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Top 10 tips for low water organic gardening on a budget 11.08.09

Toms, taragone and deer mint

Difficult as it may be for most people living in the British Isles this summer, in theory summer is a period of low rainfall. For the gardener dry weather throws up a number of problems, and with water prices rising, not to say the words ’hose pipe ban’, maintaining a traditional ’English’ garden during a period of drought can be a heart breaking experience. Here Peter Shield gives his top 10 tips for a low water approach to gardening on a budget.

Planning a garden that combines elegance, with productivity, and one that can fit around life’s other priorities is not the most difficult thing in the world, patience and preparation are the key. Plants take time to grow and proper preparation gives them the best of chances to develop in their own time for lasting effect. Throwing money at a garden can give instant results but is no replacement for a little brain and elbow grease.

Things you must know
1.Know your garden. It doesn’t matter about the size of the garden, whether it be a small back yard, or a rolling ½ acre, light, shadow, heat, rainfall, and most importantly soil structure will vary from place to place. It is worth while drawing a little map, where is the morning light, which bits are in shadow when, where is the hottest niches, what is the soil like at the surface and 30 cms under? Equally important when it rains where does the water go, does it drain away quickly, does it sit in pools, how quickly does the soil dry?

2.Know your Soil. The soil is an all important factor, clay, which is super rich in minerals can suck up water which can literally drown plants in wet periods, and well bake solid in summer. Sandy and gravelly patches can drain water away rapidly, but lack the crucial nutrients some plants need, yet provide the light warm home others adore. On the whole clay is the bigger problem for low water gardens, but digging in humus, well rotted vegetable matter, can break up the thick texture allowing worm life to continue the work. Applying more humus each year to the surface, and avoiding compacting it by standing on it ever again can make a huge difference over time. The other thing it is worth while doing is, ahhem, buying a soil tester, these are inexpensive simple kits that give you an idea of the acidity of the soil. A small investment now can save money in the future by warning you off inappropriate plans for your soil PH.

Life is too Short to Dig
3.Dig your garden once and one time only. Sure the soil needs to be turned, loosed up, and if clay, mixed in with copious amounts of humus. But after that never, ever again. The point of a low water, organic garden is to attract lots of little helpers to do the work for you. What you do have to do is that first time do it well, don’t just play around at the surface, go down a good 30-40 centimeters, pull out all the junk you way find there- I once found a plough blade, a bucket and a kids plastic fire engine. Console your self with the thought that this is the last time. Now you still need access so plan that well, paths and well placed stones and tiles can give you all the access you will need. Light, uncompressed soil allows the roots to push down and out, the convection of water upwards, and flow downwards in humid times, and very importantly worms to burrow.

Plants and Planting- Beg Borrow but don’t steal (well not much)
4.Choosing your plants carefully. Now this sounds a little too obvious but careful research at the beginning saves a lot of grief later. The first thing to do is look around you. The ideal place to look is in other peoples gardens. Even better than a meticulously maintained garden try and find a local garden that looks like it hasn’t be cared for much, what’s still alive? If it can grow without care it can do the same in your garden but even better! Now the stealing part, hedge rows and other wild spots are great places, if you love a wild growing plant don’t dig it up, but there is no harm (in my opinion) in doing some research and finding the best time to plant it’s seeds or take a few cuttings, if they grow in the wild they should be hardy enough to survive your tender attention.

5.Talk to your neighbours, if they have plants you covert ask them when they do their pruning- lovely hard wood cuttings pruned in Autumn can be ready to plant in spring, and spring green shoots cuttings in Autumn, along with a free plant will also come growing advice based on local conditions. Go to local plant swaps, prowl around local allotments, someone will talk to you. Gardeners are, if not boastful, often very proud of their achievements, and mostly more than willing to spare five minutes for friendly, if not sometime maternal or paternal advice.

6.Think about dry climate plants from the Mediterranean, aromatics, lavender, thyme, rosemary, beautiful, attract bees, and the flowers can be harvested for many uses, herbs such as sages, taragon, mint, oregano, coriander. Roses are a winner if the right variety is chosen. Mix in a few vegetables, I like tomatoes in my garden, and on my plate. Avoid annuals, too much like hard work. Find out how to propergate what you have. People say you need 200 types of plant to make a garden- what absolute rubbish, most of us had to sell the estate and fire the gardeners

7. If you have to buy, research research research, use the internet, there is loads of info out there, and local libraries are an underused resource, if you have to spend money make sure you know everything you can about how to make your pound go a long way. Make sure you are planting at the optimal time- usually Spring or Autumn. Don’t think of buying a plant in flower, it has been forced that way and it’s golden days, for at least that year are now over. When looking at a plant try and find one who’s upper greenery is about a third or a half as long as the pot it is in. Many nurseries and garden centres force plants to make then look more attactive, this means most of their energy has gone into growing up, and in a low water garden you want, for at least the first year most of the energy to go into growing down. Check the bottom of the pot, to much root growth coming out the bottom probably means the plant is pot bound. Pot bound plants have got roots rapped round themselves, when put in the ground the roots fail to spread out and ultimately stint the growth and hasten the demise of the plant.

8.Plant with extreme care. After growing from a cutting, or a seed, or even worse having forked out well earned cash, it would be a shame to watch your dream wilt. So get the spacing right. Find out how big the plant will actually get, not maybe in year one or two but when it gets to its mature stage. Space accordingly, a mistake too often made is trying to go too fast, patience will reward you well if a plant has space to spread out its roots, without unnecessary competition from neighbours. On the roots side, most home grown plants should have a smallish root structure, the same cannot be said of bought plants. If the roots are tangled soak them in a bucket of water overnight, wash off the soils and separate them out with care.

9.Prepare the base of the plant well. You know I said about not digging, well I was fibbing a little. A good deep hole for each plant is a good idea- you want it to have every chance to get those roots down before summer hits. That is why the best time to plant is early Autumn for most dry weather plants. Make sure the hole is full of the type of soil the plant loves. Dig a watering circle round the plant. Don’t skimp on the watering basin, a good guide is 30 centimeter one. (A watering basin is a round with slightly sunken circle, or one with raised wall that funnels the water towards the plant). Once the plant is in place- fill the basin, if it is the right size it should take 30 litres or so of water. Now only water once a week, and only in the evenings to let the water soak in before the sun hits the soil.

10.Mulch. Mulches are such an obvious one for dry gardens, they hold in water, protect the soil from direct sunlight, and keep the ground cool (Most plants stop growing if the soil temperature gets over 25 C), they also slow down weeds, and make the little blighters more obvious when they do grow. They can also look very attractive off setting the foliage of the plants and their flowers. However there are two types of mulches, sterile mulches and soil enhancing mulches. Which one you pick depends really on what you need to do with your soil. Personally I can’t see the point of anything that sits like a sterile lump on top of soil. I much prefer one that slowly breaks down, feeds my worms, and enriches the soil with the nutrients my plants are taking out of it was they grow. Which is why I favour two types, firstly minced garden waste, it came out of the garden, it is free and it is at hand. The second type I like is minced fresh branches, they decompose slowly, enhancing the top layers of the soil, my worms seem very happy with them, and I have an endless supply of branches, they smell great when first put on as well.

Peter Shield lives in the Haut Corbieres region of the Languedoc on an old farm. It is very, very dry. He is currently writing a book on Dry, Organic and bountiful gardens.

Peter Shield

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