A dry spring

by Kate Bradbury

In drier parts of the UK, plants are bursting into flower earlier, bees and butterflies are out earlier, and the ground, which should be warm and wet from April showers, is parched.

RobinWhat a spring we're having. Provisional Met Office reports suggest April was the warmest on record. It was also the 11th driest, based on average rainfall across the UK. Scotland's rainfall has been 110% above normal levels, while the South-East has barely seen any rain at all.

In drier parts of the UK, plants are bursting into flower earlier, bees and butterflies are out earlier, and the ground, which should be warm and wet from April showers, is parched. All this and some areas are still getting frosts.

My garden in East London hasn't seen rain since before Christmas. We've had snow, of course, and the promise of rain - dark clouds, even a thunder storm, but no water (we did have a two minute shower last Friday but it by the time I recognised the 'strange sound outside', it had gone, so doesn't count). There was rain down the road, in Chelsea (I saw it on the news, on the football), but nothing here. If it weren't for the huge amounts of grey water I was putting on the garden, I wouldn't have one by now.

Grey water is recycled water from the bath, shower or washing up bowl. While no longer fit for drinking, it's generally fine for using in the garden, as long as it's not too contaminated. I avoid using water from washing up, as it can contain traces of grease, and only use eco-friendly, biodegradable products, which I hope are safe to use around my frogs. Special kits can be bought to divert water from the bath/shower or washing machine to a storage tank outside, but I find dunking the watering can in the bath works just as well.

Not all grey water is ideal for gardens. Soapy water from washing machines and dishwashers can contain nitrogen and phosphorous. This may sound great to some gardeners - free fertiliser! - but they can end up in local streams and rivers, promoting algae and upsetting fish, and too much can kill plants. Some detergents also contain sodium, which can inhibit plant growth. Almost all detergents contain surfactants, which help to break the water's surface tension and enable the detergent to clean dishes/clothes. Surfactants, which are also present in some weedkillers, are very bad for amphibians.

As for the wildlife, the insects are doing very well, but for how long if it stays dry? Nectar levels in plants will be reduced, while caterpillar food plants could die through lack of water, taking the caterpillars (and therefore butterflies) with them. The dry, hard ground will make life hard for robins and blackbirds looking for worms to feed themselves and their young, while swallows and house martins will struggle to find mud to build their nests.

If it is still bone dry where you live, consider buying meal worms for nesting birds (rehydrate dried ones in water), and leave a dish of mud for house martins and swallows to build their homes or make them an artificial nest. Keep watering with grey water, and please, pray for rain.

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Gardeners' World Web User 06/05/2011 at 12:37

Hi. Its hard to imagine your plight here, as it has rained quite more than average. Those lucky Scots are more like what we have here. Anyhow I am glad you find some alternate ways to keep things blooming. It helps me to feel grateful for the rain. Thanks for ssharung your garden tips it's always interesting to read how you're keeping up.

Gardeners' World Web User 06/05/2011 at 12:53

Bristol too is suffering drought. The wildlife which seems to be holding up best are the slow-worms in my "Green Daleks" - plastic composter, but then I keep adding lush green compost to them. There are innumerable young ones. I am used to tripping over robins keen for worms when I am weeding but this year blackbirds and ied wagtails have joined them and the young blackbirds wait around till I replenish the birdbaths. If you have a water meter like i do it makes financial sense too, Kate, to use every scrap of grey water, either to water discreetly, perhaps pots, or to clean pots after potting on. The weather men keep promising us water that never appears, it seems, but it must come some time.

Gardeners' World Web User 06/05/2011 at 13:29

yup it had been quite hot n dry up in scotland southwest for a couple of weeks spesh for my pumpkinpatch seedlings but the clay soil retains water well (as long as the ants havent turned it to sandy concrete) i just got the gardenhose out at dusk once a day

Gardeners' World Web User 06/05/2011 at 18:13

It's really dry here in Dublin too, even though we had a couple of tiny showers. We were harvesting rocks from the flower beds today (some of them have a layer of rubble about 6" down), and we dug down about a foot. The soil is bone dry.

Gardeners' World Web User 06/05/2011 at 18:49


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