Watering

Short version:

Plants need water to grow and survive. There are environmentally friendly ways to provide that water (rain barrels, grey water and sneaky planning) and there are lazy and easy ways to water too (automated watering systems). Also watering by the roots is better for your plants (mostly) and the environment.

There’s a lovely garden in Streatham Common called ‘The Rookery’. Within its beds of beautiful flowers and trees there is a well. I was trying to explain to my 3 year old what a well was and how we are so lucky to be able to get clean potable water straight out of the taps in our house. It’s also easy to get the hose out when the plants need a drink. One thing we could consider is how we can provide water to our plants in an environmentally friendly way. All the water that comes out of our taps does require filtering and cleaning in order to make it safe. When it gets carried away in our drains it needs to be treated again. These processes require energy (as does the maintenance of the pipeways), so the more water that needs to be treated, the less environmentally friendly we are. However, the more our countries use renewable options to generate electricity the more environmentally friendly that will of course be.

With the hot sunny days comes the need to water the garden more. A previous post ‘Photosynthesis, Respiration and Transpiration’ can tell you why plants need water if you’re curious. Of course, it is ironic that when there is less rain plants need water more. In the past, during the 10 days we would go away, London would be treated to a heatwave. We’d return, having missed the nice weather, to a desiccated garden. Rain would then descend, and it would have been far too late to save anything. We would be the ones kneeling in the garden in the pouring rain mourning the loss of our vegetables and shaking our fists at the sky.

So, here are some watering ideas that are environmentally friendly or easy and lazy or automatic ones to help whilst you’re away.

Rain barrel

This is a large container that you attach to your downspout in the guttering. You can make one (environmentally friendlier but potentially disastrous if you end up with water damage by your guttering) but they’re cheap to buy. They come with all the bits and bobs and instructions on how to cut the downspout. It should be sealed so that light doesn’t encourage algae and mosquitos don’t get in and lay their eggs. The rain that falls on the roof area goes into the rain gutters which then all go down the downspout so you’ll find that after even one good shower you should get a full barrel. It’s only when there are weeks of no rain and hot sun that you’ll have nothing. Rainwater tends to be a little acidic. The water reacts with the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and its pH is lower than 7. It’s a bit like sparking water. That’s acidic because in order to make it fizzy it has carbon dioxide dissolved in it. Anyway, this means rainwater is great for growing raspberries, blueberries and kiwis which like ericaceous (acidic) soil. Rainwater is generally considered better for plants anyway.

If you don’t have an outside tap, or one in the garden you grow veggies in, but you do have a down spout then a rain barrel should make the task of watering easier.

The other great reason to get a rain barrel is of course it is environmentally friendly. You won’t be using treated water out of your pipes, saving a bit of processing energy.

There are pumps you can attatch to your rain barrel to automatically water for you, but in the end we decided that it was expensive and it’s not too difficult to use a watering can. The energy used in the manufacture and running of a pump would outweigh the good that using a rain barrel would do. Especially if you factor in the manufacture of a plastic rain barrel. Of course if having it all automatic will be the only way you’d use a rain barrel, then maybe it’s worth exploring.

Grey water

This is a term used to describe used water that is not sewage. I don’t know anyone who uses much grey water. My mum will keep some of the water she’s used to wash rice in (Chinese people wash rice) to use in the garden. She has different reasons though. She does it to add nutrients back into the soil rather than to save water. Basically the inconvenience of transferrring that grey water to the garden and concerns about its safety worries most people.

An easy way to do it is to keep a plastic sink basin that fits into the sink closest to the garden door. For us the kitchen sink is about 5 steps to the door. After washing veggies or hands (a bit of soap won’t harm your garden) we chuck the water into the garden. Sometime I’ll drain the water from boiled vegetables into the basin to cool. Some of the nutrients are then also returned back to the soil.

Speaking of adding nutrients there is something a little gross that I don’t really want the neighbours to know – but even potty training was a happy event for the garden. Obviously, the number twos went down the loo, as omnivore solid waste (how many euphemisms can I come up with?) used in this way is not heathy in the garden. The little tinkles in the potty is full of great nitrogenous waste. After a whizz, I would help her wipe and put the tissue into the loo, then add water to the potty to the top and pour that onto the soil. To wash the potty, I would fill it again with water and pour it into the garden a couple of times. Please be aware that you do need to dilute urine before you put it into the garden and you want to put it on the soil, rather than the leaves. You will also want to wash your vegetables well before eating. Here we have come full circle, as you can then use the vegetable washing water to water the garden. I don’t know many adults willing to pee into a pot so I don’t suppose this is actually for…er…. anyone.

