When we first moved into Blackbirds we were fortunate to be on mains water, which essentially means the supply is pumped into the house by the local water company. We were soon brought down to earth in March 2010, when we had our first water meter installed. This meant we were going to be charged for every drop of water we use, which with a large garden, 2 lodgers and a polytunnel might result in some fairly hefty water bills, so I just had to find ways to reduce our overall consumption, recycle what we could, and collect and store as much as possible.
I thought it might help other gardeners if I shared the process I went through and list a few of the ideas that I adopted along the way.
1. Conduct Your Own Water Audit
First have a look around around your property and see if/where you might be able to collect water. Most properties have a roof leading to a downpipe, so why not collect and store the rainwater. You can use it on the garden, to wash the car, or to wash the worst of the muck of your hands after a busy day in the garden.
When I did my own audit I found I could collect rainwater from the roof of the house, the chicken house, the workshop and the potting shed, which actually amounted to quite a lot of stored water. I did think about investing in a small solar panel and a pump to pump the rainwater from the tanks to the garden, but to be honest I’m happy using a watering can, it does wonders for my biceps and it costs virtually nothing to implement!
2. Improve Your Soil
There really is no substitute for digging in barrow loads of manure into the vegetable beds. Coupled with regular mulching this is probably the best way to ensure your plants stand a good chance of making it through a dry summer, without too much watering.
3. Check the soil before watering
Sounds simple but before I do any watering I check the soil first to see if it actually needs watering. It might look dry on the surface, but try sticking a trowel in nice and deep and you may find underneath is just fine. I like to water in the evening, around 7.00pm when the sun is on the way down. This helps prevent moisture evaporating from the soil before darkness sets in.
4. Sensible Watering
A friend gave me a great tip once. Try giving your plants a really good water once a week, and make sure it is enough to get right down to the roots. I used to water little and often, which was a complete pain as it took loads of time. This way I now only have to do it once a week, and the plants (especially the veg) seem to grow stronger as a result.
5. Collect Rainwater
There are many water butts on the Market, but if you have an old plastic dustbin it will work just as well, as the shop bought models.This is a shop bought model I bought at the weekend for £26 from SCATS, and which is made from 100% recycled plastic. Some connect directly into the down pipe, and can be shut off when the tank is full, while others are simply fed direct from the down pipe.
Try and get as large as you can afford, or you won’t be able to collect very much, but of course something is better than nothing. If you can find more than one they can be attached using a simple plastic pipe fitting, then as soon as the first tank is full it will start to fill the second.
6. Consider Installing A Rainwater Harvester
I read a surprising statistic the other day, that 24,000 liters of water will fall on the average house in 1 year. With that amount of free water available, it makes perfect sense to capture as much of it as possible. We are fortunate at Blackbirds as we installed a water harvesting system when we built the house. It supplements our mains water supply by around 40%.
Basically a water harvester is a huge plastic tank sunk into the ground, and fed by the downpipes from around the house in exactly the same way as a water butt. Ours holds approximately 3000 litres of clean water when full, which we use for the toilets, washing machine and garden. If you’re thinking about investing in a rain harvester, the best advice I can give you is go for the biggest one you can possibly afford, and buy it from a reputable dealer. You’ll be surprised just how much money a harvester will save you, but it can be very disruptive while it is being installed, but the end certainly justifies the means.
7. Build a Garden Pond
Another great way to collect rain water is a garden pond. They are fairly simple to construct and well worth it if you have the space. We built ours in April this year and it’s constant source of interest with all the wildlife that use it as a bath, or drink from. Although we don’t rely on our pond for watering the garden, in a dry spell it does provide us with another option.
Although we collect rainwater we never take it for granted and also place as much emphasis on conserving water. Mulching is a cost effective way of retaining much needed moisture and an added bonus is the worms will drag it into the soil which improves the moisture retention qualities of the soil immensely.
Mulching is basically taking a couple of inches of well rotted material and layering it around the base of the plant, to help conserve moisture. I mulch most of my veg patch, and if I run out of compost I use a small amount of grass cuttings, which works ok, but does go a nasty brown colour, after a few days.
9. Grow Drought Resistant Plants
As I said earlier, In Hampshire we are prone to long dry periods which can make growing some plants almost impossible in open ground, but it does have it’s advantages. For one thing our herb garden does really well, especially the Mediterranean herbs like Rosemary, Thyme, Lavender and Marjoram. Always amazes me, I lavish all the treatment in the world on my herb garden, but the seedlings that are growing in the cracks in the paving happily grow away, and the flavour is so much more intense.
I do grow broad leaved herbs like Parsley, Mint and Lovage, but they need a little more attention as they prefer a rich moist soil. As with the veg beds I dig in extra compost. I also grow them quite close together as the shade tends to stops the ground drying out quite so fast.
Other examples of drought lovers I like to grow include Buddleia, Mock Orange and Echinacea. We grow them all at Blackbirds, and they seem to respond well to our dry, chalky well drained soil.
It may be tempting to turn the sprinkler on but we haven’t watered our lawn for the last 2 years, and it’s still looking good. I think part of the secret is to grow drought tolerant grass seed in the first place, and not to cut it too short. It does go brown from time to time but we live with it, and it’s something to look forward to knowing it will be green again.
When it comes to the Polytunnel it’s slightly different in that it is more likely to dry out, so I dig in plenty of compost deep into the beds, and water close to the stem of the plant, so as not to waste it watering the space between the rows. You can find out more on how I prepare the polytunnel for planting, here http://ruralgardener.co.uk/2011/05/16/planting-tomatoes-in-the-polytunnel/
I do have an overhead misting system, that uses water from the rain harvester, but I try to limit it’s use, unless a lot of rain is forecast.
Not only is collecting and storing rainwater key to our desire to be as self sufficient as we possibly can, but it also makes perfect sense. Why pay for costly tap water, just to water the garden, when with a little bit of effort is can be collected, for free?
Also I find my garden responds to rainwater better than tap water. Have you noticed how much better your plants look when there has been a down pour? The plants clearly prefer it, and it also helps with my gardening budget.
As our climate continues to produce warmer Spring and Summer temperatures we will need to continue to find inventive ways to collect, and store one of our most important natural resources, if the garden at Blackbirds is to continue to flourish.
I’m now off to learn about Permaculture, which I’m told, is a great alternative to the more conventional growing methods.
As I sit here writing this blog post we’ve just had a week of really heavy rainfall at Blackbirds. Pleased to report all the water butts are full. Wahey!