April showers, summer drought

At last the weather has decided to be season-appropriate. So far in Brighton, we’ve had spring in January, winter in February and summer in March. After the warmest January and the driest March on record, the South East of England is subject to drought and since the beginning of April, we are banned from using hosepipes.

Much to our consternation, our two water-butts in the station garden were starting to run dry at the end of March. The temperatures were up in the 20’s (centigrade). While plants were enjoying the sunshine, we were concerned about keeping our new plantings – our seven young fruit trees in particular – well watered. There was a sense of panic: if we have little water at the end of March, how will things be in June when our raised beds are full of new vegetables? And with the hose-pipe ban?

Since the beginning of the last week, however, we’ve had lower temperatures, bright sunshine, blue skies and sudden downpours. Our water-butts are full again and plants are sprouting intense green leaves. The ‘Bright Lights’ chard, planted in August, have beautiful yellow and magenta (a rich word for a rich colour) stems. The onions have sprouted. We’ve picked the heads of the cavalo nero (like purple sprouting broccoli). The hanging basket which Marlene planted up for us now has perfectly-formed miniature tulips. The Harvest raspberry canes have leaves, including those we planted experimentally in containers.

As for the mini-orchard, the fruit trees planted in mid-March all have leaves and buds – all except for Crawley Beauty, that is. Mary was very dubious about the name of this tree, which she planted, and so far, it’s still sleeping. It has been planted in the shadiest position, and I’m sure it will wake up and blossom soon. It’s a cooking apple after all, hardier probably than the fancier eating varieties, and it will take its time.

The fresh air, moist soil, blue skies, occasional showers and warm sun, however, are notoriously fickle at this time of year. Night-time temperatures on Sunday are forecast to go down to 2C with possibilities for frost – which could mean wrapping the lettuces up in fleece blankets again! And if we continue with ‘sunny spells’, it doesn’t take long before the soil starts to dry. And yes, we still have a drought.

In the station garden, we’ve hardly ever used a hose-pipe in any case, so there’s hope we’ll manage this summer. Last summer, we did fill up a leaking water-butt via a long hose extension to Madeleine’s outside tap, but the operation was fiddly, lengthy and faintly ridiculous as we stood there in our yellow jackets warning station users about the snaking pipe dangling overhead.

Our shady garden should survive drought quite well; the leaf canopy means that evaporation from the soil is not so intense, but then the soil doesn’t get as much rain. We plan to install another water-butt in the gated plot where we have our fruit & veg. In both plots, we’ve dug lots of organic matter into the soil, and covered it several layers of mulch: bark in the shady triangle, followed by soil improver from recycling, and stable manure compost worked into the raised beds in the gated plot, mulched again with the soil improver.

The point of building the raised beds was to avoid reliance on smaller containers which are demanding both in terms of growing medium (compost has to be bought each year) and water. We are restricting our use of containers this year to our sun-loving vegetables: chilis, tomatoes and peppers, and possibly courgettes, just to experiment with vertical rather than horizontal growing. We may need to invest in some soil-based compost for our pots as this dries out less quickly than standard peat-alternative-based.

There’s more about coping with drought on the RHS website, and you can read their guide . Some of our key tips:

  • We’ve adopted the finger method of checking for water needs: if the soil is dry at your finger tip when you stick it in the soil, then water is probably needed.
  • Watering should be generous; skimping just wastes water and encourages superficial root growth. Avoid watering leaves: water around the base of the plant.
  • According to the RHS, fruit and vegetables will usually crop without watering, but quality and quantity is improved with watering near to harvest.
  • Containers DO need frequent watering as they will otherwise dry out quickly. Line earthenware pots with polythene to avoid evaporation. Plastic pots are better. Put saucers under containers.
  • Establishing plants – seedlings, newly planted plants – DO need water, but not over-watering. Their roots do need to be encouraged to search the soil for moisture.

And there’s one great thing about dry gardening conditions: slugs and snails hate it!

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2 Responses to April showers, summer drought

  1. Mary says:

    I remain to be convinced that Crawley is synonymous with beauty! Still waiting for the evidence..

  2. Wait till you see the blossom and the leaves – should remind us of the pretty mid-Sussex orchards of yesteryear … Crawley through blossom-coloured spectacles!

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