Casual Gardener: wonderful water is the life-blood of plants - but they don't need as much as we think

Water is a garden's lifeblood but it should be used sparingly in summer...

John Manley

John Manley

A relative late comer to journalism, John has been with The Irish News for close to 25 years and has been the paper’s Political Correspondent since 2012.

Water is very plant's lifeblood. Picture by Thinkstock/PA
Water is very plant's lifeblood. Picture by Thinkstock/PA Water is very plant's lifeblood. Picture by Thinkstock/PA

AS AUGUST was ushered in with thunderstorms, heavy showers and floods, July's concern about water shortages soon evaporated – or more likely disappeared in a knee-high pool of murky water and raw sewage.

Almost overnight, we went from speculating about a hosepipe ban to talking sandbags and the merits of permeable surfaces.

For plants, and therefore for gardeners too, water is crucial, so as a breed we are perhaps more tolerant of rain than say, cricketers might be. The water provided by rain – and as yet there's no other large scale source – is every plant's lifeblood. Without it, plants die.

Drawn initially from the earth through roots using osmosis, water is employed using the same gravity-defying technique to move nutrients and the glucose manufactured during photosynthesis through each of the plant's branches and stems to the leaves, flowers and fruit.

Providing additional water for plants is therefore all part of gardening, though climate change may prompt us to seek out more drought-tolerant plants. If growing vegetables, however, a prolonged dry spell like the one last month can be very challenging. Those who failed to harvest their own water must have been severely tempted to turn to the scarce supplies from the tap.

But some people – I hesitate to call them gardeners – abuse the availability of water. Let's refer to them as 'sprinklers', those tiresome middle-aged males, whose happiness quotient is index linked to the greenness and lushness of their lawn: a daisy-free, bee bereft, monocultural landscape.

The sprinklers' self-indulgent practice is thankfully on the wane and will soon be as socially unacceptable as sending children up chimneys.

Figures published by the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) and and Cranfield University about UK-wide water usage by gardeners should make us all think, particularly if we had to pay for water.

They say the greatest saving from the estimated 205 billion litres of water that homeowners use outside each year could come from not irrigating lawns during dry spells.

"If just one in 10 households with average sized gardens pledged not to use a hosepipe or sprinkler system on their lawns, the amount of water saved would fill as many as 383 million baths," the RHS said.

But the society also suggests even simple ideas like deploying drip trays to catch drainage water from pots and tubs could make a difference, with a saving of "more than 3.3 million baths of water each year".

While installing several water butts is the most obvious way to save on mains water, swapping hard landscaping for permeable paving can also help reduce run-off, meaning that the soil is better able to absorb and store water. Likewise, mulching new plants can limit evaporation resulting in them needing to be watered less often.

Janet Manning, RHS water scientist, says: "Water is not often talked about as part of the climate and biodiversity crisis, but it's where we will begin to feel the effects first and where we as gardeners can make a difference.

"We know that plants need water to survive but it's often not as much as thought, as wasted water often disappears underground.

"By helping your soil to better capture and retain rainfall for your plants to use during dry periods you can reduce your overall use and benefit from a garden that will better withstand more frequent dry spells."