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Be waterwise this summer
7:00am Saturday 24th March 2012 in AdXtra
Tips on how to save water before the onset of summer - plus, find out what else needs doing in the garden this week.
By Hannah Stephenson Many gardeners may be looking outside now at the pouring rain, thinking 'Drought? What drought?'
But whether we live in waterlogged areas in the North or in an official drought area in the South East, saving water is something we all need to think about because summer will be upon us before we know it.
We use 145 litres of water a day, yet we could harvest thousands of litres of rainwater from our household roof if we just took a little time to invest in a decent water butt and diverter or other container.
Guy Barter, RHS chief horticultural adviser, says: "There is a lot gardeners can do that does not involve extra watering.
"For example, spiking and feeding a lawn in spring will help it hold up in dry weather - then if it goes brown, it will recover even faster when rain returns.
"It's also a good idea to plant hardy plants early to avoid the hot weather and let them get their roots into the surrounding soil to search out moisture.
"When the warm weather arrives, keep any newly purchased plants in pots under light shade until the weather turns cooler."
"Of course, gardeners in north England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland at the moment don't normally suffer from bad droughts," he continues, "but by following our suggestions, they will not only be following good gardening practice but also will be preparing for the occasional very dry summers."
Soil cultivation is of key importance when protecting plants in drought conditions. If we dig in large amounts of compost, well-rotted manure or other organic matter now, it will not only improve the soil structure but will also aid water retention.
The charity advises gardeners to plant plants when they are still small, so they can develop much greater resilience by adapting to their conditions from a young age.
Planting as early as possible in spring could also be beneficial because the sooner roots can start exploring the soil for water before dry weather arrives, the better.
Mulching after planting can help limit water loss from soil and promote a good root environment, which will help the retention of moisture while plants establish.
All new plants should be thoroughly watered and kept watered in the first season in dry periods, to ensure they establish well. Once established, they will become more drought tolerant.
In the last decade, more products which help retain water have become available, such as new and improved water butts (check out decorative water butts at www.rsankey.co.uk), drip feeders and automatic irrigation kits, along with water-retaining gels and drought-busting biochar composts (www.carbongold.com).
Companies associated with substantial water use in the garden are recognising the need to save water. Hozelock, for instance, is working closely with Waterwise, an independent organisation focused on reducing water consumption in the UK, to develop gardening products that will help gardeners reduce the amount of water they use. It offers the following tips: :: If you use a sprinkler, water early in the morning or late in the evening when evaporation rates are at their lowest.
:: Consider using sprinklers with area control options which can reduce wastage by ensuring that water is only applied where it is needed.
:: Use drip irrigation systems which can use up to 90% less water than a standard hose and gun.
Of course, it's also worth remembering that roof water is chemical-free and soft, containing less mineral salts and deposits than tap water, and so is ideal for crops and garden plants.
Planting drought-tolerant plants, reducing our lawn size (as the lawn can use an awful lot of water to keep it looking good in summer) using peat-free compost and planting container plants in large pots (the more compost used, the longer it takes to dry out), will all help.
The RHS also stresses the importance of choosing the right plant for a particular garden soil. If a plant is growing in the soil most suited to its needs, it will be more tolerant of varying climatic conditions.
Take all these precautions now and if hosepipe bans hit your area in the summer, you'll still be able to enjoy the sunshine.
Best of the bunch - Primula These mainstays of the spring garden come in all shapes and sizes which prove perfect in pots, brighten up the front of borders and look stunning in rockeries.
One of my favourites is P. 'Miss Indigo', a small but showy semi-evergreen perennial, flowering from late winter to late spring, producing clusters of double, indigo-purple flowers with creamy white tips. It loves dappled shade in damp, fertile humus-rich soil.
Another terrific specimen is P. denticulata, the drumstick primrose, a taller type with lollipop flowers in shades of white, blue and deep pink. It's easy to grow, thriving in full sun or partial shade, flowering from mid-spring through to summer.
It looks good combined with other primulas or violets in light woodland conditions, or grouped in humus-rich soil in a cool part of a rock garden. Overgrown clumps should be lifted and divided after flowering.
Good enough to eat - Pruning gooseberries If you want a good crop of delicious gooseberries this summer, pruning them now will not only keep them in shape but will help them grow back more strongly, as the air can circulate more easily, so avoiding mildew problems.
Fruits form on old wood and around the base of last year's growth, so prune back the previous year's growth to two buds, cutting out dead wood and any crossing branches and cut back by a half any new growth shooting from the main branches.
Aim to create a plant with a wine glass shape, cutting back sideshoots to 5-7.5cm (2-3in), cutting just beyond an upward-facing bud. After mulching, feed and mulch your plants.
Gooseberries are notoriously prickly bushes, so to make picking less painful, look for thornless varieties such as 'Captivator' or 'Pax'.
For a delicious dessert variety which you can enjoy as fresh fruit rather than in cooking, try 'Hinomaki Yellow', which has a rich flavour which ripens in July.
Three ways to... Create an alternative hanging basket 1. Use ornamental grasses which will drape over the basket and place an emphasis on leaves. Try Carex comans 'Frosted Curls' with its silvery green leaves or Festuca glauca 'Elijah Blue'.
2. Make an exotic planting scheme using hostas, whose dramatic leaves will remain hopefully out of reach of slugs and snails and brighten up a shady spot. Plant several different types with golden nettle or creeping Jenny.
3. Fed up with coir or moss liners? Try cutting up an old woolly jumper which will make a perfect basket liner, retaining moisture but providing enough stretchiness to allow you to plant easily.
What to do this week :: Feed blackcurrants, plums, pears and cooking apples with a dose of high-nitrogen fertiliser.
:: Take chrysanthemum cuttings.
:: Remove shoots that have no live buds from summer-flowering clematis and cut back late-flowering clematis hard.
:: Prune tender climbers and wall shrubs if they show strong growth.
:: Remove winter protection from containers and top dress or replant overgrown or pot-bound plants, adding a slow-release fertiliser.
:: Sow dahlia seeds to germinate in gentle heat and prick out seedlings when large enough to handle.
:: Be vigilant against slugs, which may do their worst during wet weather when the new young leaves of perennials appear.
:: Check that the ties around trees and shrubs aren't too tight, as they begin a new season's growth. If they are, slacken them a little.
:: Sow zinnias in a sheltered frame.
:: Check the bulbs of garlic and shallots and firm them down if they feel loose.
:: Plant lily bulbs outside where you want them to flower or in pots for planting out later.
:: Keep old net curtains or horticultural fleece handy to spread over tender shrubs and trees to protect them from frost. These include Japanese maples, caryopteris, some ceanothus and romneya.
:: Plant out early varieties of potatoes.
:: Divide large clumps of chives, separating them into smaller portions to replant.