We’ve just had a really dry April, with England and Wales reportedly getting only around 50% of the usual rainfall for this time of the year. And actually, I’m starting to see slightly crispy looking lawns when out and about; it seems very early for that sort of thing! So I’m taking steps in the vegetable garden to be sure my veg are set up as well as possible for a potentially dry and difficult growing season. If you’re growing veg this year and have some good tips to share, please do add them to the comments below. Read on to hear about the methods I like to use to create a more drought tolerant soil and an easier summer season.
So there are two key things to think about here – we want to help more moisture get into the soil and we want to keep it there for as long as possible. The solution to both of these things is mulch! But picking the right mulching materials at the right time is the key to success when it comes to doing this in the vegetable garden.
If you’re unfamiliar with the term mulch, these are basically ground coverings – anything that protects bare soil from the elements. This can be a loose mulch, such as compost, or dried plant materials, such as straw; it could be a sheet mulch, such as cardboard or layers of packing paper, or it could be a living mulch, such as green manure plants. Mulches help to keep moisture in the soil, by reducing the impact of the hot sun drying it out. Well-chosen mulches also improve soil structure, adding organic matter, creating a more sponge-like pore structure, into which more moisture can be sunk and stored.
In the vegetable garden, we use loose mulches and green manures. Sheet mulches attract slugs and can harbour pernicious weeds, such as couch grass, so they are best avoided here. The exact type of mulch chosen at any time, depends on what your bed is doing.
LONG-TERM EMPTY BEDS
On bare soil, with a pause in vegetable growing for at least a couple of months, the top covering to choose is green manure. I’ve always got a stock of winter and summer green manure seed, so I can pull out the appropriate one at any time. Diversity is best, so either buy a ready made seed mix, or select a number of different packets of single species seed. Try to include a range of plant families – a pea family, grass family and brassica family is a common blend. In summer, I like to also include phacelia (see photo below), for its soil improving qualities as well as its wildflower-friendly flower heads.
All the time those plants are in the soil, they’ll be feeding it organic matter, in the form of long-chain organic compounds pushed out through the roots. These plant chemicals will be feeding your soil’s friendly microbes, who will flock to hang out in the root zone of your plants, increasing their populations in readiness for your crops later in the year. It’s really vital to keep these little guys in good shape as they are the masters of great pore production (aka drought resilience) as well as being the primary way that plants access natural food from the soil, including nitrogen and essential minerals. I don’t dig my green manures in at the end of their time, I simply pull them up and either compost them or use them directly as mulching materials – see below.
SHORT TERM EMPTY BEDS
For beds where there is a shorter gap between crops – less than two months – a compost mulch is more practical. A two inch depth works very nicely and will keep the soil beneath it cooler, locking in more moisture. It will also feed earthworms and other soil dwelling life, who will drag it into the soil, helping to support those essential soil based food webs that create that all important crumb.
BETWEEN SMALL PLANT AND SEEDLINGS
In fact a compost mulch is also ideal between young plants or even seedlings. In these situations, a heavier mulch, such as straw, is problematic as it creates perfect hideouts for slugs. A compost – home-made if available – works well to keep those bare patches of soil in great condition.
BETWEEN BULKY, SLUG SAFE PLANTS
Lastly, a cheaper option than compost and one that is more effective at maintaining a cool, moist soil around growing vegetables in the height of summer, is to use a mulch of straw or other dried plant materials at a depth of about six inches. Be warned that this isn’t appropriate for every type of vegetable. Those veggies that are loved by slugs are better mulched with compost – I’m thinking lettuce and brassicas in particular here, but also root veg and definitely seedlings of any kind. But for taller or bulkier vegetables in particular – tomatoes, courgettes and climbing beans, for example, this type of mulch can save a huge amount of watering time and it does keep the soil in fabulous condition. All that protection from the sun, does mean you need a strategy for getting water in. I use water funnels made from upturned plastic bottles, with their tops pushed into the soil at the base of each plant and their bottoms cut off for me to pour water in. Soaker hoses laid under the mulch is another option, or simply moving the mulch aside at watering time and pushing it back afterwards.
With all of this in place, summer watering is much less of a chore and vegetables become much more resilient during those hot sunny days. If you have any good tips to share about keeping plants watered or protected during summer time, please do share them below.
And if you’d like help setting up your vegetable garden or creating good systems for managing your vegetables, I’d be delighted to help. Get in touch to arrange either an online or in person consultation, or to find out more. You can read more about this service here.