Tag Archives: weather

Harvest festival and your garden



Harvest festivals are traditionally celebrated around the time of the Harvest Moon which is the full moon that occurs closest to the autumn equinox. It’s an important time in the garden as well as on the farms.

Harvest festivals are thanksgiving festivals, a way of showing gratitude to one’s God or gods for a good store of food to keep the people fed through the lean winter months. Historically, Harvest festival was also an opportunity for the Landowner to give a feast for his workers in recognition of their hard work over the growing season. The first new ale would be drunk and loaves of bread made with the freshly gathered and milled wheat.

So why is the autumn equinox important to your plants? The Harvest Moon usually falls as a full moon at the end of September, but occasionally falls at the beginning of October. It’s at this point in the year that the day and night length are equal. The plants in your garden and allotment will notice the difference as they respond to day length.


Well actually, it’s not quite that simple, not all plants decide to hibernate once the nights become longer than the days; whether we’re having an Indian Summer or an early hoar frost makes a difference too. So, without dumbing down as you’re an intelligent bunch of readers, let’s have a brief botanical explanation as to why the plants in your garden start behaving differently now we’ve reached the autumnal equinox.

It’s important for a plant’s existence that it knows not to lets its seed germinate during winter, when hard frosts would be likely to kill the emerging seedling. Nor would it be productive to flower when there are no pollinating insects around. Neither is a good plan for survival of the species! There are both internal plant factors, such as the production of particular hormones and external factors that affect plant growth. It is the two major external factors that we’re looking at, and they are, as you’ve probably guessed, light and temperature.

white tulips

Generally speaking, most plants require a certain temperature in order for the seed to germinate and for the plant to grow. Which is why many plants lie dormant or semi-dormant over the winter months. Some plant species require a period of cold to encourage germination of the seed; for example, Tulips. When these plants are grown where the winter is not cold enough, Florida for example, they can be artificially chilled so as to stimulate flowering in the spring.

Photoperiodism, or plants’ response to day length, has been constant over millennia, and it is only recently, over the past couple of hundred years or so, that humans have been successfully able to interfere with the process artificially. Flowering plants are especially sensitive to photoperiodic stimulus; for example, have you ever forced Hyacinth bulbs for Christmas by putting them in a cool dark cellar then bringing them in to the warmth and light to flower?

There are three main grouping of flowering plants in relation to day length and their growth and flowering. Assuming that the plant is sufficiently mature and ready to flower, the day length becomes crucial for many of our favourite garden flowers.


Short day plants, Chrysanthemum, for example, react to the day length being shorter than a specified time; or put another way, when the hours of darkness are longer than the hours of daylight. So these plants tend to flower later in the season, during late summer and autumn.

Long day plants, such as Gypsophilla, tend to be spring and summer flowering plant; they respond to the day length being longer than a specified amount of time. However, day neutral plants, for example, Viburnum, are unaffected by the length of daylight hours and will flower when they are mature enough to do so.

So this is why the Autumn Equinox, as illuminated by the Harvest Moon, is a crucial turning point in the gardening year.

The cover illustration for our newest eBook “In Your Autumn Garden with Plews Garden Design” shows Demeter, who was the Greek goddess of the harvest and fertility and one of the aspects of the Triple Goddess, or Earth Mother, Gaia. An appropriate subject for a book about crops and harvest and food in your garden and allotment, we thought.

In Your Autumn Garden with Plews Garden Design - cover illustration by Lucy Waterfield


Gardening tips for watering in the hot weather

oriental poppy

oriental poppy

Many parts of Britain are basking under a summer sun; and our gardens are potentially baking under a summer sun. How do we enjoy the fine weather, keep our flowers blooming , our grass green and still have an easy maintenance garden?

We would all like to have an easy life and a beautiful garden in the hot weather. There is the option of not having any organic planting whatsoever, but I will be looking at zero planted gardens in another blog, so we’ll leave that topic for now.

The two main areas to consider for hot weather gardening are watering and drought planting. Watering your garden during a sustained hot spell or drought is  a short term response to the weather. Drought planting is a longer term design plan to reduce the maintenance requirements of your garden in hot, dry summer weather and in cold icy winter weather.

