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Gardening through a drought

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Coping with drought in spring & summer

20 February 2012

Mulching with gravel

Following the announcement from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) of drought conditions in the southeast of the UK, the RHS Members’ Advisory Service has issued advice for gardeners.

RHS experts suggest four key things to do to protect plants in a drought.

  1. Soil cultivation is of key importance. Gardeners should dig in large amounts of garden compost, manure or other organic matter. This will help improve soil structure and in turn will help water retention and water availability to plants.

  2. Plant new plants when they are still small. They will then develop much greater resilience by adapting to their conditions from a young age. Planting in autumn or as early as possible in spring could also be beneficial: the sooner roots can start exploring the soil for water before dry weather arrives, the better.

  3. Mulching after planting can help limit water loss from soil. This will help the retention of moisture while plants establish. All new plants should be thoroughly watered and kept watered in the first season in dry periods, to ensure they establish well. Once established they will become more drought tolerant.

  4. Choose the right plant for a particular garden soil. If a plant is growing in the soil most suited to its needs it will be more tolerant of varying climatic conditions. It will also be more resistant to pests and disease. RHS Plant Finder is an ideal tool for gardeners wanting to select plants suitable for their local soil conditions, and also for the particular aspect where the plants will grow.

Watering is only part of the solution

“We have quite a few queries from RHS members concerned about changing climate conditions,” says Guy Barter, RHS Chief Horticultural Advisor. “But there is a lot gardeners can do that does not involve extra watering. For example, spiking and feeding a lawn in spring will help it hold up in dry weather – and if it does go brown, it will recover even faster when rain returns.”

He added, “Of course gardeners in north England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland at the moment don’t normally suffer from bad droughts,” says Guy, “but by following our suggestions they will not only be following good gardening practice but also will be preparing for the occasional very dry summers. Improving the soil is especially important, as this also helps good drainage too.”

Colin Crosbie, Curator of RHS Garden Wisley adds, “We have suffered a number of droughts at Wisley in recent years. Mulching plants regularly we have found is the best way to counteract the effects. All our gardeners at the four RHS Gardens would be happy to talk about helping plants survive dry conditions. So if you are visiting one of our gardens why not stop to have a chat.”

More RHS advice

RHS advice

RHS Advisory Service has issued advice on dozens of gardening topics. Browse our A-Z of advice profiles to find the information you need.

Advice on collecting and storing water.

Drought-resistant plants

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