This article is taken from the August/September 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
As hobbies go, gardening is moderate in its demands. It doesn’t insist on the financial outlay and questionable Lycra-clad limbs of cycling and it won’t necessitate the weekends away that a friend’s husband has begun claiming for his paragliding. But while it’s less likely than those other pursuits to alter your relationship with your spouse, gardening will change your relationship with the weather.
You’ll feel it most during summer months. We all want warmth and sunlight, but give a gardener too many days of unbroken blue skies and anxiety settles. The rest of the country will be stripping off and roasting themselves, you’ll be left contemplating every gardener’s worst nightmare: the hosepipe ban.
While each plot has a tap close by, if more than one is used at once, the pressure drops to a hammy trickle
The British weather being what it is, we could well be in the midst of biblical downpours by the time you read this, but as I write, another shimmering heatwave looms. Even without hosepipe bans, watering can be a fraught business. At the allotment, we reap one of the rare benefits of clay soil when the rain dries up: its surface may crack but plunge in a spade (granted, a pickaxe might be more effective) and down below it remains dark and damp.
Seedlings and young plants don’t of course have the roots to reach down that far, so I’m still going to need to water my winter greens and thirstier plants like tomatoes. While each plot has a tap close by, if more than one is used at once, the pressure drops to a hammy trickle, conjuring up visions of deserts and desperation, and making of the task long, slow work. By unspoken arrangement then, we’ve come to think of certain times of the day as “ours”, teeing up tense mutterings if anyone arrives when they’re not expected.
Container gardens can be still more problematic. If I let my daughter water our window boxes too thoroughly, passers-by get a dousing. Then there are our neighbours, gardeners themselves but anxious about dampness seeping through the pavement to their basement entrance. We seem to have reached a truce by swapping moisture-retaining plant saucers for those dainty little ceramic pot feet. Our doorstep garden is now permanently en pointe but any overspill evaporates swiftly.
If I let my daughter water our window boxes too thoroughly, passers-by get a dousing
Last summer, another neighbour rigged up an automatic irrigation system for his hanging baskets. It seemed far more work than simply getting out a stepladder and watering can, requiring constant tinkering, but I’m beginning to think he might be onto something. Because despite an abundance of watering cans aimed at the under-fives, watering, it turns out, is not only a potent source of human conflict, it is more complicated than might be assumed.
Most of us know when to water. When your plants start to droop obviously isn’t the answer (not least because that can also be a sign of overwatering). Water at high noon, and you risk scorching. Watering in the evening means losing less to evaporation (the scent can be intoxicating then, too), but watering in the morning is most widely recommended, ensuring that any foliage that also gets a soaking dries off more quickly, which is helpful when it comes to deterring both slithery pests and mildew.
Then there is the question of how much to water. A light sprinkling, for instance, encourages the growth of roots closer to the surface rather than deep down, and this in turn can leave a plant less able to cope with drought. A more thorough, less frequent drenching is far more effective.
But as gardeners we should be thinking more intelligently about water for other reasons
But as gardeners we should be thinking more intelligently about water for other reasons, too. According to the Met Office, the growing season in the UK now lasts 29 days longer that it did between 1961 and 1990, and that’s a decidedly mixed blessing.
As a changing climate alters the demands we put on our planet, we need to recalibrate what we think of as a flourishing green space. The ideal English garden of popular imagination is still full of rambling roses and delphiniums, plox and hollyhocks — all but the last of which like a lot of watering. The plant of the year at the Chelsea Flower Show back in May? The x Semponium “Destiny”, a purple-hued hardy succulent that happens to be incredibly drought-tolerant.
You don’t need to rip up your rosebushes just yet but if you have space, now seems a good time to create a water butt for storing rainwater. You can buy one or you can fashion your own. I’m thinking a keg might do the trick. After all, it’s thirsty work, gardening.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe