Sunday, 22 April 2012

Cacti (22 APR 2012)

There are some advantages of living at the edge of a metropolis such as being able to eat breakfast in world-famous hamburger chains, taking train rides underground and nipping into the supermarket in the middle of the night; not to mention honouring close proximity to celebrity, royalty and central government decision-making. One of the down-sides is coming to terms with the fact that our taps deliver reclaimed water. It's just speeding up the natural process - after all, historically Londoners have been drinking diluted waste from upstream towns for centuries. I would be more comfortable in the knowledge that my drinking water from whatever source had soaked deep into the ground and percolated up via a mountain spring a long time later, but to be honest my palate can't detect the difference between water from the kitchen tap and bottled mineral water. I don't take either for granted.

Winter and early spring were relatively dry in the UK yet it was a surprise when we were informed that there would be a hose-pipe ban in the south-east of England, starting this month, to save 5% of our water consumption. Water was privatised in the UK in 1989; my water supplier reports a 25% leak rate, attributed to 44% of London's water system being over 100 years old.

It might seem exaggerated to highlight at this point that the Maya civilisation collapsed after a drought (and it wasn't the only one) when the rainfall over the Yuctan peninsula decreased by 40%. Scientists investigated the chemical composition (which varies depending on the quantity of water evaporated) of slugs and snail fossils in lake basins to estimate that the final drought experienced by the Mayans was not their worst. It's suspected that social and political issues combined with the mild drought to precipitate their demise.

I can't remember exactly when it started to rain heavily - the easter holiday was definitely a wash-out and it's been raining ever since. Nevertheless, the predicted drought is still anticipated.

bird bath - 25 FEB 2012                                              left flower bed - 09 APR 2012

I haven't watered my garden with a hose-pipe much so far; now I'm not allowed to.
The woodland garden fends for itself, tolerating my occasional interferences.
The left border is so shaded by the fence that the plants grow sideways and they never seem short of moisture.
The right border is the worry, exposed to direct sunshine, yet sheltered from rain by the neighbouring hedge. The foxgloves in this bed would have died if they weren't watered last year. Some of this year's plantlets have died already in the dry spell before easter.

 right border 01 APR 2012 - dead foxglove                                       woodland 09 APR 2012 - self-seeded foxgloves

Some plants do thrive in the right border. Oxalis is a handful of wetness when it's pulled out, hydrated from below by a never-ending chain of tubers but there are also weeds with hardly any roots that survive remarkably.

unknown weed in the dry right border                                                                oxalis as far as the eye can see

I have to make a confession. To date whenever I read about xeriscape planting, I took a polite interest, even appreciating the sparse, minimalist designs but didn't really absorb the details.
Now I'm wondering how many divisions I can take from my existing (hopefully drought-tolerant) sedum plants and I've sowed cactus seeds just in case ...

two generations of sedum                                                                                   cacti seedlings ?

The other day, I was researching pots when I stumbled across an article about ollas : water-filled, unglazed clay vessels buried in the soil for plant irrigation, confirmed by a picture of a man in Sri-Lanka with a healthy-looking plant. I was about to click over, when it occurred to me that I might need to learn something from him. He applies a technique practised in ancient times where plant roots are allowed to sip sparingly through porous clay instead of drowning them by conventionally excessive watering.

As an experiment, I prepared a similar set-up with a new clay pot (the method may not work with a clogged, aged one), blocking the drainage hole with a ball of putty and varnishing the rim to reduce evaporation from the top surface. I've buried it next to a jasmine, which was definitely suffering from dehydration before easter. If it stops raining and starts droughting, I'll top up the pot, cover with a saucer and report back.

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Donna said...

I love to read about water practices the world over. A 25% leak rate (?), and that does not even account for customer waste.

I much enjoyed your look back to the Mayan civilization too. I believe there is much they could have told us about water conservation. When you live in need, you get very creative and environmentally protective.

Stacy said...

If the cactus do well for you...agave is next. We can compare tequilas in another 10 years or so.

