to fill the borders with plants that can cope with hot dry conditions rather than planting lots of hanging baskets and containers, which will need constant watering.

Fruit and Vegetables Don't Like it Dry

Plants that will not tolerate dry conditions are fruit and vegetables, as they require a constant supply of water, especially when producing fruit and tubers. Lack of water at this critical stage will decrease yields and the fruit or tuber will be prone to cracking or splitting, leading to wastage. Also, leafy vegetables can easily run to seed unless watered regularly. Particularly thirsty vegetable crops include beans, celery, cauliflowers, cabbages, cucumbers, leeks and peas. Therefore it is important that the soil in the vegetable plot contains plenty of organic matter, and once plants become established, they should be given a thick layer of mulch over the soil to keep in the moisture and provide nutrients.

Soil Preparation to help Save Water in the Garden

Improving the Soil to Store Water

Both water and time can be saved if you ensure that the soil is able to retain as much moisture as possible during the season. Whether you have a light sandy soil, chalky soil or even heavy clay, all types can be improved by adding plenty of organic matter. Organic matter in the soil helps to retain moisture and provides a reservoir for plant roots. Adding organic mater above the soil as a mulch will also stop surface evaporation.

Covering the Soil to Retain Moisture

Any bulky organic matter can be used as a mulch such as bark chippings, cocoa shells, well rotted manure, spent garden compost, leaf mould, grass clippings and even newspaper. Mulch should be applied to the soil in the spring when the ground is already wet, at a depth of at least 5 cm (2 in). Take care not to apply the mulch right up to plant's stems as this can make the stems rot. A good layer of mulch also has the added bonus of improving the fertility of the soil, providing nutrients and also suppressing weeds (which also rob the soil of moisture and nutrients).

If you are creating a new garden and do not have access to large amounts of organic matter them consider sowing a living mulch such as annual rye grass and digging this into the soil once it has grown. Also an ideal solution for the vegetable garden is to place layers of newspaper (black printed sections only) over the soil between the rows, cover with a light covering of soil to hold in place, then pierce the paper all over with a fork to allow rain water to penetrate.

Protect Against Exposure & Evaporation

Moisture loss can also be caused by a windy open aspect, therefore erecting some form of winter break can help reduce water loss by preventing evaporation.

Take care when planting new plants

When planting new plants, plant a little deeper than normal and leave a slight hollow around the plant so that water (including rainfall) naturally runs down towards it. Another good idea when planting, is to bury a small plastic pipe or upturned plastic bottle with the bottom cut-off, next to the plant. This can then be used to channel water directly to the roots at watering time.

For more water saving ideas see our article on Saving Water in the Garden.

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