The short term – what do I do about it now? – tips for reducing the amount of watering that needs to be done in your garden during a drought period can be broken down into three types: re-think what and when you water in the garden; reduce the amount of water needed; re-use water when you can.

As most people would prefer to spend their leisure time enjoying the weather rather than watering the garden we’re concentrating on easy maintenance options.

santolina in need of watering

santolina in need of watering

Focus on the plants that need watering; this sounds obvious, but many people use limited water supplies on tending their established shrubs first and have run out by the time they reach their tomatoes! Food crops have different watering requirements. Fruit bushes and trees need watering at key times such as pollination & fruit setting. Annual food crops such as peas and tomatoes need more frequent watering as they have a shallower root system.

Flower, shrub and tree borders planted this year will need watering too as they won’t have had time to send roots deep into the soil. A thorough watering of the roots is more effective than spraying water all over the soil or plants. Not all of your new plants will need watering everyday even in prolonged hot, dry summer weather if you’re thorough in your ‘root watering’ . Check the soil at root level by gently digging down; if it’s damp then the plant doesn’t need watering.

Established plants should rarely need watering. There will be some exceptions, flowering herbaceous perennials under the shade of a tree, for example. Pot plants and annual bedding will also need watering.

Lawns – when you’re in your local park have a look at the grassy areas. They haven’t been watered. Neither do you need to water your lawn at home; the grass will recover when it rains. Set your mower to a medium rather than short cut as the longer blades of grass tolerate drought better. The only exception is where you have a recently laid turf or seeded lawn. These will need regular watering for about six weeks after installation and will require you to water them during a prolonged period without rain in their first growing season.

newly laid lawn with edges of strips separating - not laid by Plews!

newly laid lawn with edges of strips separating- not laid by Plews!

When should you water? Water in the evening as this reduces evaporation; unless you have a slug/ snail problem in which case watering in the early morning is better. This reduces the moistness around the plants overnight, when those gastropods are most active.

Re-use water; how? Your water butt may be empty, but there’s plenty of spare water in western households. When you’re washing up dishes in the sink rather than the dishwasher, wash them in a bowl instead. The water can be tipped into a bucket outside the back door and used on your ornamental plants once it’s cool.

Put a bowl in the basin so when people wash their hands this water can be used as above. This ‘grey water’ doesn’t store without treatment so use within a day or two.

Do you need to run the tap to get hot water? Make sure the water is running into a basin not straight down the drain! As this is clean not ‘grey’ water it can be used on food crops as well as ornamentals.

tomato tigerella

tomato tigerella

If you need to feed your peppers and tomatoes, water them first, as they then absorb the feed more efficiently.

Whilst we need to get the water to the plants’ roots rather than the top level of the soil, the soil surface shouldn’t be crusted. This will cause both your watering efforts and the rain (when it arrives) to bounce off the surface rather than be absorbed, which is not what is wanted! Break the soil up with a hoe if necessary.

Drought planting or designing a garden which is sustainable in prolonged hot weather is a long term view, something which we would plan for at the beginning of a garden design. Part of the design brief and discussion would be to look at how hot the climate is and for how long; what is the water availability for watering ornamental plants; how much time does our client wish to spend maintaining the garden (watering, deadheading, pruning etc) ; and the size of their budget. It’s an interesting topic, relevant to sustainable gardening and easy or low maintenance gardening and worthy of a blog post in its own right. (Watch this space)

For more tips on watering your garden during a drought, check out our blog archives or drop us an email with your specific query. We like to help.

Plews Garden Design – Resolving your Gardening issues with inspirational ideas and flexible solutions

Marie Shallcross, Senior Partner

Chilean Glory Flower (Eccremocarpus scaber)

Chilean Glory Flower

April showers and May Day in the Garden

white-honesty (lunaria)

white-honesty (lunaria)

April brings showers to our gardens; this year April has brought showers of sleet and snow; and the plants have suffered.

This year April has been cruel month of rain, and cold and wind, with frosty nights but very few sunny days. The plants in our gardens have suffered, assuming they risked growing at all. This lengthening of winter has been affecting not just British gardens but gardens elsewhere, the United States for example. This last week or so there has been a sudden flowering and greening of our gardens. Next week brings May Day; so will we be celebrating spring in the garden at last?



May Day, Beltane in the Celtic calendar, is celebrated in the Northern hemisphere as the first day of summer. Certainly May is when the flowers and crops grow in earnest, the days are longer so more work can be achieved out in the fields and plots and life seems full of…life.

Flora, a Roman goddess who appears on the cover page of our Spring eBook, is the harbinger of spring; the bringer of life after the frost of winter. The Romans celebrated her festival, Floralia, around April 28 – May 3; they would decorate trees with ribbons and garlands in her honour; dance and feast. The tradition of a decorated maypole grew out of this, although many places and religions still prefer to decorate the woodland trees.

In Your Spring Garden with Plews Garden Design - cover illustration by Lucy Waterfield

In Your Spring Garden with Plews Garden Design – cover illustration by Lucy Waterfield

Although a minor goddess, the return of spring gave Flora an important role, Rome was a mighty empire with a conquering army, but as we all know, an army marches on its stomach so food and agriculture was central to Rome’s power.

So whilst many see her as a gentle form of spring fertility rites, being more concerned with flowers than animals mating, Flora holds the key to more than a few pretty posies. Without flowers, there is nothing for bees, butterflies, moths and wasps and a host of other pollinating insects and animals to feed upon. Without these natural pollinators, the edible crops would not be fertilised; the flower produced would not run into a fruit, a vegetable or a nut. Reduced to a diet of wind-pollinated plants only, many animals would not survive. In other words, the whole food chain or pyramid, with humans at the top, would collapse. Approximately one third of the food we eat can be directly linked to Flora’s ability to bring her flowers back to bloom in the spring.

Raised beds

Raised beds

If you’d like some help growing your own or to encourage bees in to your garden – lessons perhaps, or an area of the garden re-designed and built to form an ornamental fruit and vegetable potager, why not drop us an email?



The Garden in Winter: digging

roughly dug soil

roughly dug soil

“To dig one’s own spade into one’s own earth! Has life anything better to offer than this?” (Beverley Nichols)

January is the digging month, or so the saying goes. But why has it got that reputation? Why do we try and dig the soil in a cold, wet, snowy month?

Perhaps the digging, working in and on the garden, is a celebration in itself, an acknowledgment that the days are getting longer now the Winter Solstice has passed (in the northern hemisphere anyway). Any small ray of sunshine, especially when it’s frosty, is a greater pleasure than in the summer, when we expect warmth.

The sun, casting low shadows through bare branches, shows us a different aspect of the garden, so long as we take the time to stop and look. Gardeners have time to stop and look when it’s January. Come March, unfinished digging takes on a manic bent as indoor seedlings grow apace, threatening to be ready for transplanting before the soil has become a fine tilth. But in January, there’s time a plenty to watch the Robin hopping ever nearer, wondering if a worm has been brought to the surface by the spade. There’s time to do the digging that you didn’t have time for in the late autumn.

tools lined up in potting shed

garden tools lined up in potting shed

Ideally the flower borders and vegetable beds were covered with organic mulch in the autumn so there was no bare soil. But if your soil isn’t perfect yet, then leaving that heavy clay exposed to the winter elements may be useful. In January the clods of clay soil can be roughly turned, knowing there will be a frost in a day or two, helping to break down the lumps into more manageable, friable soil. Add plenty of organic matter (OM), and if the soil is very heavy clay, add some grit as well, to help open it out and improve drainage. Too much wet is not so good for clay, as it soaks up the water like a sponge. Certainly if you have clay soil so wet it sticks to your spade like glue and looks like the stuff you used in pottery class then digging is forbidden until its drier.

Of course you may garden on a sandy soil. The winter rains will wash through your soil without any problem but they’re washing away precious nutrients at the same time. Adding lots of homemade compost will help with water retention. Sandier soils are often dug in the spring, but sometimes you run out of time with seeds to sow as well, so winter digging to incorporate organic matter is a worthwhile activity. Adding homemade or bought compost (both of these are OM) to the soil adds nutrients and increases worm & micro-organism activity. As well as facilitating water retention compost helps to lock the nutrients in to the soil so the plants can more easily access them. The options are to dig the OM into the soil at root level or to lightly fork it into the top layer of soil and let the worms and micro-organisms do the work for you.

