Terra Australis Landscapes

Gardening facts and fiction

Watering the garden

Watering the garden

During the naughties, drought was very much upon us. And as business and politicians know, there's nothing like a population running scared. Threat, threat, threat — Armageddon, just how big business likes it. Political expedience abounded and for that union of greed on one hand and stupidity on the other, we now have a 35 year, $1million per day — biggest in the southern hemisphere — desalination plant. Which may even get turned on one day! Sorry, my mistake, it's called being ‘on standby’. Just the type of job we'd all like!

‘155 litres a day’. was the catch cry, and a great campaign it was too. We all pitched in, short showers, dirty cars were the norm, as was bucketing grey water to the garden. However, all that aside, hand watering of gardens was banned. What? Why would anyone ban hand watering? In 20+ years, I'm yet to come across any automated system that comes within a sniff of hand watering for efficiency, accuracy, on the spot monitoring and lack of waste water. Mmmm, politics again.

So how could something so easy be turned into something so complex and what should we be doing to drought proof our gardens? Well.......

Observe your neighbourhood. In Melbourne, all the plants you see have just survived 4 days of 40+ degree temperatures and minimal rainfall in three months. Many of them have survived without any watering. Lots of different types: shrubs, trees, grasses etc. have survived. So, it's not all doom and gloom, even if we are told it is.

So what can the home gardener do? Group plants with similar water requirements, especially pots. Should pots look poorly, sit them in a bucket of water right up to their collar for 24 hours at least. Don't water dried out pots, it's a waste of time. Here's a challenge...... Find a dried out pot plant. Water it until you feel it's been ‘well watered’. Scratch the surface of the potting mix.... dry as a bone, no doubt. Potting mixes and soil become water repellent once they've dried out. Water finds the quickest track through the mix and shrinkage of potting mix when dry usually means water flows straight down the inside of the pot and out the bottom with not a drop available for the plant, wasting time, effort and, most importantly, water.

Once pots have been soaked, don't let them dry out again!

Garden plants are much the same. Accept natural attrition. Plants are like children. The more they're looked after when young, the better off they'll be for the rest of their lives. If your garden suffers a loss, replace it with a tougher plant. Again have a look around your neighbourhood to see what's surviving and note anything that would ‘fit your garden style’. Any new garden should only need additional water for the first three summers and following that, well, let nature decide.

But what about gardens that do contain plants with higher water requirements? No one likes to see their gardens shrivel up and fry. Well, if a watering system is installed, learn how to use it. Maintain it. Or find someone who can. Monitor the water, make sure the water is going to where the plants roots are. In all my time in the gardening industry, I'm yet to see concrete grow no matter how much it's been watered. Increase the output of your system during summer if need be, particularly during hot, dry spells. Again, keep an eye on where the water is going.

However, saying all that, avoid runoff. When watering, check the water is soaking directly into the root system its intended for. If not, make a berm around the plant, fill it with water and fill it again. Don't rush, this is a slow, soaking exercise.

Often dry soils take many weeks of watering to lose their water repellent properties . particularly sandy soils. Scratch the surface and check the soil. Dry soils are more likely to uptake very, very, very light watering at first before they are able to absorb heavy watering. Individual dripping is most efficient, very light misting repeated many times before heavy watering is the best way to re wet wider areas of garden beds. Scratch and check, scratch and check. Is the water soaking in? Drip systems are efficient at watering dry soils due to the act of slow penetration of water into the sub soil, again avoiding runoff.

Yes, and mulch. But make sure any watering gets into the root zone below the mulch and doesn.t just superficially wet the mulch.

And once the soil accepts watering, water for longer, but decrease the frequency. A couple of deep, effective watering sessions per week will see your garden survive the heat.