Placing of beds under the eaves of a small building

Bike sheds, garden sheds and garden rooms don’t usually come with guttering. Water is allowed to run off the roof to the surrounding area as these rooves don’t tend to be large enough for that to be a concern. If you can get a bed at the bottom of a roof, then that bed will get any extra water that would have fallen on the whole surface area of the roof. You do need to consider if this would be a problem in the rainier seasons, but with good drainage it shouldn’t be an issue.  

Water drippers

These deliver water directly to the soil as opposed to watering overhead like you do with hosepipes and to some extent watering cans. Plants take all their water requirements up through their roots. There is no need to wet the leaves. When the leaves are wet, the water will evaporate off the leaves and will in effect be ‘wasted’, as in not useful to the plant. In addition, there are some diseases e.g. powdery mildew that are made worse by having damp leaves. I have heard that spider mites thrive less well when conditions are damp like this but spider mites are generally less damaging than powdery mildew.

There are many systems that you can buy but I can only show you how my own one works. Some of the others are fairly similar.

These drippers also have the advantage of doing your watering for you at the turn of a tap. You could also set it up on a timer so you never need to do any watering. We absolutely love it. We leave the timer on constantly and keep the tap closed when the weather is rainy and just leave the tap open when it’s sunny. We’ve got a splitter so we have a couple of outlets from one tap and they can be opened independently on the timer.

These are also great as we’ve started growing on the shed roof. It’s a really sturdy shed but I’m not comfortable with the idea of going up every day in the hot weather to water, or just spraying randomly, trying not to get doused at the bottom. I only put the veggies up there knowing that I could run a pipe up there.

Sprinklers

These are of course the totally lazy and easy way to water the garden. You should be aware though that this is one of the more wasteful ways of watering as everything within the set radius will be watered indiscriminately. Leaves get watered, which can also lead to disease such as powdery mildew (happens in hot weather, when the plant is water stressed but had high humidity around the leaves). If you’re busy or forgetful or lazy like me you can also set a sprinkler on a timer.

With both the water drippers and sprinklers I have read that it’s better to water very early in the morning or late in the evening when the water doesn’t just evaporate straight away. I set the drippers to water in the evening for 5-10 minutes depending on how hot the weather is. The sprinkler isn’t usually connected unless we go away so that areas that don’t have drippers or any random little pots can get some water. Sprinklers are also great if you are have laid turf and need it to establish. Turf dies easily when not watered regularly and you don’t want to walk on it. Established turf doesn’t need regular watering unless you have prolonged dry period. We’ve got the sprinkler set to go each morning at the moment as I’m trying to grow short, edible flowers in my lawn. Morning is probably best so that the brassica leaves close to the lawn that have been splashed can dry and hopefully won’t get powdery mildew.

Water bottles

If you want to drip feed your soil you can buy dripper stakes that screw onto the tops of bottles. It’s something we’ve had in the past for when we’ve been away in the summer, but I’ve lost in the previous house move. We used to use these a lot as all of our plants were in pots which dry out quickly. They were really quite effective if you can get the drip slow enough. They basically screw onto typical plastic bottles. You start with a clean empty bottle, generally bigger is better as it lasts longer. You take a heated pin and pierce the bottom of the bottle with a tiny hole. You then fill the bottle, screw the dripper on and then drive the stake into the soil by your plant.

A free way to do it is to take a 2 litre drinks bottle with the cap on and pierce it as close to the top as possible and as close to the bottom as possible with a heated pin. You then fill it up and put it in your pot. The holes should both be as tiny as you can possibly manage. The water will stream out of the bottom hole and the top hole is to allow air to enter the top, otherwise the water stops exiting once the pressure becomes so low that the higher pressure in the air outside pushes back against the flow so after the bottle is about a third empty nothing more will come out.

The stream is a little strong though, unless you can make a ridiculously smal hole. The bottle empties within 48 hours so the bottle drippers can be more effective. We rarely use these now as we have almost everything hooked up to another water source. You do also need to secure the bottle with a cane or stake of some sorts.

However you do water, please watch out for standing water though. It will encourage mosquitos which do not make for a pleasant garden.