Too much water and most plants will drown and die (unless they’re specially adapted like water lilies, for example). Plant death has been one result of the havoc caused by the many floods in 2012. Major flooding aside, you may, like some of our clients, garden in a high water table area, where the normal winter rains bring a period of standing water to your garden. This is where the ground has become so sodden that the water is unable to drain away.

water logged soil

water logged soil

A frequent problem in gardens with heavy clay soil, it can be resolved. A heavy clay soil will stick to your wellies when it’s wet and in a dry spring and summer it cracks. Add lots of OM and grit as an absolute minimum. We also suggest raised beds as being useful in these situations, as can terracing the garden if you’re on a slope. Extreme measures may mean incorporating land drains. Another solution is to grow plants which cope with and thrive in these conditions, although, truth be told, we find most clients prefer us to improve the growing conditions so they can enjoy a range of plants.

On a more prosaic note, may be digging in the garden has more to do with needing exercise to keep warm, if you have to be outside anyway; pruning is a more stationary task. Or perhaps in these modern times perhaps the digging is to use up calories we gained over the recent festivities. How many calories you burn depends, among other things, on your weight and whether the digging is ‘heavy’ or light’. As an example, at Plews, in an hour’s heavy digging, lightweight Marie would burn about 400 calories, whereas as larger, weight-training Nathan would use over 800. Both the workers would require chocolate biscuits from our nice clients though…

Resolving your gardening issues: Plews Garden Design: inspirational ideas; flexible solutions

For more on Winter Gardens and Gardening, why not take a look at our eBook? There’s a special January offer about this in our E-newsletter, you can sign up on the website or send us an email.

tools deckchair WP



Water in the Garden


Water has been something of a headliner in Britain this year. Too much water covering the soil and most plants will drown but what about the soil itself?

If, like some of our clients, your garden is in a high water table area, you may find the winter rains bring a period of standing water to your garden. Or your concern may be for the flooding that you’ve suffered this year and the effect it will have on your garden and the plants not just in the short term, but next year.

Standing water is a term more scientifically used to describe a permanent feature, for example, a brackish water pool in a peat bog (dystrophic standing water, if you’re interested in the scientific definition). The standing water can be a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) if providing a habitat for interesting or rare fauna (animals, including invertebrates) and flora (plants). For example, standing water which is classified as eutrophic water is very rich in minerals, plant and animal life. Many of these are large lakes and are worryingly under threat from pollution, especially from the over use of agricultural fertilisers which then seep into the water.

The term standing water also covers the small pond in your garden and the reservoir that was at very low levels this spring and is now full. You may not be bothered about your pond lapping at the lawn edges but you may well be concerned with the longer term effect that those other puddles of standing water in your garden will have on your plants, from the lawn to the apple trees.

If you have well-drained soil, the water will find its way through even though it takes awhile. And because your soil is fundamentally free-draining there should not be too much damage to your plants and lawn in the longer term. So those of you on a light, sandy don’t need to worry about the plants drowning. However, you do need to worry about the nutrients being washed away with all the excess water. Plan to add plenty of organic matter (OM) once the threat of standing flood water has gone. This will improve the overall water retentive equalities of your soil as well as replacing those essential Nitrogen, Phosphorous and Potassium (NPK) minerals needed by all plants.

Those of you with heavy clay soils, the sort that sticks to your wellies and might be better used to make pots than grow carrots, have a problem. NormallyI wouldn’t suggest going near your wet clay soil with a spade, but this is one of those times when you should. If you have any choice plants that you really don’t want to lose – and assuming we’re not talking about a 30 foot tall tree or a well established shrub – then digging it up for the short term is a solution. Put it in a pot with some good, peat free potting compost so it can, quite literally, breathe again.

Next look to your soil and the worms living in it. Why worms?

Extract from eBook –worms…
“Worms are brilliant. But why are worms so important? Briefly, their burrowing in the soil to move around creates channels for air to circulate and water to drain through. Some of the tunnels can be a few feet deep, this especially important for those who garden on heavy, clay type soils as such deep and constant activity really improves the soil quality. Plants need air at their roots in order to breathe and they need water; soil air and soil water fit in the spaces between the soil particles. Worms help to create those spaces and maintain them.”

