Plant care during the dry spell

Published: 8 May 2012 11:00

MANY gardeners may be looking outside at the murky skies and pouring rain, thinking 'Drought? What drought?' But the sad fact is that last year was one of the driest on record, with below-average rainfall for 20 of the past 25 months.

© PA Photo/thinkstockphotos

By now, we are all aware of the various hosepipe bans in place throughout the Thames Valley and with that comes the prospect of drooping bedding plants and shrivelled vegetables.

However, all is not lost. Canny horticulturists can make use of evergreen flowering shrubs, topiary and textured plants during the summer months, which will still look good in the winter.

John Moran, plants manager at Oaktree Nursery and Garden Centre in Maidens Green, Winkfield, said: "This is going to be a difficult year with a hosepipe ban already, but plants can be established well using a restricted amount of water. Drought-resistant plants help but they still need nurturing for the first few weeks whilst they establish a good root system.

"Berkshire has a variety of different soils, from clays to the acidic Bagshot sands, and if you choose plants which are suited to the soil and position they will cope with stress much better."

He also suggested the following planting tips for avoiding losses in dry conditions:

.:. Get the roots wet before planting, 10-20 minutes in a bucket of water should do it.

.:. Plenty of compost mixed with the soil will always help on any type of soil, while water retentive gel will reduce the frequency of watering required.

.:. Water underground will have more effect being in the root system and not evaporating from the surface. With larger plants, fill the hole half way and then put another can of water in, filling it completely.

.:. Plant in a slight depression so as to avoid water running away from the plant.

.:. Plants should need watering every day, but it is often better to soak them when the soil is beginning to dry out, which could be every two or three days in dry weather, as it helps the roots spread.

John added: "I would establish plants this way if planting in spring and summer regardless of the water shortage. Putting on too much water, especially with sprinkler systems, will result in very poor root systems and it washes nutrients out of the soil. In a heavy soil, plants may die if too wet."

Berberis, box, choisya, helianthemum (rock rose), hebe, potentilla, viburnum, rosemary, lavender and honeysuckle are among shrubs which can do well with little water, while Phormiums (New Zealand flax) are drought tolerant, wind tolerant and will happily grow in coastal conditions. Aloe striatula, the hardy aloe, is also an architectural winner which bears tall, yellow/orange flowers in midsummer.

Other resilient architectural stars include Astelia 'Silver Spear', its strap-like leaves reaching around 1.2m in height, and purple sage which looks exotic with its purple leaves and accompanying flowers.

Thames Water has issued the following tips for saving water:

.:. Do not worry about lawns turning brown. This shows the grass has stopped growing, but most lawns will recover completely when the rain returns.

.:. Do not cut lawns too short, as longer grass sends down deeper roots and provides more shade.

.:. Collect rainwater from the roof in water butts - a typical butt collects 1,380 litres of rain water in an average year.

.:. Make sure paved areas have planting areas to drain towards - that helps to use any rain water.

.:. Established trees and shrubs do not generally need watering, as they have such wide-ranging roots that they are drought-proof.

.:. Provide shelter by planting in a spot that is protected by walls, fences, hedges or other plants.

.:. Wait until autumn and early winter to plant trees, shrubs and climbers. The plants will establish quicker and there is less need to water them.

.:. Try to plant small specimens so that they get used to their growing environment gradually as they develop.

.:. Adding organic matter (not fertiliser) to the soil before planting can help to improve both water availability and drainage.

The average person uses 145 litres of water a day, so saving as much as we can is paramount. Thames Water is also offering a range of free water-saving gadgets to help its customers do so.

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