The Citizen Gardener: Watering season

The Watering Can, Roger de La Fresnaye. Image: National Gallery of Art / Wikicommons

Watering season is upon us. Out and about in the community gardens of Hackney, I’ve been filling my watering cans from local playgrounds, drinking fountains, and neighbour’s hoses. I’ve been chugging from my own water bottle with one eye on the sky, wondering when the next rainfall will come. I’m a woman obsessed, and I’m not alone.

I’m a member of a lot of Hackney-based gardening Whatsapp groups. They are an excellent resource for sharing memes, advice and support. Recently though, they have been dominated by callouts for watering help. With London’s summers getting hotter and drier, the need to water is ever more important. It may not be the most exciting of gardening activities, but it might just be the most essential. If you’re thinking about getting involved with a local gardening project but don’t know much about gardening, now is the time to start. Your extra pair of watering can-laden hands will be so appreciated, but you will also have lots of time to ogle the space and ask questions.

While we may think of London as a rainy place, it’s actually drier on average than Barcelona, Zurich and Tel Aviv. With so many people living in an already dry place, water shortages are a somewhat inevitable issue. This is compounded however, by the overuse of the fresh water we do have (around 153 litres per person per day). Climate-change projections show that dry summers in England will increase by up to 50%, with the amount of water available reduced by at least 10-15%. So, our use of the garden hose is a loaded topic, and our water use is something to be thoughtful about. There are also plenty of ways to alleviate the need for watering, ways of sustainably storing water, and ways of reusing it.

How to water

While yes, watering is essentially as simple as it sounds, there are some tricks when it comes to the application. Water the roots and not the leaves, this will reduce the risk of fungus and disease spreading.

Using a watering can with a rose, or a hose end on the spray mode is the best way to replicate the pitter patter of gentle and consistent raindrops which, in contrast with a hose jet-stream, will allow the water to gently move into the soil without disturbing it. Using a slower method also stops the risk of a hard cap forming on the top of your soil.

A recent tip I read is vertical mulching. You just put sticks in the ground around your plants and that helps water get into the soil rather than running off. Another one is to put a terracotta pot with the hole bunged up in the ground near, say, your tomato plant. Fill it with water. As it’s porous it will gently make the soil moist.

Adding some organic plant fertiliser like worm juice or comfrey tea to you watering can is a great time saver, and your plants will thank you for it.

When to water

My garden is typical of our borough – everything is in containers. This means that the plants’ roots don’t have access to the ground water and therefore need to be watered more regularly.

During hot spells, I water every evening but as the weather cools off, twice or thrice a week will suffice. If I’m unsure, the old finger trick works well – just stick your finger in the soil, if it’s dry, water it.

If you have a garden that allows you to plant directly into the soil – you lucky thing – then you can afford to be a little more stingy.

Through the summer, a once a week soaking should be enough.

The important thing here though is to really soak. Cast aside the old gardening adage of ‘little and often’; watering deep down into the soil will encourage the roots to push deep into the soil therefore making them stronger and healthier.

Mornings or evenings are the best times to water so that it has a chance to move down into the soil before evaporating. It’s also a very relaxing way to start and end your day.

Reduce, reuse and recycle

Mulch. It’s one of my favourite words and one of my favourite gardening tricks. To mitigate the evaporation of water from your soil, add layer of mulch, whether that be woodchip, manure, leaf mould, or indeed any broken down organic matter, to the base of your plants. It will also gently fertilise the soil and slowly breakdown thus improving the soil structure.

Keep the soil covered by interplanting big plants with smaller ones – salad leaves, native wildflowers – whatever you fancy. In nature plants are quite tightly packed. Weeds may compete for water but they also retain moisture in the soil.

Let your lawns go dormant. Keeping a lawn green all summer is a hard slog with a lot of water waste. They will turn yellow, but come Autumn, they will bounce right back. Water that you would usually let run down the drain can be used for watering your garden. Rice water for example, that is, the water left over after washing your rice, is full of nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus, three things that plants love.

Water capture techniques were all the rage at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show this year. There are any number of chic ways to design a water saving feature for your garden. If all else fails though, a water but positioned under your gutter never goes out of style.

What’s on in Hackney this month?

On 15 July, St Mary’s Secret Garden is hosting an open day for volunteers to explore the beautiful space, learn about horticulture and generally soak up the joys of gardening. All welcome and it’s free!

Plants and salad bags for sale every Tuesday at Growing Communities’ site in Clissold Park. Support their work and get great plants and delicious produce – win win!

Get involved in the new gardening group at Richmond Road Medical Centre. Every Wednesday, patients and volunteers are coming together for activities and to transform the courtyard into a green space.

Core Landscapes is running community volunteering sessions every Tuesday from 10am to 3pm. For more info, contact

Steph Goward is an ecological gardener and food grower. She is the postcode gardener for E5, a horticultural therapist at St Mary’s Secret Garden, and works with a number of gardening groups across Hackney. You can follow her at @steph_orla_gardens.