And worms can drown in standing water. You may not be able to rescue them individually, but by planning to add plenty of OM to your soil once the floods subside you’ll give them a better chance of survival next time. And those worms who survived the overdose of water will thank you for the yummy worm food which OM is by helping to spread it through your soil; which is of course good for your plants too.

If you have a wormery, and you know that a lot of rain is forecast, it is a good idea to provide a cover as even worms in a wormery may drown (I have seen this, not a pretty sight). A slightly raised waterproof cover is best, as a tightly fitting plastic tarpaulin could suffocate the worms if you forget to remove it.

There are many reasons why you might have a problem with standing water in your garden; from an underwater stream to next door’s extension and huge patio. We can help with resolving the issue, beginning with a consultancy or advisory visit and possibly progressing on with a redesign to include raised beds and rain gardens.


Our eBook “In Your Winter Garden with Plews Garden Design” would make a great present – downloads are available for kindle, iPad, & PC on Smashwords and Amazon

For garden advice visits or design and planting ideas drop us an email with your needs: info@plewsgardendesign.co.uk

New beginnings…


September often starts with a blaze of warm weather as we head back to work, school and university after the holidays; this year the sun is reflected in the gold of those Paralympics medals…But is your front garden a medal winner? Do you have practical, neat and bee friendly passage between you and the outside world? Or do you have a weed ridden, sadly neglected wilderness?

It is all too easy to forget that the front garden is more than a depository for recycling boxes and dirty trainers. The eye tends to gloss over the bits that require effort and anyway, how much time do you spend looking at your front garden? Possibly you avoid looking because it’s a mess?

But your front garden should please you when you walk out of your door and when you return home. It is the first thing about you that visitors notice; it is the outward face you show to passersby. And if you’re trying to sell your house, an attractive front garden makes you feel better and improves the value of your property.

A front garden may compliment the style of the house – for example a traditional cottage could have a front garden in the cottage garden style; or it could have architectural and spiky modernistic planting ‘zinging it up’ for contrast. Although these days, especially in urban areas, front gardens also have to work hard to accommodate cars, bikes, recycling, as well as some greenery.

Budget constrictions often mean that the front garden is a low priority, being the space least time is spent in: it is often compared to a hall. But a hall can be a showcase for treasured pictures as well as a practical utility area for essential coats and shoes. Likewise, a front garden can be eye-catching and still accommodate recycling boxes as part of the scheme.

Why not employ a garden designer to resolve the front garden dilemma? Whether you’d like a ‘new beginning’ for yourself, or because you’d like to sell or rent out your house it’s easy to achieve a medal winning result. At Plews we can design, tidy, build and plant you a new space; or just design it for you, providing support for you to do-it-yourself.

We could design you a front garden which is both easy maintenance and increases the value of your property or which gives you the opportunity to indulge yourself with a planting scheme that wouldn’t stand up to the wear and tear of a family back garden. With the ‘feel good’ factor of the Olympics and Paralympics still at the forefront, we have devised a gold, silver and bronze packages for front gardens, aimed at those who are selling but suitable for those who are staying put too.

The smaller size of front gardens can be an advantage as a small budget for a front garden can achieve a big result.

For a re-design of your front garden, drop us an email

Water, water everywhere


With British rowers winning the first gold medal for the UK in these Olympics, my thoughts turned to water as inspiration for this week’s blog.

We certainly seem to have had a lot of issues with water in Britain this year, drought, hosepipe bans, floods, Wales and Northern Ireland had their wettest June since 1910 and even the Olympic flame got doused. We should have known that once we declared a drought we’d get a flood…

When we knew we were short of water, with many reservoirs only half full after a dry couple of winters, some of us planned ahead. Water butts came into their own in gardens and on allotments, and various water conservation and recycling tips were to be had – not least from Plews Garden Design, determined to keep your gardens growing.

Rainwater, pouring off roofs and into gutters then diverted from downpipes into water butts and carefully conserved.  Then the stored water was used to irrigate food crops, new plantings, ‘fussy’ plants such as camellias that find tap water too full of chlorine and other chemicals and of course the water was also to keep ponds topped up so fish, newts and tadpoles survived.

