Why wet summers need water butts

The Great Green Team

6 July 2024

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Water butts

It can be tempting to think, as you watch the rain lashing the windowpane and the family’s pet rabbit doing the backstroke up and down in his hutch, that at least you won’t have to water the garden.

But this isn’t the case. Even in a wet summer your garden still needs watering – rainfall will water the soil’s surface but not deeper down.

This was a topic of discussion during our recent visit to Garden Organic’s demonstration gardens in Coventry when a gardener told us that some beds were still very dry despite all the rain we’ve been having.

This point is made by Nancy Birtwhistle in The Green Gardening Handbook:

‘Even though there may have been a heavy downpour of rain, which is hugely helpful and beneficial to veggies growing in beds, it is still important to head over to your supply of rainwater (from the biggest water butt you have room for) to water pots, containers and hanging baskets daily, even twice daily on very hot or very windy days.’

Never is a water butt more appreciated than in the fickle British summer.

An estimated 24,000 litres could be collected from the roof each year with the use of water butts.  Rainwater can be collected from any roof as long as there is a gutter and downpipe that enters the drain at ground level.

As we all know, even when a British summer is characterised by grey skies and downpours, there are bound to be a few days of consecutive sun and then a drought will be declared, along with water restrictions and hosepipe bans.

In our experience no customer is more desperate than the gardener who, like the man who starts his Christmas shopping on December 24th, left it till a drought to get a water butt.

Knowing that you can always water those fresh plantings that need it most takes avoidable stress out of gardening.  

Water butts are a wise choice because:

  • Plants prefer rainwater as it has a lower pH. Minerals that are found in mains tap water, especially in hardwater areas, can raise the pH of the root zone, which affects nutrient availability. Chemicals added to mains water that are safe for humans can be harmful for plants.  Plants are most vulnerable to shortages of water when they are first planted and their roots have not yet established into the deeper, moister layers of soil.
  • They help to reduce flood risk. Urban areas struggle to cope with heavy rainfall as there are not enough porous surfaces to absorb downpours. Water butts capture water that could contribute to surface runoff – a major cause of flooding.   
  • As well as the house, water butts can also be attached to sheds, garages, greenhouses and outbuildings – useful if you have a large garden that requires a lot of water. If you have a smaller garden and low-maintenance plants, you won’t need as much water so a mini butt would be better; storing more water than you need can lead to stagnation.
  • Rainwater is better than tap water for watering dry compost to maintain the moisture levels necessary for successful composting. Chemicals that are added to tap water can kill some of the beneficial micro-organisms that you want to nurture in your compost bin.

Easy tips for a mulch better garden

  • Using mulch to cover soil means water is retained and evaporation reduced. This means you don’t have to water your plants as frequently.
  • Mulch the soil after a spell of rain with mature compost to retain moisture. Lay the layers at least 5cms thick after first removing weeds. As it decomposes and is taken into the soil by worms and other organisms, the compost feeds plants and micro-organisms in the soil.
  • Create water collection points around your garden by digging buckets or bowls into the ground to collect rainwater. You can then fill up your watering can on the spot.
  • Don’t waste precious water by sprinkling it on foliage – focus instead on the roots so you get water right to the base of the plant. Use a watering can rather than a hose or sprinkler.
  • Giving plants a good soak once a week is better than a light watering every day and also saves time.
  • Place drip-trays beneath pots to collect drainage (remove in winter to avoid water logging).
  • Remember to remove weeds from planted areas as they will compete for soil moisture.

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