On our allotment site this year the management committee are running a Wise Watering Campaign, with the aim of reducing the amount of water used by plot holders. We were ashamed to hear that our site uses more water than any other in Shrewsbury. When we looked into the situation we were amazed that only 18 of the 68 plots had guttering and water butts attached to their sheds to catch rainwater run-off. Many plot holders turned to their hose pipes too readily to water their crops. Something had to be done.
We had already fixed guttering, downpipes and butts to our communal buildings and we use this captured rain to water our communal gardens, so we began our campaign by encouraging members to follow that example. Jude, Mrs Greenbench aka the Undergardener, in her role as secretary to the committee has been trying to source grant money to help purchase more water butts. Amazingly our local water board did not even bother replying, but there are still a few irons in the fire.
I was asked to write an article for our newsletter, “Dig It!”, giving advice on how to water efficiently and a summary was sent to all plot holders. I wrote a much extended more detailed article which I posted on the allotments’ website. (see www.bowbrookallotments.co.uk and click on “Wise Watering”)
Our initial emphasis has been on using watering cans instead of hoses and encouraging members to add guttering and water butts to their sheds.
I thought I would give a few ideas here too, for your interest and wondered if anyone had any further ideas that we could use.
I emphasised the importance of improving soil quality and adding humus and fibrous material, which would help moisture retention after rain or watering, and allow the plants to take up moisture efficiently. We sell municipal compost and farmyard manure on site.
The best time to add manure is in late autumn or early winter and for compost early spring. I suggested also that compost should be used as a mulch after periods of rain to hold this natural moisture in.
Mulching under fruit bushes is always useful as a lot of moisture is needed in the production of fruit. Old straw, hay or farmyard manure when added as a mulch will also slowly break down and feed the plants as well as improve soil texture.
Another important way of managing the watering of your plot is to ensure it is always free of weed material. Weeds will use up moisture that would otherwise be available to crops. Using a hoe regularly is the best method to employ as keeping the surface loose helps rainwater get below the surface.
Growing your fruit trees as cordons on the windward side of your plot cuts down on evaporation. Alternatives are flower borders or a row of root artichokes.
Strong, healthy plants will survive dry periods better and newly planted quality plants will establish without regular bouts of watering. To ensure plants are as healthy as possible feed them with natural, organic feeds rather than chemical based fertilisers. Growing your own fertilisers is even possible. Comfrey can be grown and regularly cut, soaking the leaves and stems in water for a few weeks produces a free and effective feed when watered down to the colour of weak tea. The leaves can also be utilised as a mulch placed directly below fruit trees and bushes.
The way the plants are watered is also an important factor in determining how much water is used. Watering with a hose all around rows of plants is wasteful as most of the water lands on the bare soil and not where plants can use it. To ensure that plants can take up and use as much water as possible, it is best to water from a can without a rose and direct the flow of water towards the base of the plants.
When your potatoes need earthing up, add a layer of fresh grass cuttings before the soil as this will help retain moisture as the potatoes are forming.
I tried to work out the most water-efficient way of planting out our vegetable plants and used runner beans as an example. The first point is to ensure your plants are strong and healthy.
Take out your planting hole and fill with water from a watering can – I also add some comfrey feed to this. Let the water drain away and repeat the process.
Place the plant in the hole and water yet again after firming soil back in around it.
Add a good layer (at least 2 inches deep) of compost to keep the moisture in as the plant establishes. This helps the plants settle in as it is getting its roots down.
Form a trench alongside the row of plants to collect any rainfall and direct it towards the plants.
Before you decide to water your plants take out a trowel depth of soil close to your plants and see if it is moist below the surface. If it is then do not water. This water in the soil down to about 6 inches is the moisture that plants will be using. Conversely if you water the surface it will just attract roots upwards to search for it. Remember then that watering over the soil surface with a hose will make plants shallow rooting.
There are lots more ideas on the website. In this year of drought following last year’s almost desert levels of rain, our water table in this part of Shropshire around the allotments is about 2 feet lower than it should be so however much rain there appears to be falling we need lots more.
I would love to hear of more ideas that I can share with our allotmenteers!