Friday 8 June 2012

Coping with the weather

Keen gardeners always approach periods of absence (for instance business trips and holidays) with mixed feelings. Whilst looking forward to the pleasures of the holiday or the challenges of the business trip they will also be worrying about the state of their garden. Many plants are sensitive things and do not cope well with erratic watering, and when you know you are going to be away from home for a while it is sensible to take some precautions.

In late May we had a spell of hot dry weather for about a week, and many of my young plants didn't enjoy it. They were not yet strong enough to happily endure those conditions. So before going away from home for a few days I made sure to do whatever I could to keep my plants in good condition. First, I ensured that as many as possible of my pots were standing in pot-saucers.

When you water pot-plants with a watering-can much of the water is often wasted. Particularly if the soil is dry, a fair amount of the water just passes through the pot and runs away. If you use pot-saucers this water is retained and the plant will be able to absorb more of it over a longer period, so it does not fluctuate from being very wet to very dry and back again. If you don't want to spend money on pot-saucers (and they are pretty expensive considering the simplicity of the design!), you can improvise by using plastic boxes, old washing-up bowls, seed-trays (the type without holes of course), etc.

Seed-trays being used as pot-saucers

I am lucky enough to have a few "self-watering" pots like these, so I made sure their reservoirs were full. But remember, even something like this will only provide water for a few days, and will need to be topped up.

Before heading off on a holiday in Spring / Summer I would normally use my hosepipe to give the whole of my garden a good soaking, which would probably provide the plants with enough moisture for several days, but this year this is not an option. Because of the Drought Order we are forbidden to use hosepipes for anything - and that includes filling a water-butt, which I consider to be unnecessarily draconian. Sensible gardeners are being penalised because of the few silly individuals who leave lawn-sprinklers on for hours on end. Grrrr! This time I had to spend over an hour lugging cans of water from the outside tap and dispensing it manually - a very laborious task.

If you only have a small number of pots, or if some of them contain especially precious plants, you might consider investing in some of these.

You fill the plastic pack with water and hang it on the side of the pot. Meanwhile you bury the cotton wick deep in the compost. The plant soaks up what moisture it needs by virtue of the capillary action of the wick.

Of course the most convenient thing to do is to arrange with a friend or neighbour to look after your garden for you during your absence. A person can judge whether a plant needs water, and apply it only when necessary. I'm lucky in that my brother lives very close by, and he normally helps me in this respect. I return the favour of course, but I have the easier task since his garden is less ambitious than mine. I also have a couple of good friends who are willing to help, which is very reassuring.

Our English weather is notoriously unpredictable (we use the euphemistic term "changeable"), so whilst we had to cope with drought in March and May, it now looks as if we will have the opposite in June. Just remember that a pot-saucer retains water whether your plant needs it or not, and can't empty itself! No sooner had I drafted this post than the weather took a dramatic turn for the worse, and I had to remove all those pot-saucers.


P.S. I know that many of my readers live in parts of the world with more extreme climatic conditions to cope with (Southern USA, South Africa, Australia, India etc), so apologies to you folks, but this post has really been aimed at the UK audience. The way Climate Change is going though, I reckon it won't be many years before built-in irrigation systems will be a regular feature of UK gardens too. I have long advocated that all new houses ought to be built with rainwater-capture and grey water recycling arrangements as a mandatory feature, but then I'm not in charge...


  1. Hi Mark, great points and suggestions for self watering techniques. I'm having a bit of anxiousness as I've planted my veg garden at the new house while we are still in the old house for at least another month. I cannot hover over them as I normally would. Luckily, we are still in the rain-er (lol) season here, so the plants are receiving plenty of moisture. Cheers, Jenni

  2. I have to agree. I would love to see everyone with a rain barrel and able to recycle gray water.

  3. We're lucky enough to have good neighbours. But!!! What do I do with my lupin and poor cardoom that have all been blown over in the dreadful winds last night. The whole boarder looks like a giant comb-over!! Help!!

    1. Dom; Fisrtly - don't panic; Plants are very resilient and will probably revive. Second: wait till the wind subsides (the plants are actually better off in the prone position until this happens!) and then right them; firm up the soil around their roots and if possible tie them to some canes or stakes until they re-establish.

  4. I've never seen one of those plastic bags with wick thingies. What a great idea.

  5. I wish our new house had a system like that. We do live in a fairly wet area though. I don't have to water a lot.

  6. Your eggplants look good in the greenhouse Mark.

  7. I've added moisture retentive granules to the compost of some of my plants too - many houseplants though. At the moment keeping things wet isn't a problem so maybe climate change is more wet than dry!

  8. At least you recycle water in the UK. Here instead of recycling we build things like desalination plants that become white elephants once it rains again...

  9. I haven't seen those self watering kits before. I suppose they're ok if you've only got a few plants, but I'm sure it would work out expensive if you'd got a fair few plants to keep watered.

  10. I used pot saucers all summer and now that it is monsoon and we are receiving good rain ever other day I have had to remove them.

  11. I can commiserate with you on that! I always have trepidation when leaving for even a few days. Fortunately, I have a replacement for me when I am gone and, should she ask I would certainly return the favor! I agree whole-heartedly with your statements about rain catchment and grey water recycling. I find it reprehensible that a civilized country uses potable water to dispose of human waste. It is ridiculous.


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