How to use water in your garden

Water is at a premium, especially in summer, so we all try to reduce how much we use. A few cheap and simple water-conservation measures will make your garden drought-proof and provide huge benefits to your local wildlife.

Using water in your garden article spread

Water is at a premium, especially in the warmer months, so we all come under pressure to reduce how much we use. Steve Harris reveals a few cheap and simple water-conservation measures that will make your garden drought-proof and provide huge benefits to your local wildlife.

When faced with drought, gardeners are often advised to substitute lawns for gravel or decking and to plant ornamental grasses and succulents. Unfortunately, these are not great ideas in a wildlife garden. A much better solution is to water wisely, while also reducing your overall consumption. This might seem like a contradiction in terms, but it’s perfectly feasible.
First, reduce evaporation from the soil by introducing groundcovering plants and spreading mulch over flowerbeds. Maximise the amount of rainwater you capture by installing water butts, for example, and make sure you re-use ‘grey’ water whenever possible.

Finally, cut your need for water in the first place by choosing native plants, such as yellow archangel, rather than exotic varieties. Trying even one or two of these techniques will help you to make substantial savings.


All kinds of animals benefit from a well-watered garden. Birds, mammals and slow worms feed on soil-dwelling invertebrates, all of which disappear deep below ground in drought conditions, while damp, shady borders provide ideal hiding places for everything from hedgehogs to toads and frogs.
  • Mulch flowerbeds with bark chippings, coir (coconut fibres) or dead leaves. This layer will cut water loss by evaporation and soak up rain like a sponge.
  • Grouped pots create a humid microclimate that will attract wildlife. Use waterproof plastic pots or line unglazed ones with polythene to reduce water loss.
  • Informal hedges of hawthorn and other native species are much more resistant to drought. Mulch the base to reduce water loss.
  • Yellow archangel spreads across flowerbeds, increasing ground cover and helping water retention. Other plants to try include bugle and dead-nettle.
  • Long grass traps moisture. If including wildflowers such as scabious, give them plenty of space among the stems to allow them to grow. 
  • Purple loosestrife and other bog-loving flowers thrive in the damp earth beside ponds. They shelter the water from hot sun, slowing evaporation.




  • Dragonflies lay their eggs around exposed pond margins, so it’s best not to keep your pond topped up to the brim.
  • Blue tit families like to forage for insect prey among ivy and Virginia creeper, so overgrown water barrels against walls are a perfect hunting ground.
  • Butterflies benefit from varied borders and hedges left to grow wild, which also give shelter from the drying effects of sun and wind.



Capture rainwater

In built-up areas, most rainwater pours down the drain and is lost, but collecting it is simple and inexpensive. Don’t be content with fitting water butts to the downpipes on your house – why not also collect rain off the garage, shed and greenhouse? Scattering barrels around the garden in this way will help with watering duties – wooden ones can make attractive features or encourage climbers to grow over cheaper plastic versions.


Re-use left over water

The other main source of water for the garden is so-called ‘grey’ water, left over from bathing or doing the dishes (laundry water is not suitable, since washing powders contain bleach). Make sure you use ecofriendly soaps and shampoos, and either ladle the water from your sink into a watering can or siphon your bath water directly onto the garden. Alternatively, replumb the waste pipe to take bath and shower water to a storage tank.


Find out more

For more information about recycling rainwater, contact your local water authority or the UK Rainwater Harvesting Association.



  • Choose the largest water butts your garden will hold – you can never store too much rainwater. Link several barrels in series to maximise storage, or consider an underground tank.
  • Build terraces in sloping areas to reduce run-off and improve water retention, or turn sunny banks into mini wildflower meadows. Another idea that will attract wildlife during dry periods is a running water feature with a large header pond fed with rainwater from your barrels.
  • Avoid hanging baskets at all costs because they dry out rapidly and require far too much water.
  • Scatter grass cuttings over flowerbeds – they serve as an excellent substitute for garden centre mulch. Shredded garden sticks will do the trick, too, while providing a superb habitat for invertebrates. Other alternatives to commercial mulch include spare scraps of old carpet and sheets of cardboard.
  • Make sure there is one deep area in the pond so it doesn’t dry out completely in hot weather. If you’re planning a new pond, the middle should be a minimum of 0.6m deep (the cool depths will also be used by hibernating frogs).
  • Dig out part of the lawn, line the hollow with polythene or a pond liner, and transform it into a marsh garden that will stay moist throughout the summer. Let the grass grow long around the edge of the wetland zone.
  • Water the garden in the late evening or early morning as the liquid will penetrate further and be most beneficial. This is very important in hot, dry weather.
  • Use a watering can instead of sprinklers and hosepipes, which tend to waste a great deal of water, and try to get the whole family involved.


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