I think xeriscape books that feature sparse, minimalist plantings have done incredible damage to their own cause. There's no reason that a xeriscape garden can't be designed traditionally, so long as the plants are adapted to the conditions. I have centranthus growing that I've never watered, and we got 6" of rain last year and had 3 months straight of 90 degree+ weather. It's lush, green, and healthy, and would integrate just fine in a mixed border. So would nepeta, yarrow, rudbeckia, germander, helianthemum, oregano, penstemons, salvias, perovskia, and on and on. Simple techniques like mulching and moating maximize whatever rainfall you get. I'm sorry to keep blathering, b-a-g, but the long-standing equation of xeriscape with gravel + sculptural yucca gets me all het up!

Crystal said...

Looking forward to the results of your clay pot experiment. In the meantime, the weather forecast for next week is lots and lots of rain. Although you'll only get 75% of it in your region, what with the leaks and all.

Diana Studer said...

Sparse minimalist? Try Pam at Digging, or Far Out Flora who is about to move from California to Wisconsin. There's also Plano Garden in Texas.

A less aesthetically pleasing version than the unglazed pot, is simply to bury a 2 litre plastic bottle, neck down with the bottom cut off. Fill with water, and let it trickle slowly down to the roots.

David Marsden said...

I've rather got my head in the sand re the drought, I'm afraid. Perhaps if I don't think about it, it won't happen? Perhaps. Certainly I've been very relieved by the amount of rain we've had recently. Your unknown weed is bittercress btw. Dave

Malar said...

good experiment!
Looking forward to see the result! ;)

HolleyGarden said...

It makes sense to me that the Mayans would collapse from a drought. It is quite devastating to live through, and the effects last for years. I hope you get rain soon. Interesting idea about the clay pot.

Mark and Gaz said...

Looking forward to the results of your experiment. Cacti is an excellent choice, might get you hooked on succulents and agave seeds will be next :)

b-a-g said...

Thanks Donna - It's actually closer to 26% according to the news report. The question which needs to be answered : Who is reponsible for maintaining the infrastructure of our country?

Thanks Stacy - Wouldn't it be great if we're still acquainted in 10 years time!
Sorry if I made you upset - when I wrote minimalist (in a good way) I had a garden like Janet's late uncle's in mind, it's really beautiful :

Thanks Crystal - I don't think my lawn can absorb any more moisture. It's squelching like never before.

Thanks Diana - Greggo springs to mind too. Just wondering if there is a difference between the clay pot method and the plastic bottle. The linked article suggested that the plant literally draws water out of the pot as opposed to water gradually trickling out. (Maybe I'm reading to much into it.)

Thanks for identifying the weed Dave. I keep trying to convince myself that change is good (for the blog if not the garden).

Thanks Holley, Malar, Mark & Gaz - The pot experiment might save one or two plants. Not sure what's going to happen to the rest of the garden this summer. I'll have to decide whether to water with buckets (which is allowed during the hose-pipe ban) or just leave the garden and see what happens.

debsgarden said...

I am envious of your self seeded foxgloves! I am still trying to find the happy spot for them in my own garden. We have had a lot of rain thus far this year. Though we have had our share of droughts, we are fortunate to receive nearly 60 inches (150 cm) of rain per year, and with our humidity I'm afraid the cacti would perish!

Donna@Gardens Eye View said...

Fascinating post....scary to think of these droughts the world over becoming more numerous and longer....our drought ended with cold wet weather that moved in with snow....over an inch of rain in less than a day and a half....I'll take the rain and floods in the garden....I await the results of your experiment...

linniew said...

Sorry about the coming drought. I guess it's not like a tornado where you can just hide in the cellar for an hour...

b-a-g said...

Thanks Deb - Your woodland is so beautiful, how could you possibly be envious of me !

Thanks Donna - I still remember that river of ice that was flowing through your garden in winter.

Thanks Linnie - I don't have a cellar, not sure what I will do if there is a tornado.

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