This collection and use of what would otherwise be wasted clean water straight into the sewage system is something that many of us partake in. we do it regardless of rain, flood, drought because it seems an obvious thing to do, an easy task to accomplish, an environmentally sound pursuit, an occupation to be praised.

After all, no-one else is going to use the rainwater are they? It doesn’t belong to anyone in particular, it belongs to all of us and none of us; it just falls from the sky and is either soaked up by plants and soil or runs off hard surfaces into the drains. By collecting it and using the rainwater in our own gardens we’re reducing the amount of water that gets washed away.

May I suggest that you don’t move to the State of Oregon in the USA. “Oregon law that says all of the water in the state of Oregon is public water and if you want to use that water, either to divert it or to store it, you have to acquire a water right from the state of Oregon before doing that activity.” This law includes rainwater that falls on your land. Interestingly, if you collect the water from your roof as many of us do, that’s ok. But if the rain is collected in your pond, or sits in puddles on your lawn then it doesn’t belong to you.

An interesting concept?  Or a crazy law? Could it happen here? You tell me.

If you would like some design advice, or a consultancy on how to manage the water – or lack of it – in your garden, we have the inspiration and the know- how to help you ‘go for gold’

Jubilee Jubilation


The weather is rather good for Britain this weekend, glorious in parts…hands up those who think it will rain for their street party over the Jubilee weekend? … Hmm, not sure whether that’s a pessimistic or realistic response given the vagaries of the British climate! Now the Chelsea Flower Show madness is settling down, we can switch our focus to community and country with thoughts of 1952. Or 1977. Or even 2002. Not just 2012.

Ok, explanations: 1952 was the year our Queen ascended the throne. 1977 was the year of the Queens Silver Jubilee, ie she had reigned for 25 years. In 2002 we celebrated her Majesty’s Golden Jubilee, ie 50 years of being on the throne. (Remember the ‘Party at the Palace?) 2012 is of course the year of Olympics in Britain and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.

All of these celebrations lead certain garden designers & plantswomen to conjure up patriotic planting schemes, both short term for street party and general decorative purposes but also for the longer term, this summer and beyond. The demands of a red, white and blue colour scheme can lead to a few tweaks; true blue is not the commonest colour among flowers. So, what about a few ideas to get you planting?

A red rose for Lancaster and a white rose for York hark back to the Wars of the Roses which was largely about who should rightfully sit on the throne of England in the 15th century; perhaps surrounding  these rose bushes with soft blue Nigella, also known as love-in-a-mist, will help keep any protagonists calm. The roses are perennials, of course, and the Nigella will self seed. After the blue flowers you can enjoy the decorative seed heads. What about a native species mix of blue/purple scented violas, white yarrow (for the butterflies) and scarlet pimpernel? They’ll keep going all summer long and you’ve added to the garden’s biodiversity too.

Or would you prefer a quicker fix, flowering for the Jubilee weekend but looking good afterwards too?

Something which brings in architectural planting (very 2002), municipal bedding schemes (very 1952 and 1977), plus biodiversity (2002 and 2012 themes) might take your fancy if you have an historical bent, or Royalist streak. Try Persicaria ‘red dragon’ for the foliage drama with its red stems and red/purple/ bronze tongue shaped leaves; mix with purple/blue pansies (try to find scented ones for extra sensory delight) and Geranium ‘Kashmir white’  with its mound of feathery cut foliage . Both the pansies and geranium are flowering now and will continue for another month.

Or you could have a Royalist selection, maybe Anchusa ‘Loddon royalist’ (blue), Lobelia ‘queen Victoria’ (red) and for white it has to be Rosa ‘queen Elizabeth’, named for our current monarch. Have I got you wondering why ‘Loddon’, the other two being obviously royalist in connection? Well, the River Loddon flows through royal Berkshire, home of Windsor castle, which is the more obvious relationship and sufficient for our needs. However, for those of you with magpie minds, you may like to know that there have been mills on the river Loddon since the 14th century, including a early 19th century silk mill. Which makes a royal link with Queen Elizabeth Tudor, who encouraged the planting of white mulberry trees in order to promote silk worm, and therefore silk, production.  So we have a connection between our two Queen Elizabeths. The connection between Queen Victoria and our reigning Queen is that they are the only two British monarchs to date who have ruled over us for 60 years. (Victoria’s reign was 63 years long).

