Westbury’s top tips on minimising plant damage caused by drought

Damage from drought - feature

With droughts becoming ever more prevalent across Europe over the last 20 years, and climate change being claimed as the culprit, British gardeners may have to start planning for dry conditions and the likelihood of a hosepipe ban.

With droughts becoming ever more prevalent across Europe over the last 20 years, and climate change being claimed as the culprit, British gardeners may have to start planning for dry conditions and the likelihood of a hosepipe ban.

Take action to prevent long-term damage caused by drought!

As the lush green of the traditional English garden is gradually turning to a crispy brown, gardeners will be rightly concerned about the threat of water shortages and the potential long term plant damage caused by drought. Dehydrated plants are vulnerable to insect attack and disease, and may suffer structural damage that can take years to recover from.

Hose pipe bans are already in place across Ireland

Remedial action

If you haven’t planned for drought – your plan of action, quite obviously, is to water your plants. And if a hosepipe ban comes into force then you’ve got a lot of walking to do with a watering can.

  • Don’t overdo it! – Unless they’re newly planted, the good news is that it’s better to water your plants on a weekly or fortnightly basis, rather than daily, as frequent watering will discourage roots from digging down deeper into the moist soil below where they can access water even during droughts
  • Weed out the superfluous – If you can spare the energy to get out in the heat, then another rescue remedy is to rid your garden of weeds and spent blooms that are superfluous to requirement and rather selfishly using up the limited water resources available in your garden
  • Deadhead for success – Deadheading prevents flowers from setting seed, which requires energy and therefore water
  • Quit fertilising – Conserve your energy and that of your plants by stopping all use of fertilisers. Fertilisers promote plant growth, and the bigger your plant, the more water it needs. Furthermore, a build-up of fertiliser salts on your soil that can occur from the lack of rain will burn plant roots and add to the trauma your plants are experiencing

In the midst of a drought you need to prioritise.

Shelf any plans you had for winning a prize at the county fair for the biggest marrow on record, this is about saving lives!

Pre-emptive action

The organised gardener can minimise damage caused by drought by taking steps early on in the planting season.

Reduce, re-use, recycle – It’s all about butts – and the more butts the better. Water butts allow you to harvest the rain that has fallen during more verdant times of year and then draw on this during the dry season. You can also use grey water (recycled from household use) to do the job, providing it hasn’t got detergents or bleach in it, but do remember to do your watering in the evening or first thing in the morning, otherwise your precious resources will be lost largely to evaporation. Likewise, water butts should, where possible, be located in the shade to avoid evaporative loss.

Always water plants in the morning or evening to avoid evaporation

Invest in your soil – The conscientious and forward-thinking gardener will, of course, have mulched and manured back in the autumn and early spring to ensure that the soil is in good condition and is full of the essential nutrients that plants need to thrive – nitrogen, potassium, calcium and phosphorous.

Digging for victory – Digging-in manure and organic compost also ensures the soil has plenty of moisture-retaining organic ingredients. Mulching and manuring is an integral part of the dedicated gardener’s timetable, however if you’re relatively new to gardening, or just slightly less organised, then mulching (if not manuring) is a handy remedial step that you can take in the throes of a heatwave to shade the soil from the scorch of the sun.

To mulch or not to mulch? –  A 2-3-inch layer of mulch ensures that the moisture is retained and weeds are suppressed. Stones and rocks can also be used to shade the soil and minimise moisture loss as can high wooden borders around a planting area that will create natural shading.

Start as you mean to go on – If you keep in the mind the potential for drought when planting early in the season, you should remember to really water the hole in which you put new plants and seedlings, as this ensures that root systems are saturated from the start and trained to grow downwards into the soil below where moisture is more abundant. A plant that has been established in this way will require much less watering in the long run.

Angle your soil levels – Dry garden experts also advise that you angle your soil levels to ensure that water runs back toward the plant rather than away from it. If you have free-ranging chickens however, this is the kind of precision soil levelling that dreams are made of.

Keep your distance – Grass borders should be kept at a sufficient distance to ensure that grass is not competing for the same water supply as your precious plants.

Choosing drought resistant plants

Don’t catastrophise, it doesn’t have to be all cacti and tumbleweed – although this would be bang on trend – choosing plants that are more robust in dry spells means looking for plants that originate from a hot climate (not just deserts) and certainly in the case of vegetables, where the edible part grows beneath the soil.

Cacti make both a fashionable and drought-friendly addition to your garden

The top 10 drought resistant ornamentals according to the RHS include:

  • Cistus pulverulentus – ‘Sunset’
  • Fremontodendron – ‘California Glory’
  • X Halimiocistus sahucii
  • Helichrysum petiolare – ‘Limelight’
  • Lavandula angustifolia – ‘Miss Muffet’
  • Lupinus arboreus
  • Perovskia – ‘Blue spire’
  • Spartium junceum
  • Ulex europaeus – ‘Flore Pleno’
  • Yucca filamentosa – ‘Colour Guard’

Careless consumption costs lives

Whatever steps you choose to take, remember that it’s all about the bigger picture. A beautiful garden is a wonderful thing, but we need to use water responsibly and not just during droughts to ensure that this most critical of life support systems is available where it is truly needed.