Reigning – or raining – brings us neatly back to the weather: personally, I would take a brolly; it can double up as sunshade or rain cover…Whatever the weather, Plews can help you with planting and design schemes; solutions for garden issues; garden lessons and more.

Whether you’re Royalist or Republican, why not contact us and let us spread some jubilee celebration fervour into your garden?

Drought? Flash floods? Wrong sort of rain? How British!


The last Saturday of April, and we’ve certainly had April showers – hail showers…
Many of our clients have asked why, when they can see water levels in local streams and ponds rising, do we still have a hosepipe ban? Oh yes and why is it the ‘wrong sort of rain’? Isn’t rain, well, rain? And wet?

Taking the second question first: using analogy of a sponge makes it easier to explain. Take a dry, hard sponge, drip water onto it constantly, it becomes sodden. Equally, dripping water onto it until damp then pouring water onto it, the water is still soaked up by the sponge. Take a dry, hard sponge and drown it with a bucketful of water held above and the water bounces off…
Hence ‘wrong sort of rain’; it bounces off the soil rather than soaking nicely through to wet plant roots and work its way down to the water table. It flushes itself into drains and sewers; catapults off impermeable concrete and washes away nutrient rich top soil.

Taking the first question second; yes thankfully there are some streams and ponds which have rising water levels. However, we’re still in a drought situation because the reservoirs and rivers need a lot more water; they have been deprived of rain for more than a few weeks. So what is or makes a drought? A drought is a shortage of rainfall which consequently causes a shortage of water for the environment, ie habitats, flora, fauna (animals), agriculture, industry, businesses, households, domestic gardens, parks – in fact just about everything and everyone. 

There are basically two kinds of drought; a short intense drought caused by a heat wave and lack of rain; then a longer term drought that develops over time, ie where there has not been enough rain over previous months. In the UK we generally get most of our rain over the winter months, and the last two years have been well below average, in other words, dry (if snowy). Think back to spring 2011 – again, drier than normal. This means that the reservoirs and rivers have not been able to fill up as per usual.

Importantly, the groundwater levels, which are the underground water resource, are also at seriously low levels. This is the water that would fill wells; that is tapped by bore holes and that fills rivers, lakes and reservoirs from below as the rain fills them from above. Without getting too technical, and using the sponge analogy again, the ground, or rather the soil, has a capacity to hold water both near the surface and lower down at the bedrock level.

The amount of water a soil is capable of retaining varies (this bit you probably know); sandy soils are not good at holding water, so gardeners need to add lots of organic matter to increase their ability to retain water so the plants have something to drink. Clay soils in contrast are very good at holding water (put simply, it’s because the clay soil particles are tiny so there’s more room in between them for the water). That’s why clay soil is often muddy and unworkable over wet winters, it is full of water. Or rather it should be full of water; not in a drought.

Going back to the short intense drought, whilst shallow ponds will dry up and clay soil crack on the surface, below ground, lower than most gardeners are likely to dig there are still reserves of water. So the effects are mainly short term, although from a climate perspective they would still need monitoring to see if they’re part of a larger trend.

A drought that has developed over time – our two dry winters, for example –is different. Groundwater levels need to replenish over the ‘wet season’ as during the growing season trees and plants use most of the rainfall before it soaks down through the soil to the lower levels. It is actually a good system, if you think about it. The soil stores the water until it’s needed, the plants make use of the bounty from the skies first before drawing on the reserves. Nature is really quite efficient.

One of the problems with a long term drought is that humans, especially in the developed world and definitely in Great Britain, are generally profligate with water, ie not just that we use a lot of water but we waste it. Not always on purpose, often without realising we’re doing so. We have to change our mindset and our habits, and that includes new builds having grey water and water catchment systems as standard; and ways of retrofitting older houses, offices and industrial premises, parks, farms, nurseries…

At Plews we care about water conservation; our planting schemes are designed to be miserly in their watering needs once established. Plus we have plenty of ideas and solutions to make your garden – at home or at work – an oasis in the desert